Running Down The Road From Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

This post was inspired by a recent edition of the Pulpit Fiction podcast.

A man called Cleopas walks towards his home. It’s been a difficult few days; death and violence, rumours and confusion, blood and whispers. The day is drawing to a close, and Cleopas just wants to sleep, if he can, just wants to cover the last few miles to Emmaus.
He turns and sees someone approaching, a Stranger on the road. They strike up a conversation, small talk at first, pleasantries about Passover. To be honest, Cleopas doesn’t much want to talk; the Messiah’s been crucified, maybe the disciples are next. That thought, and the look on his face, seem to beg a question; the Stranger asks what’s been happening. That’s all the excuse he needs; Cleopas gets the events of the weekend off his chest: Jesus is dead, and a messianic dream with him, despite disjointed whispers of an empty tomb.

The Stranger reacts strangely; instead of nodding and taking in this news, he instead launches into a free-former exegesis, ancient scriptures and the words of the prophets dancing with this very weekend. The group walks through the dusk as their shadows lengthen, Cleopas listening with rapt curiousity as the jigsaw of his faith is reassembled with the help of a different picture.

As the sun sinks, and everyone pulls their cloak around them, the laws of hospitality kick in and Cleopas invites the Stranger into his home. They continue talking as they throw wood on the fire, as the table is laid, as the Stranger takes bread and breaks it, as the eyes of Cleopas are opened and he suddenly recognises the face and the scars of Jesus himself. And suddenly Jesus is gone and all Cleopas can think of is finding the other disciples and singing of what he’s seen. He needs to go back to Jerusalem.

But here’s the thing: this is all taking place at night, centuries before street lighting, before night buses. Bandits lurk beyond the threshold, prowling the streets between Emmaus and the city. Under normal circumstances, most people would stay safe behind closed doors; this, however, is Easter Sunday, a day that takes those normal circumstances and transforms them, illuminates them, raises them from the dead.

So Cleopas runs out into the night, no thought for the bandits, stumbling along the way in the moonlight, abandoning safety in favour of proclamation. He runs into Jerusalem, ignoring the looks from all those people who hang out on city streets at night. He finds the disciples and tells them what he saw as the Stranger broke the bread. That’s where we leave him, in the Upper Room, celebrating and singing as the chains of guilt and abandonment quietly fall to the floor.

Today the journey feels dark. We walk through life knowing that our leaders are in love with nuclear missiles, knowing that our theologies can sometimes become weapons, knowing that economic and social gears creak and grind as the innocent are caught in their teeth. It would be easier to stay home, safer, easier to stay in our pews and sing and mingle and wait for the dawn to come.

But it’s not that simple, is it? The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. The resurrection has come, and even though it’s dark outside we need to tell of what we’ve seen by its glory. We run through the night unafraid of its shadows and holding the hands of those we find there as we wait for daybreak.

May we encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but never let this be the end of the journey; let us always be found on the road from Emmaus, dancing through the dark because the resurrection breaks the power of the shadows, because freedom is found in broken bread, because even though the night feels long, a beacon shines as we sing of the dawn that’s come.

So Mary wasn’t a prostitute… But what if she had been?

A few days ago, an article appeared in the Washington Post, explaining that, although Mary Magdelene is traditionally portrayed as a repentant prostitute, this is actually a medieval amalgamation of several of the women in the gospels. Fair enough so far; Even the Catholic Church no longer views Mary as a prostitute and, the logic goes, we shouldn’t demean her as a sex worker.

Into this debate stepped Nate Sparks with a series of Tweets pointing out that framing the conversation in this way is problematic – saying that Mary is slandered by being called a prostitute actually dehumanises people who’ve been involved in sex work. The thread is well worth checking out, because, well, what if it turned out that Mary was a prostitute after all?

It’s Easter Sunday, the church’s great explosion of grace and mercy. Are we saying, on this day of all days, that the first witness to the resurrection, the apostle to the apostles, couldn’t have been a prostitute? Because that would seem to undermine the Kingdom and the Creation that was born in that garden when she first heard her name whispered by the risen Jesus.

Over the years, Mary has become an iconic, liminal figure, her story woven with mysteries and mythmaking: she was, some say, the secret wife of Jesus, the Mother of a hidden bloodline stretching down through the centuries. It’s hard not to see this as a contrast to the treatment of Christ’s mother; if that Mary is going to be portrayed as the eternal virgin, then Mary Magdelene will always be defined in terms of her sexuality. While it’s hardly healthy to downplay sexuality, there’s something misogynist about its treatment when it comes to the Marys – the two iconic women of the gospels are reduced to their supposed virginity and promiscuity; heck, add Jezebel the femme fatale in there and you’very got a whole trinity. It’s simplistic. It’s not listening to the text. It’s unhealthy and it’s erasing.

And anyway, we never have conversations about Paul, even though the writer of most of the New Testament was a murderer transformed by the blinding mercy of Jesus. We don’t bat an eyelid about naming Matthew the collaborator and Simon the terrorist as apostles. They may be brief moral lessons, but their personal histories don’t become the entirety of our interest in their work. We downplay Mary’s involvement in the gospels because we’re too busy thinking about who she slept with.

(Some of this is down to how the Church sometimes seems more comfortable with violence than it is with sexuality, which is a whole other can of worms.)

It would be nice to be able to treat this as an interesting theological head-scratcher, but it has immediate consequences for the way in which the church incarnated into a complex and untidy world. How we think about Mary affects how we think about sex workers who may find their way into our pews or, more tellingly, have been shunned because of their pasts or how they’ve made money. When we read gospel stories involving prostitutes, we don’t often stop to ask some intense questions: had they been raped? Had they been trafficked? What brought them into sex work in the first place?

