27 May 2014

Sermon – “If you love me” (John 14:15-27)

For the past five weeks (since Easter) we have been reading from the First Letter of Peter in our Sunday morning services. Peter writes to Christian believers who are suffering for the sake of the gospel. He is writing from Rome, more or less mid-way through the reign of the Emperor Nero. While the first great persecution following the fire of Rome has not broken out yet, pockets of persecution against Christians are breaking out in parts of the empire, particularly on its fringes.

Peter writes to give those scattered believers encouragement in the face of suffering. “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, although they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God…” “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval … because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you and example.” And in this morning’s passage: “Even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”

One of the most painful and awkward scenes to my mind in all of Scripture is the exchange between Jesus and Peter that takes place at the very end of John’s gospel. Many of you know the scene. It was some time after Jesus’ resurrection. Peter and six others of Jesus’ followers had headed back up north from Jerusalem to their home territory of Galilee. They had spent all night out on the water fishing but entirely without success. The sun was just peeking over the horizon when they heard a voice calling to them from the shore. “Fellows, you don’t have anything to eat, do you?” “No,” they shouted back. “Try letting down your net on the right side of your boat and you’ll catch some.” To their surprise they had scarcely dropped their net into the water before it was bursting with fish.

John was the first to realize what was happening. “It’s the Lord!” he exclaimed. Within an instant Peter was pulling on some clothes and diving into the water. It was after they had broiled some of the fish and had eaten them that the hard conversation began. Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Simon, son of John…” Jesus was addressing Peter by his formal name—the name he had before he had become one of Jesus’ followers—not by the name Jesus had given him: Peter, the Rock. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know that I love you.” Then Jesus asked a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter replied once again, “you know that I love you.” “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” This time the question really stung, because all that Peter could think of was his cowardice of only a few days before—how three times he had denied even knowing Jesus. “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

To me the scene is a foreshadowing of that day when I will stand before Jesus and he will ask me, “John, do you love me?” And I ask myself, how many times have I denied Jesus? How many times have I shrunk back from living out my faith? How many times have I allowed the fear or selfishness or rebellion or the thousand-and-one other lesser motivations that battle inside me to stand ahead of my love for Jesus? “John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Yet within my heart I know that my love is often weak and cold.

Keeping the commands of Jesus

Weeks before Peter’s painful encounter on the shores of Galilee, he had been with Jesus and the other disciples in the upper room. There he had heard Jesus say the words that opened our Gospel reading this morning: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And so loving Jesus is more than having nice thoughts or warm feelings about Jesus, more than loving the idea of Jesus. Fundamentally, our love for Jesus is going to be measured by our actions.

The Greek of the New Testament has two words for “obey”. One of them (peitho) has to do with an enforced obedience. James uses it when he writes about putting bits into the mouths of horses to force them to obey us. The other (hupakouo) is a more responsive, willing obedience. Thus by faith Abraham obeyed God’s call to go to a land he had never known. Children are encouraged to obey their parents, not because they will be punished, but because “this is right”. The wind and the sea obeyed Jesus because in him they recognized their creator.

However, neither of those is the word that we find in this passage. When Jesus speaks to his followers, he tells them not that they are to obey his commandments, but that they are to “keep” them. The difference may seem subtle at first, but it is an important one. And perhaps to drive the point home, Jesus repeats what he says twice more over the course of the next few verses: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me” (verse 21). And, “Those who love me will keep my word” (verse 23). We find the same word in Jesus’ final words to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to keep everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19,20).

