1 John 4:7-21;
Like the founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, I grew up in an Evangelical tradition of the church. The word ‘evangelical’ comes from the Greek euangelion, which means “bearer of good news,” and it is the charism of the evangelical tradition to spread by word the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. And so from a young age I was taught vivid Bible stories in Sunday School,that were often accompanied by handouts that I could take home and color with pictures of Jesus telling stories to children seated all around him. I also learned songs that I would sing ad naseum in the car on the way home such as ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children.’As a child I knew Jesus to be my buddy and as long as I had these Bible stories, songs, and coloring sheets, Jesus was with me wherever I went.
As I grew older, my dad encouraged me to leave the coloring activity sheets behind and begin to listen to what our pastor was preaching in church, something that I wasn’t thrilled about because I didn’t understand the message he was articulating. I didn’t yet have the vocabulary and experience to grasp concepts such as ‘sin,’‘atonement,’ and ‘repentance.’ It would take a while for me to gain an understanding of this adult expression of God, one that seemed so complex and at times frightening. What did resonate with me was when the pastor gave what was called an “altar call.” After the sermon and before the final hymn, he would invite anyone who wanted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to come forward and stand with him as a public profession of that desire which was the next step in the journey of faith. I think I was eleven when I made my way to the front to proclaim what I already knew in my heart: that Jesus and I had had a personal relationship since before I could remember. I always looked forward to that moment in the service to see who else might come to be friends with Jesus the way I was. I imagine it is with a youthful twinkle in his eye that Fr. Benson once wrote: “If we are to have Jesus our friend, we must know Him to be continually near. The companionship of Jesus! It is strange how many there are who look forward to being with Him in another world, but never think of living fellowship with him here.”[i]
Indeed, what makes this quote profound for me is it reminds me that as I grew into the adult understanding of Jesus, the constant companion I knew as a child became a distant acquaintance that I would see once every great while and when I did I wasn’t quite sure what to say. As I embarked on the inevitable and awkward journey as a teenager I became aware of acne, sexuality, my appearance, and my need to fit in with my peers; all of this entered my orbit, edging out Jesus as a priority. I began to understand the concept of sin and recognized how my acting out was deepening the chasm between me and Jesus. I was racked with guilt about all the ways I came up short in our relationship. And no matter how much I repented and tried to return to the graces of friendship with Jesus, my new priorities would always win out until this close relationship became a glib memory of my youth. Perhaps many of you can relate to this dilemma that accompanied the loss of innocence and have been trying to reclaim a relationship with Jesus. Or if not, maybe in lieu of current events, you’re presently searching for a ray of hope, confused and disoriented at what is going on in this world, wondering ‘where in the world is Jesus in all of this?’
I imagine this was the experience of the two disciples in our gospel lesson this evening, who had just left Jerusalem headed to Emmaus. The way Luke paints the picture, we see two men immersed in grief over the loss of their Lord, the one whom they came to know as the long awaited Messiah of God. Not only were they grieving his death, but also dealing with the trauma over the violent manner in which he had died. Add to this the fact that rumors were floating around that his body had been stolen.
Yet, Luke says that the two men encounter a stranger on the road (whom he reveals to us as Jesus). This stranger asks the men about what they’re discussing and they stare at him incredulously. All of Jerusalem had been shaken by the events leading up to that moment, yet here is someone who seemed oblivious to the controversy. They explain to him the hope that they had come to know in Jesus and how this hope had been dashed.
Then, being the consummate teacher, Jesus began to reflect back to them all that the scriptures taught concerning the Messiah. I can only imagine that as they listened to this stranger, their countenance began to change and their spirits uplifted. Have you ever had the experience of confiding in someone who is separated from your circumstances who then is able to shed a little light on what you might be missing, like a spiritual director, perhaps?
Well this is what this ‘stranger’ did for these disciples and they were so taken with him that they invited him to stay with them at Emmaus for the night and have supper. And Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them as was his custom and in that moment they recognized him before he vanished out of sight. Even though they had been walking with this man for miles they finally had a glimpse of recognition of the resurrected Jesus and they immediately returned to Jerusalem to evangelize the other disciples, that is to say, share with them the good news.
