Word, Sacrament…and welcoming the stranger

Here is one I cooked earlier and put in the freezer during my sad attempt at a Lenten social media fast… and as its about my favourite resurrection story it is hopefully more apt now that it was then…

I was recently at a meal when a former diocesan Bishop said he used to ask people, who were on the point of getting ordained, what they would say to someone who wanted to become a Christian. In effect, what was their summary of the Gospel and how would they point someone towards a journey of discipleship.

Although the question was not directed at me it left me feeling a bit rabbit in the headlights and unsure how I would answer a similar question without resorting to three page tracts, theologically thin cliches or totally unhelpful but nice sounding platitudes.

But the question wounldn’t go away and as I thought about it I was  struck that the story of the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35)  that I have been reading slowly with friends since October through the lens of Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book With Burning Hearts is a fantastic metaphor for the the Christian journey and cycle of discipleship.

These verses in Luke’s Gospel tell the story of people converted, healed and restored by an encounter with Jesus. Like so many of us, they walked despairing, bogged down in grief, overwhelmed by the powers of the world and unable to find hope. Jesus appears and walks with them, asking to join their conversation, but they don’t know who he is. Once they have shared their grief and despair his response is to the point – and seemingly a little rude. “You foolish people,” he says, “So slow to believe all the prophets have said…” This rebuke is perhaps a point of baptism for the travellers – as they have to die to their own stories and preconceptions and be reborn with eyes and ears and hearts that can receive the Good News. It may not be polite but it may be the necessary interruption of ingrained thought patterns and narratives that makes the space for transformation, faith and trust.

Jesus then goes on to explain the scripture to them in such as way that their hearts burned within them but it is in the breaking of bread that they finally recognise him. Yet this sacramental moment of grace would never have happened if they had not  invited Jesus to their home. Word and sacrament are perhaps the expected hallmarks of Christian life and worship, the ways in which we expect to encounter Christ, but what about inviting the stranger home?

Nouwen says this about our encounters: “Interesting, stimulating and inspiring as  all these strangers may be, when I do not invite them into my home, nothing truly happens. I might have a few new ideas, but my life remains basically the same. Without an invitation, which is an expression of a desire for a lasting relationship, the good news that we have heard cannot bear lasting fruit.”

Sitting in a small communion service today I suddenly realised that the Common Worship prayer after the Eucharist resonates deeply with the Emmaus story: “Father of all, we give you thanks and praise, that when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home. Dying and living, he declared your love, gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory. ”

Jesus met the travellers on the road when they were far off and he brought them home – spiritually and literally. He declared his love, gave them grace and opened the gate of glory for them by retelling the story of his life through scripture (living) and by remembering his death in the breaking of bread (dying).

When we invite Jesus into our home the gate of glory is opened and we receive grace, love and peace. When we invite a stranger into our home we are opening ourselves us to be changed, challenged, evangelised and continually converted. The long term relationships we invest in do more than change our minds and opinions – they change our hearts and our souls if we are open to God’s grace.

Reading the Gospels carefully we hear that Jesus went into many homes – friends, tax-collectors, pharisees, the Upper Room to name a few. He crossed boundaries and thresholds to open the gate of glory, declare love and give grace. And so our summary of discipleship does not end with us breaking bread with Jesus in the house in Emmaus but leads us back to the road where we now accompany those walking in despair, where we open the scriptures and invite people into the fellowship of the Church.

When my son was very little he would sometimes ask to go home – even if he was in our house. It meant he needed the security of being loved, being secure, being both safe and free, being accepted and known and in a place that he understood. He needed to be in the loving gaze of his parents just as we need to be brought home sometimes and sit quietly in the loving gaze of God.

I love the activity of being on the road and I enjoy meeting the stranger but as I approach ordination I realise too that I need to be brought home. The journey of discipleship takes us from the road back home and out again – a dance of refreshment and activity, giving and receiving, loving and being loved, praying and doing.

Or as Henri Nouwen says: “The mystery of God’s love is that our burning hearts and our receptive ears and eyes will be able to discover the One we met in the intimacy of our homes, continues to reveal himself to us among the poor, the sick, the hungry, the prisoners, the refugees and all people who live in fear.

“Here we come to realise that mission is not only to go and tell others about the risen Lord, but also to receive that witness from those to whom we are sent.”

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