What, then, does the Bible mean when it uses the word “keep”? Literally it means to guard, to protect, to preserve. When Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding celebration in Cana, the steward expressed his surprise because, he said, “you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). And so we keep things because we recognize their value. This is what underlies the wisdom offered to young people in the Book of Proverbs:

My child, if you accept my words

and treasure up my commandments within you,

making your ear attentive to wisdom

and inclining your heart to understanding; 

if you indeed cry out for insight, 

and raise your voice for understanding; 

if you seek it like silver,

and search for it as for hidden treasures—
then you will understand the fear of the Lord

and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1-5)

In the Psalms we read of the surpassing value of God’s word:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes…;
the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:7-10)

So it was that from their earliest days as a nation the people of Israel were reminded,

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

“With my whole heart I seek you;” sang the psalmist, “do not let me stray from your commandments. I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you” (Psalm 119:10,11).

Empowered by the Spirit of Jesus

Loving Jesus, then, means having his word etched into our very hearts, finding in it our delight, our very life. Yet for how many of us is this true? Archbishop William Temple was a man of profound faith. At the same time he confessed, “Our love is cold. It is there, but it is feeble. It does not carry us to real obedience. Is there anything that I can do?” he asks. And here is his answer: “No; there never is, except to hold myself in his presence… But the Lord, who knows both the reality and the poverty of our love, will supply our need.”[1]

Jesus knows better than we do that, as much as we might want to, as hard as we might try, we cannot live the life of discipleship in our own power. And so he promises his disciples “another Advocate”, one who will be with them forever. Now if you look at that word “Advocate” in verse 16, you will see that it is accompanied by a footnote, which suggests that the word may also be translated “Helper”. And if you look at other versions of the Bible you will find that the same word is rendered “Counselor” or “Friend”. Indeed there are some translators who have simply thrown up their hands and used the word “Paraclete”, which is nothing more than an Anglicization of the original Greek word in the New Testament. My own preference is for “Helper”, as the word literally means someone who comes alongside you, to support and assist, to encourage and to guide.

So it is the Holy Spirit who takes Jesus’ words and makes them live for us. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the will and the power to keep them on a daily basis. It is the Holy Spirit who makes the life of discipleship a possibility—and more than that, a joy and an adventure to which nothing else can compare.

Trusting in the love of Jesus

I have spoken about what it means to love Jesus: to keep his word, to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit. As we love Jesus in this way, we find ourselves being led more deeply into the mystery and the wonder of his love for us. “Those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them … and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

Karl Barth is regarded by many as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. Perhaps you are familiar with the story of when he was at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago during his lecture tour of the U.S. in 1962. After his lecture, during the Q & A time, a student asked Barth if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence. Here is what Barth said: “Yes, I can: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ ”

As important as our love for Jesus may be, we need to put it into its far greater context—and that is the love of both the Father and the Son for you and for me. And that love is not limited. Nor is it conditional. It does not depend on our love for him. There will be times when we fail—even spectacularly—to keep Jesus’ words. There will be occasions when we grieve the Holy Spirit. Yet there will never be a time when God’s heart does not burn with love for us. As he was there for Peter on the shore of Lake Galilee, Jesus will be there with us; and, as he said to Peter, he says to you and to me once again, “Follow me.”

[1]     Readings in St John’s Gospel, 238,239

14 May 2014

Sermon – “How are we to believe?” (John 14:1-14)

In the opening words of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke informs us that Jesus “presented himself alive to [the disciples] by many convincing proofs”. We read about half a dozen such incidents in the gospels: Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb; Cleopas and his fellow traveler along the road to Emmaus; the eleven disciples and later Thomas in the upper room; Peter, John and five others on the lakeside in Galilee… To these Paul adds an occasion when Jesus appeared to more than five hundred of his followers.

My suspicion is that Jesus’ relationship with the disciples following his resurrection was quite different from what it had been before. When you think of it, how could it have been otherwise? While they had once admired and followed him, now they could only worship and adore him. The one in their midst was no longer just the carpenter from Galilee. He was their crucified and risen Lord.

