St Francis, Terriers - Easter 3 (30.04.2017)

Tony Dickinson

When we start reading the Bible seriously, and particularly the New Testament, one of the things we discover is how very differently the first Christians did things. Before we fixed a date for Charlie’s baptism, Jade and Max and I met three times to talk through what it all meant, and to walk through this morning’s service. We did the same four years ago when Albie was christened. It’s all very different from baptism as described in our first reading this morning. No careful preparation there. Just one powerful sermon from Peter, words that cut his hearers to the heart, St Luke tells us, and a huge and immediate response which resulted in the mass baptism of about three thousand people.

That’s all very different from what is happening here today, but there is one thing that remains the same. Peter tells the crowds in Jerusalem: “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” That applies to us, here, now, just as it did to them then. “The promise is for you, for your children.”

So what is that promise? It’s the promise of life, life lived in a new dimension. That’s what Peter means when he talks about “the gift of the Holy Spirit”. He isn’t promising the crowds “pie in the sky when you die”. He’s offering them a new start now – a new start with every past failure washed away in the water of baptism, a new start living in the love and mercy of God, a new start walking in the way of God. “The promise is for you, for your children.”

It’s a promise of life and hope in an increasingly worrying world. It’s a promise that, however bad things may seem, they are never beyond the power of God to hold and heal and transform. Think of those two disciples in this morning’s gospel, trudging home to Emmaus after a desperate week in the big city. It had all started so well. They had watched Jesus of Nazareth, somebody they recognised as very special – watched him enter the city amid cheering crowds, challenging the foreign army of occupation, challenging the corrupt leaders of his own people. And a few says later they had watched that foreign army, and their own leaders, crush him.

They had watched how “how [their] chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.” They had watched him stumble through the city, carrying his cross to the place of execution. They had watched him die and seen the soldiers make sure that he was dead. So there’s real despair in their words: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They had hoped that Jesus would bring his people freedom and a future.

And the stranger to whom they are telling this story listens and waits until they have finished their tale of disappointment and confusion. Then he shows them how it all fits the way that people have seen God at work down the ages. There’s a pattern of bringing life out of darkness, hope out of death and despair. And what happened to Jesus is no different. God is in all the pain of the world as well as in its glory, as well as in celebrations like ours this morning. God opens up all kinds of possibilities when everything seems closed down, hopeless, dead – which is a thought some of us might want to hold in mind at our annual church meeting!

Such is the promise which God makes to Charlie this morning, the same promise that he made to Albie four years ago, the promise which will, I hope, guide us through our annual meeting: that however life may turn out, God will never abandon us. The risen Jesus walks alongside us as he walked alongside Cleopas and his companion, even though we may not recognise him any more than they did. He is with us to bear our burdens of sorrow and suffering, our sense of failure. He is with us to share our joys and to share with us his life, which is the life of God. The risen Jesus still comes to us unrecognised. He still walks alongside us in our busyness and in our desolation and confusion, showing us the pattern of how God works in the world.

And he makes himself known as our living Lord here today. He makes himself known in the words of the Bible, in the water of baptism. Above all he makes himself known in the breaking of the bread, as he did on that evening long ago in Emmaus. “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!