This story resonates with me because it seems to reflect some of my own experience. Late in my high school years I had the opportunity to visit an Episcopal Church one Christmas Eve and everything about the experience changed me. I was attracted to the silence before the service as well as all the liturgical symbols and colors that permeated the chapel. I was a young, aspiring musician and I fell in love with the carols and hymns by Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Gustav Holst, and Thomas Tallis just to name a few. But what was most striking to me was all the activity surrounding the altar during the second half of the service. Something mysterious was occurring and while I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, it was palpable.
I eventually joined the Episcopal Church in college and came to know and understand that what was happening at the altar was a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It was through this sacrament that my personal relationship with Jesus was renewed and what’s more, I realized in this new ‘altar call’ that Jesus had always been with me on my journey, I just hadn’t recognized him. And this is what happens every time we gather around an altar to break bread and share wine, we get a glimpse of Jesus who is our constant companion and continually accompanies us along our earthly pilgrimage, loving us and upholding us, each step of the way.
But how can we be aware of Jesus, who is also called Emmanuel (which means God with us) when we’re away from altar? Let me suggest reserving two brief periods of prayer that act as ‘bookends’ to your day. In the newly revised St. Augustine’s Prayer Book published by Forward Movement, editor David Cobb suggests to take a few moments in the morning and pray forward through our day. He writes: In God’s presence, think through the day ahead:the work you will do, the people you will encounter, the dangers or uncertainties you face, the possibilities for joy and acts of kindness, any particular resolutions you need to renew. Consider what might draw you from the love of God and neighbor, the opportunities you will have to know and serve God and to grow in virtue. Remember those closest to you and all for whom you have agreed to pray,ask God’s blessings, guidance, and strength in all that lies before you. Then, gather up these thoughts and reflections with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.[ii] Or you might conclude as I do with the Serenity Prayer which is popular in 12-Step work:
GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.[iii]
Father George Congreve SSJE once wrote: “At times, when we have to wait and have nothing to do to occupy ourselves with,–Oh! Then it is not wasted time if we have thought of God in it, if we have looked into the face of Jesus. Then anything that we do at the end of such waiting times we do with a glory and a power to witness to Jesus which is, indeed, a precious result. Everything should become by degrees and act of communion with God.”[iv] This way of praying in the morning will be like going on a spiritual scavenger hunt and will help make you aware of Jesus’ presence throughout your day.
And second, just before you go to bed, take 10 or 15 minutes to pray backwards through your day with this five step prayer that is known in Ignatian Spirituality as “The Examen.”
- Become aware of God’s presence and ask him to bring clarity to the end of your day.
- Review the day with gratitude, both what went well and where you might have come up short. Pay attention to the small things. God is in the details.
- Pay attention to your emotions. Ignatius says that we detect the presence of God in our emotions. What is God saying through these feelings?
- Choose one feature from the day and pray from it. Look at it. Pray about it. Allow the prayer to arise spontaneously from your heart—whether intercession, praise, repentance, or gratitude.
- Look forward to tomorrow. Do all this with a posture of gratitude knowing that all of life is a gift of God, and then close with the Lord’s Prayer.[v]
But let’s begin in the here and now. In a few moments there will be an ‘altar call,’ not a required public profession of faith, but an invitation to join Jesus for a meal. As you come forward, bring that which is burdening you and share it with Jesus. Then as you put your hands together, give it to Him and in return receive the nourishment you will need to sustain you on the next leg of your journey.
When Jesus was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Amen.
[i]Benson, Richard Meux. Instructions on the Religious Life. Oxford: Mowbrays, 1935. Print. Second
[ii]Cobb, David, ed. Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book. Revised ed. West Park, NY: Order of the Holy Cross/Forward Movement, 2014. Print.
[iii] Kaiser, Shirley. “Internet Resources.” The Serenity Prayer, by Reinhold Niebuhr. Complete, Unabridged, Original Version. God, Give Us Grace to Accept with Serenity the Things That Cannot Be Changed … , Inspirational, Motivational, Spiritual, Religious Prose, Poems, Prayers. Inspiration, Spirituality and Alternative Healing Articles, Alternative Medicine, Health, Internet Resources, SKDesigns. SKDesigns, 7 Aug. 2007. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
[iv]Woodgate, M. V. Father Congreve of Cowley. London: S.P.C.K, 1956. Print.
[v]“The Daily Examen – IgnatianSpirituality.com.” Ignatian Spirituality. Loyola Press, 2016. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.
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