The Unexpected Presence of Jesus

Jesus seems to be appearing in all kinds of strange ways and in strange places, and I am not talking about our Gospel reading!  Back in 1983 Josephine Taylor of Ontario, Canada, claimed that she was able to see the image of Jesus in her bathroom.

It is true, one morning she looked down and saw the image of Christ clearly formed by dark spots on the cement floor. Despite the local minister (who viewed the apparition) insisting that the image was only floor adhesive, 30,000 Canadians visited Josephine’s home to witness Christ’s surprising arrival.

In 1987, this time in America, thousands of people flocked to a trailer park in Tennessee to see the image of Christ which had appeared unexpectedly on the fridge of a lady called Arlene Gardner.  And just five years ago after numerous other appearances in the bark of trees and pizzas and broken windows, an attempt to auction a ten year old grilled cheese sandwich bearing the image of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus was stopped by e-bay, the company which runs one of the large auction websites because they thought that it was a practical joke. Well it was no joke, that cheese sandwich went on to fetch US$28,000 in a private auction in favour of its owner.  Strange appearances indeed!

In our Gospel reading which is still describing the events of Easter morning, Jesus turns up very unexpectedly amongst two of his disciples.  It is as if time has stood still for us over the last two Sundays. We are just a few hours on from the reading which we heard on Easter Day, and we are a few hours earlier than where we met the friends of Jesus last week, huddled in the upstairs room for fear of the future.

In today’s Gospel reading, Luke remembers two of the friends of Jesus, depressed by all that has taken place returning from Jerusalem to their home.  As they walk down the road to Emmaus they are met by a fellow traveller who reflects with them about all that has happened. How they hoped for such great things in Jesus, and how it all ended when he was nailed to the cross, and left there to die.

An idea grew up in the Early Church that one of the two on the road, Cleopas, was actually a cousin of Jesus, that’s perhaps why he is named in the story.  And these disciples (these friends) who had followed Jesus for so long, including one who was actually related to him were not able to recognise him, even as he continued to teach them as they walked down that road. This is of course a deliberately exaggerated story.  At the end of their journey the disciples invite the stranger in for some food and shelter.

As Jesus takes bread and breaks it they are suddenly and powerfully aware of who he is. As the bread is broken Christ’s presence is known amongst them.  In Luke’s version of the Gospel this is one of the final statements, it is one of the conclusions for all who are going to read the account. Through this story Luke  makes very clear the belief of his community that Jesus is made known in the breaking of the bread.  Last week in John’s Gospel everything happens at once, Jesus appears, his resurrection is confirmed, and in the same movement he breathes the Holy Spirit on his friends. But for Luke the coming of the Holy Spirit will be some time later.  For him the message which he wants to get out, is that for those first Christians Christ’s presence was truly known amongst them when they broke bread together, just as Jesus had done with them at the Last Supper before his death.

There have been a number of beliefs throughout the life of the Church about how that presence actually manifests itself.  For some of us there will be a belief that the bread and the wine are in a very real way transformed into the body and blood of Christ.  When we celebrate the Mass together what appears to be bread is actually Christ’s body, and what appears to be wine will become his blood.  For others of us there will be a belief that the gifts on the altar as we celebrate the Eucharist together, will remain bread and wine but God will be present around them in a special way which is different from how God is present everywhere else in the world. The bread and the wine will be surrounded by God in a most holy and different way.  The third broad group of ways of understanding the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, (which again some of us here will hold), is that there is nothing special or different about the bread and the wine on the altar except that they become a symbol for us, a reminder for us of all that God’s love in Jesus has done for us: they serve as a memorial for us, as we remember the life of Christ.

Within our Anglican tradition all of those views, and beliefs, have been embraced and rejected by different groups at different times.  Within this Diocese there are similarly a broad range of approaches to our Eucharistic worship, which is sometimes signalled in whether we use phrases like “The Lord’s Supper,” or “Holy Communion” or “Holy Eucharist,” or “The Mass;” and all of those terms are used in different Anglican congregations here.  What we as Anglicans generally believe is that as we celebrate these wonderful acts together as a community, whichever way it exactly happens, the real presence of Christ is here. Just as it was in our Gospel reading for those disciples, who in the act of breaking bread recognised that Christ was amongst them.

