Companions on the Emmaus Road ~ Sermon Before the Interment of John Sampford
Today is a very special and unique day in the history of this church.
It is a day of resurrection, remembering and renewal.
It is a day of great emotion.
It is a day of sadness and of celebration.
It is a day of remembrance and recollection, a day of thanksgiving and reflection.
It is a day of care and prayer, a day of welcome and farewell.
It is a day of laying to rest and turning a page.
It is a day of looking back and looking forward.
Today, not entirely by coincidence, but not by accident either, we lay John Sampford to rest in the Memorial Garden he created, and we welcome his family, Mary especially, to be our companions again, and to remember and recollect the joys of his life and the sadness of his passing. And we gather around the Lord’s table to remind ourselves that in the great communion of saints and angels, we are not parted from him at all, any more than we are parted from our risen Lord. There could be no better Gospel reading for a day like this – although there is no other day like this – there could be no better text for today than the supper at Emmaus. For what we have just heard is also all about resurrection, remembering and renewing.
I shall return to those three things. But first, let us go to Emmaus.
Where is Emmaus? - No-one knows for sure. Some recent scholarship has suggested that there was no such place: we have arrived at ‘Emmaus’ as a truncation of the word ‘Oulammaus’, which in the Greek version of the Old Testament (The Septuagint) is the name of the place where Jacob dreamt of angels on a ladder going up and down to heaven (Genesis 28:10-19). While we now know that place as Luz, the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis, a fifth century manuscript now held in Cambridge, uniquely referred to the place of Jesus’ appearing to Cleopas and his colleague as Oulammaus, along with many other small textual variations. While this use of ‘Oulammaus’ would link the two stories nicely (Jesus appears to the two men where God revealed himself to Jacob), there is a mistake of translation built into this connection, but nevertheless one that was unidentified in the first century. There is therefore a view that the story emphasizes this throwback to Jacob, and that there is no need to contemplate where Emmaus might have been.
This does not mean the encounter did not take place, nor indeed that the village of Emmaus cannot be identified. St Luke tells us that Emmaus is about three times as far away (60 stadia or 10-12km), although he fails to mention in which direction! Consequently there have been various identifications of the village where Jesus breaks bread with his followers after the resurrection at what we might think of as an agape meal during which Jesus celebrates the first post-resurrection holy communion.
The earliest identification comes from Eusebius who identified Emmaus Nicopolis in the third century, and when Jerome translated his work, led posterity to believe that there was a church there built on Cleopas’ house. This ancient identification spawned the idea, seven hundred years later, that there could be a useful place of pilgrimage midway between Jerusalem and Emmaus Nicopolis, and so the Crusaders built a church on the Kiryat Anavim road, now known as Abu Ghosh. If Emmaus Nicopolis was where Cleopas lived, and where he invited Jesus to his house to eat and ‘abide with them’, as the hymn puts it, then there must be some place along the road where the risen Christ met them and walked.
The church of Abu Ghosh is very much open to visitors, and is a very beautiful, serene place. Many pilgrimage groups celebrate the eucharist there, and while the site may not have a watertight claim to authenticity, it has come to represent Emmaus and its wonderful story of casual conversation between the risen Christ and the downcast disciples, who recognize Christ in the breaking of bread. Originally built in 1140 but destroyed in 1187, it was rebuilt and is now run by Benedictine Fathers, who extend a peaceful and profound welcome. The church also has a fabulous acoustic for singing hymns or chants.
But Emmaus could have been anywhere, it would hardly matter. Cleopas’ companion is not given a name, and we might draw significance from this: his companion is Everyman, that is, you, or I. We are on that road, and countless others have walked it before us. For two thousand years the church has called, ordained and educated men and women to represent Christ on the roads of our lives and break bread –re-membering his call to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ and through the church has invited everyone to partake in a communion which is as much about companionship on the road as it is about consuming - and becoming - the body of Christ. The word ‘companionship’ itself breaks down into ‘com’ (with) and ‘pane’ (bread). So as companions on the way of Christ, we are truly those who walk together and break bread together. That is what companionship means.