Besides that, I picture Jesus’ presence with the disciples not as a continuous experience as it had been previously, but rather as a series of fleeting, often unexpected, interchanges. In between those appearances there were periods, perhaps of days, when they had time to contemplate all that they had experienced over the previous three years. I imagine too that in those weeks between Easter and Pentecost they must have gathered numerous times. And on those occasions they must have spent much of their time bringing to mind Jesus’ words, discussing them, puzzling over them and relating them to their experience as they awaited “the promise of the Father”. Among those words, spoken perhaps in the very room where they were now gathering, were the ones which formed our Gospel reading this morning: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…”

In many ways what we are embarking upon in these verses is John’s equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount. Over the next three chapters Jesus gives his disciples some concentrated teaching as he prepares them for his death and resurrection. It was only in the days following the resurrection, however, that the disciples would have had either the opportunity or the coolness of mind to go over what Jesus had said—and I imagine that that was what they spent much of their time doing, again and again and again.

Jesus begins with an invitation—an invitation to trust him. Have you ever noticed that John’s gospel never uses the noun “faith”? For John believing is always a verb, always an action word. In the New Testament the word denotes believing in someone, trusting someone, relying on someone, entrusting yourself to someone. In the verse before us, the action is especially clear because, translated literally, Jesus is saying, not just, “Trust me,” but, “Trust into me.” There is that sense of casting ourselves into his arms, of giving ourselves totally and utterly over to him. On the eve of the crucifixion that would have been a hard sell. But now, after the resurrection, it all began to make a little more sense. And in the verses that follow, Jesus begins to tell them a little bit about what that faith looks like and where it leads.

A place for the homeless

I think that for most of us a sense of place, of having a place where we belong, is an important part of who we are. I am told that the average American moves 11.7 times over the course of his or her lifetime. (I’m not sure what it means to move .7 times!) In my own case I remember as a child moving every two to four years. There can be benefits to that, but it can also lead to a sense of rootlessness, of not having anywhere that you can really call home.

Years ago, when I worked as a student intern in a psychiatric hospital, a number of the patients were Hungarians who had left their country as refugees nearly a generation before. They had not parted with their homeland willingly or voluntarily. They had been forcibly uprooted, and ever since there had lurked deep within them a sense of homelessness. I can only imagine that the same must be true of many of our Karen refugees, who have had to leave everything behind to begin a new life in a strange land, in a foreign language, amid an alien culture and in a forbidding climate. It is a formidable challenge and it reaches right into the core of who we are as persons.

Yet when we read the Bible we discover that at a much deeper level we are all refugees. The cherubim still stand at the gate of Eden brandishing their flaming swords. Generations after Adam and Eve, God promised to Abraham and his descendants a home in the Promised Land. More than three thousand years later Jews still claim Israel as their home. Yet Israel is only a temporary home; and Jerusalem but a type of that city whose architect and builder is God.

If they didn’t know it already, the disciples would soon come to discover their own homelessness in a very blunt and physical sense, as they were driven from the familiar surroundings of Jerusalem and Galilee into the far corners of the Roman world. So it is that Jesus assures them, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… I am going there to prepare a place for you.”

Faith begins, therefore, with the recognition of our own homelessness in any ultimate sense—and the parallel recognition that at the same time that we have an eternal, unshakeable home that no one can take from us in Jesus Christ and in our relationship with him. That does not mean that we need to become ascetics or that we sever all attachments to this world. But rather, amid the transitoriness and even the outright evil that we experience in this world, it gives us an anchor, a guiding star, that rock of which we will sing later in the course of this morning’s worship, on which to base our lives.

A way for the lost

Jesus gives us the promise of a home, permanent, safe and secure—and Thomas’s question that follows it is a natural one. “But Lord, how can we know the way?” To which Jesus replies with one of the most quoted verses in all of Scripture: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

I am afraid that more often than not Christians (myself included) have used these words of Jesus as a kind of club to beat down the followers of other religions. We concentrate on the second half of what Jesus said and give too little attention to the first. As I read them today, it seems to me that Jesus is offering a wonderful, exciting invitation here and we have turned that invitation into a message of “You’re not welcome.”