We don’t ask these questions. We pass judgement, frown and move on to something more ‘wholesome’. And that’s our sin, not theirs. It’s a sin that affects how we relate to sex workers and victims of trafficking and survivors of abuse. It’s a sin that locks down the gospel, because when our moral messages dehumanise and ignore individual stories, instead trading in hackneyed stereotypes, we’re forgetting the Easter grace we’re supposed to celebrate.

And that’s the last thing we should do on Resurrection Day.

Gardens and Gates (Matthew 19:13-14)

This morning at church, Easter was accompanied by a dedication service, a happy baby boy grabbing for the mic and being blessed in the name of Jesus. And as part of all this, the pastor quoted from Matthew’s gospel: “Let the children come to me.”

It’s not an Easter reading, not traditionally, but in other ways it’s something that’s deeply, intrinsically bound up with today. Because the disciples are driving children and their parents away from Jesus, self-appointed religious gatekeepers conspicuously jangling the keys to the Kingdom. Jesus, however, snatches that job from them, throwing open a welcome to those others would reject.

The Church sometimes acts more like a machine than a family, gears grinding too many of the faithful between their teeth. We build walls and guard the gates and set up metaphorical machine gun nests upon the parapets. The gatekeepers are real, their swords are being sharpened. And yet Jesus still calls people to him, hanging out in gardens, cooking fish on beaches, eating dinner with sinners. Each of these welcomes is a transformation, a liberation, a resurrection.

So Jesus meets Mary the marginalised. He meets Peter the denier. He’s raised to life and in that first dawn of the new creation he doesn’t go to temples, he doesn’t shake hands with priests, he seeks out the ignored and the forsaken,  the broken and the lost,  the victims of racism and misogyny, ableism and homophobia. He appears on the margins, he seeks the mourning, he walks through locked doors and brings hope, not through the righteousness of saints but through the wounds torn through his wrists. In doing so he sabotages the machine, because he threw himself into the gears; never forget that the gatekeepers sought to keep out God himself.

Easter embodies grace, bleeds forgiveness, resurrects hope. Nails pick the locks on our gates and build a Kingdom out of the broken. And the gatekeepers can dance with joy over this, or they can keep feeding the machine. But machines rust, they erode, they crumble; resurrection grace, nail-pierced love, Calvary’s redemption? They shine forever.

Other posts for Easter 2017 are here.

Stations: Resurrection (Easter Sunday)

25033732033_99aa455ce0Christ is risen!

That’s today’s great proclamation, but in the sunrise of the first Easter, resurrection is breaking news. But now we live in the light of ancient news, it’s sometimes hard to picture what that means in a world of barrel bombs and climate change. We try to imagine everything around us changing, we write books about the Second Coming. But maybe the purest expression of life after Easter is those first few hours after two days of darkness.

For someone like Peter there’s the resurrection of hope; his last memory of Jesus was a crucifixion and a cock crowing, but with the news of an empty tomb, maybe memories of Jesus’s promise to rise again start to break through the guilt and the remorse; maybe chains of his own making start to loosen, start to break.

For others, the empty tomb is judgement, condemnation, a grenade rolled into a toxic environment, the divine sabotage of a religious machine so that we can be liberated, jubilee through the jamming of gears. For those in the path of religious dreadnought, the empty tomb might even be an underground railroad.

And then there’s the iconic moment outside the tomb: Mary, crippled by grief, lost in the mourning, hears a voice; nothing more is said, other than her name, but in two syllables hope and love, grace and the future are resurrected within her, and she turns towards the voice, every nanosecond reshaping and recreating the world entire. And yes, she’ll go on to live the rest of her life, good and bad, but here in the garden she’s reborn.

Maybe this is the Easter we need; in the deepest depths, in our darkest hours, to hear a voice whispering our name, a whisper that raises us to new life, shoots of green breaking through cracks in the pavement, a moment in which all the things we thought lost are found again, in which chains are broken and prison doors kicked open, unexpected words in a garden that hold hope and grace enough to create a future.

In the dawn of Easter morning, a voice whispers “Let there be light” again, and Jesus steps out of the tomb. And a whole new Kingdom silently explodes into life.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Stations: Burial (Holy Saturday)

80261225fe004e90ed2d07839e63e9b1The crucifixion is over; the crowds have gone, the soldiers walk away to clean bloodstained weapons and armour. In the silence and stillness of death Jesus hangs, awaiting the final indignity; he’s probably due to be thrown into a mass grave with the two bandits on either side of him, erased and forgotten as he rots in a pit, no space for followers to mourn and be inspired. The spectacle is over, its job done. Its brutality needs to be remembered but not its victims. That’s how these things work.

We still find mass graves today, in Iraq, in Syria, in Mexico, in Ireland. The discarded victims of turf wars and extremism, abandonment and fundamentalists lie dumped like so much rubbish, the final crime committed against each of them. We might know their names if we hunt through the bones enough. Industrial cruelty wants its crimes and its victims to crumble quietly into dust and disappear in the wind.

The burial of Jesus is an attempt to spare him that fate, an extravagance he can be afforded in death if not in life. So Joseph gives up his tomb and Nicodemus gives up his cash and they give Jesus a burial, respect, dignity. These things are important; they preserve the humanity of those who died, their identity, as well as that of those left behind. This is a moment of mercy and grace, perhaps a moment in which, even in the silence, hope starts to break through.

But it’s Saturday and Sunday’s still to come, and so Joseph’s tomb is a place of mourning and remembrance and tears. We can pause here for a while as we remember the pain and loss of Good Friday, as we put aside denial and embrace the weeping, as we get sad and get angry about suffering and bereavement and death. There’s nothing wrong with this.

But keep an eye on the tomb. Something’s about to happen there. Over on the horizon, the sun’s about to rise.

The other posts in this series can be found here.