During this last week I was able to go and listen to a friend of mine performing a concert in the Conservatorium in Newcastle. She did a wonderful job — she gave a wonderful performance.  Whether you listen to classical music, or jazz or country or pop (whatever style it is) you know that there is a sort of quantum leap between listening to a CD of that music or being a part of a live event.  It does not matter how good your music player is at home, whether you have enhanced speakers or surround sound facilities, no CD will parallel the experience of a live performance.  When you are in the same place as performers, who are making music – live – for you, as I was last week, you know that you are not listening to a recording.

Presence is important. We know, don’t we, when we are being present to other people. And if we just think about our community here for a moment, we know those people who will be present to us in conversation after the service this morning and those who won’t.  So when we talk about presence, we know what it means: and it means the same thing when we talk about Christ’s presence with us in Holy Communion.  We might disagree about the theological mechanics of how it happens, but we believe (as Anglicans) that Christ will be really present with us in our Eucharist today. Really present, like live music, and open conversation; not nearly present like a recording, or a conversation which just goes through the motions.

But we need to remember too, that the Eucharist is not just something which is going on on the altar, it is happening in each of us as well: we are the body and the life blood of Christ. Every Sunday we say together that we the Church are the body of Christ (we will say it again this morning).  So whatever we might believe happens around the altar, the most important thing about the real presence of Christ as we break bread together, is that that real presence is not in some magical way just around the table, it is supremely in us.  That means that if we cannot find the strength through anything else to be truly present to ourselves and to each other, we can find that ability here in our worship.

Christ’s real presence in us as we break bread together gives us the freedom to be true to ourselves, and to be truly present to one another; really present to one another’s joys and sorrows and needs.

The love of God really present in us, means that we can in turn be really present to each other,  not just to each other here in the Church but to our neighbours and work colleagues as well.

I have been re-reading the story of the life of Bishop Frank Weston, the Bishop of Zanzibar this week, (Zanzibar is a beautiful island off the coast of Tanzania).  In 1923 Bishop Weston spoke at the Anglo Catholic Congress which was one of those unique events tn. the life of our Church.  That Congress in London was one of the events which re-invigorated the centrality of the Eucharist in our Anglican Tradition – that the Eucharist must be more than a ritual which we Anglicans enjoy, but rather a platform from which we launch our mission of sharing God’s love to the world.

It was at that Congress that Bishop Weston said this: “you cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle or on the altar, if you do not pity Jesus in the slums… It is folly… it is madness, to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the sacraments and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children.”  In other words, if Christ is truly present here with us today, we must be truly present to the needs of those  around us in our broken world.

I am looking forward after this service to having the opportunity to meet with the Parish Council and as many of you as are able to stay, to discuss with you a little about what is going on around the Diocese in parishes which are embracing the vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission.  In this part of the world there is a lot going on in response to this vision at the current time.  You may already know that in the next few weeks the parishes of Merriwa and Muswellbrook will make formal decisions about adopting the vision, having taken time for study and reflection. The parishes of Scone and Singleton and Murrurundi have already made a commitment to move ahead in this way, and there is significant new ministry being done as a result in at least two of those places.

The vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission invites us to be more organised, and resourced, in being present to our neighbourhoods — present with the love of Christ, building on the foundations of all that we have done so well over many years.  My hope is that your Parish Council, and in turn all of the rest of the congregation will make a commitment to this vision, just as your colleagues in other congregations in the Upper Hunter are doing.

In just a few moments time we will celebrate the Eucharist together as we do every Sunday.  At this and at every celebration of the Lord’s Supper around the world today Christ will be truly present in the body of his Church.  The challenge for us is that whilst that same presence renews and revives us at this holy meal, this is not a private affair, God is not just present to keep our club going, for our own sake.  Christ will be truly present at our Eucharist to drive us back into the world, where we are called to be truly present to ourselves, and to each other, and to the needs of those around us.