Now please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that there are other ways to the Father, or that we can find ultimate truth or genuine life outside of Jesus. What I am saying is that so often we have concentrated on telling other people that their ways won’t work, that they are dead ends, and somehow in the midst of it all we have neglected to focus on the one way that does bring us to God. The result is that Christian faith ends up looking from the outside as exclusionary. To many we appear to be more interested in shutting people out than in inviting them in—and in many cases we are doing a very good job of it, too!

No doubt there are times when we need to alert the world to the fact that it is on a collision course with destruction, that there is indeed a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death (Proverbs 14:12). The apostle Paul wrote about warning everyone. Yet that is not the focus of our message. The focus is on Jesus in all his transcendent beauty and majesty. I think Graham Kendrick puts it well in the words of his song:

Knowing you, Jesus, knowing you,
there is no greater thing.
You’re my all, you’re the best,
you’re my joy, my righteousness,
and I love you, Lord.

When Isaiah stood in the temple and had his great vision of the Lord seated on his throne in all his heavenly glory, no one needed to tell him he was a sinner. He simply cried aloud, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:1-5). When Peter pulled in his miraculous haul of fish after Jesus had told him to let down his nets on the other side of the boat, he didn’t need anyone to tell him how sinful he was. He fell to his knees before Jesus and exclaimed, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:4-8)

I do believe that the great majority of people in their heart of hearts and if the truth be told, know that their lives are not right. And I believe that if we, as individual believers and as the community of Christ’s followers were living and proclaiming him in power, they would come to him as the way, the truth and the life.

A power for the faint-hearted

This brings us to a third and perhaps the most puzzling of Jesus’ statements in this morning’s passage: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” It seems impossible to believe. After all this was the man who cleansed lepers, gave sight to the blind, gave paralyzed limbs the power to walk again—who even raised the dead. What did Jesus mean?

People have put all kinds of interpretations on these words. Some point to the foundation of hospitals and other charitable institutions by faithful Christians that have brought Christ’s healing and love to millions all over the world. Others point to the miracles that continue to happen in our own time, well-documented accounts of remarkable healings and even people being raised from the dead. New Testament scholar Leon Morris thought of Jesus’ words in a numerical and geographical sense. He wrote,

During his lifetime the Son of God was confined in his influence to a comparatively small sector of Palestine. After his departure his followers were able to work in widely scattered places and influence much larger numbers. But … they were in no sense acting independently of him. On the contrary in doing their ‘greater works’ they were but his agents.[1]

I believe that all these interpretations are valid, and no doubt there are other ways in which we might understand Jesus’ words as well. But underlying them all is the power of the Holy Spirit.

So often as Christians we allow our vision to be limited by our resources. We look at the world around us and we compare ourselves with the vast wealth of governments or multinational corporations and we sigh and say, “We could never do that.” Yet we forget that our God is the one who (in the words of the psalm) owns the cattle on a thousand hills, whose resources are limitless and whose power is infinite. It was not that long before those first Christians who sat in the upper room musing over Jesus’ words were being accused of turning the world upside down—and I suspect that no one was more surprised than they were.

Today, as we continue to rejoice in our risen Lord, may we rest in the assurance of an eternal home, may we show him to be the way, and may we know his power, which is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine, at work within us.

[1]     The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 646

05 May 2014

Sermon – “Cleopas” (Luke 24:13-35)

In all the Bible I don’t think that there is a more engaging story, a better-told story, than our Gospel reading this morning. It is recounted with such realism and detail that it is difficult not to imagine ourselves there, walking along the narrow, dusty road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on that first Easter afternoon. The time is almost exactly forty-eight hours since Jesus has been crucified. His lifeless body had been taken down and temporarily laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent Jerusalem citizen and a member of the Jewish ruling council. That morning it had been discovered that the final insult had occurred. Jesus’ corpse had been taken from the tomb and nobody was aware of its whereabouts. And so it was not even possible to pay Jesus the final respect of a decent burial. Yes, there had been stories of angelic appearances. But that did not alter the fact that the one on whom they had pinned their hopes was now dead and gone. Not even his body was to be found.