Companionship arises, like Christ, in the re-membering of his body. The word remember means to re-member – to put back together, and is to be contrasted with dis-membering – to cut or break apart. The history of the Church of Christ has too many dis-membering moments in its history, but through it all has been the re-membering of Christ’s body in the celebration of communion each and every day, somewhere some time. Yet, ‘we are the body of Christ, by one spirit we are all baptized into one body’. It is we who are re-membered too. We remember Christ in the Eucharist, and we re-member ourselves as we gather in companionship around the Lord’s Table. So every gathering we make, as regulars or visitors, or indeed, as today, when we welcome into our midst old or long lost friends as well as complete strangers, we are re-membering ourselves. We are putting together our fragmented, dispersed, ever fluctuating community of those exploring the way. As we share the body of Christ we become the body of Christ - the bread eats us, as it were, and in doing so unites us with all who do so, or have ever done so. And that means we reunite with the loved and lost faithful; with John Sampford and with multitudes of others, who have been our companions on the way, and indeed with those who are yet to become so.
So we are here to remember – to remember John; to remember Christ in the eucharist, and to re-member ourselves as his body.
As well as remembering – re-membering – today is also a day of renewal. Renewed friendships and acquaintances, for sure, but also physical and spiritual renewal. This afternoon we shall formally mark the renewal of our Church Rear Garden, naming it the ‘Muriel Maxwell Garden of Peace and Play’. Muriel, another dear companion on the road and at the Lord’s Table, loved gardening and loved children. We honour her today in a different way to that in which we honour John, and her generosity was of a different kind. Their legacies complement each other, and remind us of the rich blend of time, talent, gifting and calling with which our community is blessed. Our stewardship campaign just launched, reminds us that we need money, of course, but we also need love. All you need is love, as the heathen singer put it – but you can’t keep a good idea down. Whether the Prime Minister is right – whether we are or should be a Christian Country or not, or whether to be Christian is actually to be an ancient Greek, as AC Graying put it in the Times this week – notwithstanding any of that, our calling here and now is one of service in the renewal of Christ’s Church. And that’s not something someone else does. And the money to build for renewal doesn’t come out of someone else’s pocket – it comes out of yours… and mine. And it will, I know. Which means I can also say ‘thank you’ today too!
We are the church – not the building. This building is simply the beautiful building under whose roof we gather, and of whose cultural and spiritual heritage we are custodians. We are rebuilding our entrance because it is the entrance – it is the way in. And it will be a revitalised way in to our shared life of prayer, care, praise and community engagement, through the arts, through charity and through friendship in and with our community. And we are all called to that. And we are all called to help find new ways in too, and to bring others through those new doors. So, please do try to bring newcomers and visitors to services and events: contribute to the feel good factor of fellowship, and surely the Spirit of God will dwell among us as we love one another and walk in Christ’s way, renewed in prayer and action.
As well as Remembrance and renewal, we are in the Easter Season, which is all about resurrection. The story of the Emmaus Road reminds us that built into Christian companionship is the remembering and exposition of scripture too. Cleopas and Everyman need to have the story explained, from both ends, as it were. They know their Jewish Scriptures, but Jesus needs to explain to them that they all point to him. Having done so, it all falls into place, and the scales fall from their eyes. It is a magical moment, a spiritual equivalent of a ‘eureka!’ moment. John Wesley famously described his conversion as like having his ‘heart strangely warmed’. In this story, word and sacrament combine to reveal the presence of Christ, Word made flesh and flesh made bread in one all converting experience. No wonder their hearts burned within them!
So as we take bread and wine today, as companions on the road well travelled, we unite ourselves with John, and Muriel and all who have kept the faith – and invested in the faith – here inn this place. And we give thanks to God, re-membering Christ, renewing our vision for the future and resurrecting the past, that our future may be blessed with a true spirit of confidence, creativity and compassion in the same Jesus Christ our risen Lord.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 05/04/14