Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for the Third Sunday of Easter

26 Apr 2020

“Never be afraid to voice your anger, hurt and disappointment to the Lord. The One who was let down by His followers and rejected by many, the One who suffered in Gethsemane and on Calvary knows what physical and mental distress are like” – Bishop McKeown

The Holy Bible is full of great stories. It may be events like the one we have heard about today – or it might be parables like the Prodigal Son. But none of them was written down to be of merely entertainment value. All these dramatic stories have a teaching purpose. Saint Luke wasn’t writing his Gospel to help us escape from reality. Of all the things that happened in the life of Jesus pre and post Resurrection, this story was one that the early Jerusalem community kept telling – and Luke, writing thirty years later, knew it contained teaching important enough that it needed to be written down for posterity. As someone said, the Bible stories are not merely a window on the past, they are also a mirror on the present.

At the centre of the story are Cleopas and his friend. They are there at the start and at the end. In the middle they have an encounter that changes how they view both the past and the future. These are real people. They are open to share their feelings. We hear what their initial dreams had been and about their dashed hopes. And, at the end, we see them newly enthused. Here, as everywhere else in the Gospels, Jesus deals with real people.

The first thing that comes through in this story is that Jesus takes them seriously. He asks them what they are talking about. These are people who would have been his followers – but who were now heading home because things had not worked out as they had planned. He listens to their shattered dreams and the events that don’t make sense. He draws them out. With them He walks away from the place where they thought those broken dreams lay dead and buried. Jesus walks with each of us this morning. Many people have suffered. Life has been stripped of the hopes and plans that helped them get up in the morning. Never be afraid to voice your anger, hurt and disappointment to the Lord. The One who was let down by His followers and rejected by many, the One who suffered in Gethsemane and on Calvary knows what physical and mental distress are like.

But, having listened to Cleopas and his friend, Jesus tackles their issue head on. He doesn’t move on to talking about football or the weather. Their sadness has to do with the awful thing that happened to Jesus and their dreams on Good Friday. They can reluctantly accept what happened on Calvary – death is concrete. But they can’t really get their head around the possibility of Resurrection. Calvary was sad but Resurrection sounds mad, too good and unreasonable to be true. But Jesus reaches into the writings of the Old Testament to water into bloom the seeds that they thought were all dried up. The story he tells is not just that things will be all right. His story about the prophets creates a whole new narrative about God’s love for the world and the new Passover Lamb whose blood reveals hope and mercy for all. The early Christians began to see Calvary, not as a place of butchered dreams but as a revelation of God’s new dream for the world.

Our cultural narrative has tended to move towards the assumption that we are entitled to whatever pleasure and happiness we can get and that everything should be removed that upsets my plans or causes pain. That is my right! But the Jesus narrative of Calvary is much closer to what we are now discovering. The heroes are those who face harsh reality, those who love and sacrifice themselves. The ones who nourish us are not those who keep repeating foot-tapping, mind-numbing jingles but those whose lives and actions speak of courage and meaning beyond what tickles my fancy here and now. It is not all about me, screaming out from a lonely place that ‘I am worth it’. Jesus takes us seriously but speaks of a heroism that comes from facing challenges with a generous heart. He calls us to believe in something beyond our own unimaginative dreams. There was a time when not believing in God was the rebellious thing to do. Now the real rebels are those who dare to believe in Resurrection and not just in a return to the status quo. Don’t be afraid to let Jesus remake your hopes.

Thirdly, having explained the scriptures to them, Jesus does something that had become central to the life of the early Church. Breaking bread was one of the four essential characteristics of the early Christian community, alongside the teaching of the apostles, the community and the prayers. All the Gospels talk about the multiplication of loaves and fishes – and use the words ‘took, gave thanks, broke and gave’. We hear the same words today in the Gospel.

The early Christian Church had discovered that the Risen Lord continued to show Himself to His followers when they gathered to let the Scriptures speak into the hopes and sadness’s of our lives – and then to do in memory of him what he had done at the Last Supper. But Saint Paul – in the earliest written book of the New Testament, the first letter to the Corinthians – is very clear that we are not merely breaking bread in some human memorial action. He wrote to his listeners that,

‘when we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim his death. Anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily will be behaving unworthily towards the body and blood of the Lord.’ (1 Cor 11:26-7)

It is not surprising in Saint John’s Gospel that when Jesus talks about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, many of his followers walk away because of this intolerable language (Jn 6:60). Breaking of bread opens up a Divine horizon. It is God’s action, not ours.

For that reason, it is so painful for many Christians that they cannot gather physically and hear the Scriptures proclaimed, and then share in Holy Communion. That is not some hangover from a bygone age that means nothing to much more intelligent modern people. Christianity was never a solo hobby that can be lived equally well at home. Christians have always believed in the Church as physical body of Christ and in the Eucharist as an intimate sharing in the Body of Christ broken for us. As in His dealings with people 2,000 year ago, Jesus still wants to touch us, mind, body and spirit. Jesus still wants to sit at table with us and touches us sacramentally. Yes, the Lord wants to make our hearts burn within us with the words of God in the Scriptures. But God wants to nourish us with the fullness of Jesus who is the Word of God – and that includes his Sacramental presence. That is why, we as a Church will prioritise people’s physical health but are also able to speak a language that goes beyond the economic and the hygienic. If, after hearing this Gospel passage, we have nothing to offer but what one author calls ‘the technocratic imagination’ … then we have nothing to offer.

And at the end of this story, we see what happens when people encounter the Risen Christ. Even though it is night-time, they race back to Jerusalem to share their encounter. They don’t quite understand what has happened. But they know that something has happened that makes sense of Calvary. We don’t have to be able to articulate all the logic of what is happening now. But Christians walk on with the conviction that there is One who does make sense of the apparent madness of shattered human dreams.

I suggest to read this passage in Saint Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 24 a few times. Let Jesus speak to your broken dreams and allow Him to make your heart burn within you as He walks with you. And look forward in joyful hope for the day when He can gather us together around the table and nourish us with the fullness of His grace-filled presence that makes us apostles of His Good News. Amen.

  • Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry

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