There did not seem to be any point to remaining in Jerusalem, and so the two decided to make the seven-mile walk back to their home in Emmaus. It was natural that both their thoughts and their conversation were dominated by the uncontrollable swirl of events that had brought Jesus before the Sanhedrin, before Pilate and finally to his death. We don’t know at what moment it happened, but somewhere along the journey the two became three.

I suspect that their discussion had become quite animated, to the point where they weren’t really aware of anyone but themselves or of how loud they had become, where anyone walking anywhere near them would have heard every word they were saying. So it may have given them a bit of a jolt when suddenly there was a third voice in the conversation. “What’s all this you’re talking about as you walk along?” Luke tells us that they stopped dead in their tracks, but their surprise could not erase the sadness that was written across their faces.

“Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know what’s happened there over the last few days?” And once again they went over the tragic litany of events that had taken Jesus from them. “And we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” They were to learn that this stranger knew far more than they had at first imagined. In a matter of moments they found themselves being caught up into the whole sweep of Old Testament revelation. What had happened to Jesus at Calvary was not a cruel twist of fate, but the outworking of God’s plan from the very beginning.

It must have seemed like no time before they were on the outskirts of their village. The time had come for a parting of ways. Yet there was so much more that they wanted to hear. So they pressed upon him (translated literally, “they forced him”, “they pressured him”) to stay with them. Once inside, they brought out some bread and reclined around the low table. As their guest took it, gave thanks for it and broke it, something (and Luke does not tell us what) caused them to realize that they were in the presence not of a stranger but of Jesus himself. They gazed at each other in amazement; and when they turned look again at Jesus, he was gone. Their hearts pounding within them, their legs could not take them back quickly enough to Jerusalem and to the other disciples, to tell them how Jesus had made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread.

A Fable?

Now I use those words very specifically because I believe Luke specifically chose them. They are technical words. We have heard them two chapters earlier in his account of the last supper: “Then [Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’ ” (Luke 22:19). And he uses them again in Acts 2:42 in his description of the earliest church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” It is clear that Luke is using sacramental language—and from earliest days the church has drawn the connection between what happened at Emmaus and the Holy Eucharist. St Augustine, for example, writing around the close of the fourth century, states, “No one should doubt that his being recognized in the breaking of bread is the sacrament, which brings us together in recognizing him.”[1] And we find it captured in the words of our post-communion prayer: “You have opened to us the Scriptures, O Christ, and you have made yourself known in the breaking of the bread…”

There is a wonderful truth contained in that teaching. The Reformers of the sixteenth century were accustomed to speaking of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the visible words of God. Just as Christ speaks to us through the Scriptures, we also believe that he comes to us and reveals himself to us in a different way, yet no less real—in a tactile, visual way—as we break bread together in the sacrament. Gathered around his table, Jesus meets with us just as he did with Cleopas and his friend nearly two thousand years ago.

So it is that the story of Emmaus provides us with a wonderful parable of the mystery of Holy Communion—and that is how it is taught and preached again and again today. The problem and the tragedy is that for many in the church today it is just a parable and no more. I remember when we were translating this passage from the Greek, my New Testament professor asked the question, “Suppose you were there with a camera as the two disciples walked along the road to Emmaus. How many people do you think the camera would capture: Three? Or two?” And he made no bones about the fact that he stood firmly on the “two” side.

For him and for many others, accounts such as we have read this morning are fables—wonderful fables, no doubt, powerful fables filled with rich imagery and deep significance, that teach us about the experience and perceptions of Jesus’ earliest followers—and yet, when it comes down to it, just fables nevertheless. In Jesus Seminar founder Dominic Crossan’s words, “Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.”[2]

A Fact

I believe that the apostle Paul had exactly such people in mind when he declared, “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” The he asserts (and we echo loudly), “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:14-20)

The disciples who arrived breathless back in Jerusalem were not there because they had had some mystical experience breaking bread. No, they were there because they had seen Jesus bodily there before them with their own eyes. He had picked up actual bread and broken it with physical hands. He had spoken to them in an audible voice—and their hearts burned within them.

The good side of the story of my New Testament professor was that his successor was none less than N.T. Wright. His 800-page book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, has been described as the clearest, most thorough and comprehensive study of Jesus’ resurrection in more than a century. Of that conversation that took place along the road, he has said,

Now, suddenly, with the right story in their head and hearts, a new possibility—huge, astonishing, and breathtaking—started to emerge before them… Suppose Jesus’ execution was not the clear disproof of his messianic vocation but its confirmation and climax? Suppose the cross was not one more example of the triumph of paganism over God’s people but was actually God’s means of defeating evil once and for all? Suppose this was, after all, how the exile was designed to end, how sins were to be forgiven and how the kingdom was to come? Suppose this was what God’s light and truth looked like, coming unexpectedly to lead his people back into his presence?[3]

No wonder their hearts burned within them. Their whole world had been turned upside down. They had come to see everything that matters in a new light. And their lives could never be the same again. This is the difference that Jesus’ resurrection makes—and I want to say, it is all the difference.

A Fire

That difference had put a fire within their hearts. Centuries before, the prophet Jeremiah had written in similar terms about his encounter with God’s word: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). Throughout the book of Acts and the remainder of the New Testament we see that fire breaking out in new and sometimes surprising ways. The message of Jesus’ resurrection was one that the church could not contain, even if it had wanted to, so that within a generation there were believers stretched all around the known world.

For those of us who have heard the Easter story for years, there is always the temptation to become blasé about it, for it to lose its newness, its freshness, its radical challenge to all the world’s treasured assumptions—for the fire to grow dim. Even in New Testament times the apostle Paul had to warn the believers in Thessalonica not to quench the Holy Spirit’s fire. And towards the end of his life he found himself writing to his young protégé Timothy, “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…” (1 Thessalonians 5:19; 2 Timothy 1:6).

John Stott told the story of Methodist preacher W.E. Sangster interviewing candidates for the ministry. One of them was a rather nervous young man who said he felt he ought to explain that he was rather shy and was not the sort of person who would ever set the River Thames on fire, that is, create much of a sensation. “My dear young brother,” Sangster replied. “I’m not interested to know if you could set the Thames on fire. What I want to know is this: if I picked you up by the scruff of your neck and dropped you into the Thames, would it sizzle?”[4]

I wonder how many of us, if we were really to be honest with ourselves, would be forced to admit that for us the fire has grown dim. Like the believers in Ephesus, we have lost the love that we had at first. We have become lukewarm in our faith. Then I believe we can learn from the two disciples and their experience along the road to Emmaus.

St Augustine observed that when they opened their hearts to Jesus, “unwittingly they showed the doctor their wounds”. May we reveal what lies deep within us to him. May we listen to him and allow him to minister to us by his living and enduring word. And then may we find ourselves saying, “Did not our hearts burn within us?”

Let us conclude by bowing before the Lord and praying together in words from one of Charles Wesley’s hymns.

O thou who camest from above
the pure, celestial fire to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love
on the mean altar of my heart.

There let it for thy glory burn,
with inextinguishable blaze;
and, trembling, to its source return
in humble love and fervent praise.

[1]     Letter 149, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures, NT III, 382
[2]     Quoted in N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 656
[3]     N.T. Wright, “The Resurrection and the Postmodern Dilemma”, Sewanee Theological Review 41.2, 1998
[4]     John Stott, Between Two Worlds, 285