Easter meaning. C of E training. The faithful are deciding.
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
“This Easter season is a time of great celebration. Jesus is risen! Let’s take a few moments to think again about the amazing events which happened on that first Easter day”.
Chris the vicar had spent a lot of time preparing for this sermon with prayer and study. Taking a deep breath he continued:
“Towards the end of the story of the road to Emmaus, as Jesus taught his disciples, like all great communicators he summarized his mission and his message in one sentence. Now before we look at it, just think for a moment: if you were to ask your neighbour or friend who doesn’t come to church, what was the most important thing Jesus did, and what was his message, how do you think they would respond? Perhaps ‘he healed people?’ or ‘He said people should be kind to each other?’
Those things would be true, but they would miss the main point of the good news of Jesus. Let’s look at Luke 24, verses 46-47:
This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
What is the mission of Jesus, the Christ? To suffer and die, and then to rise again.
What is his message? Forgiveness of sins is available in his name to people in every nation, through repentance.
How do we know? It’s written in the Bible.
The heart of the Christian message is the death and resurrection of Jesus, which means our sins can be forgiven and we can be in right relationship with God forever. It’s a different agenda from what most people expect. And so it was in those days as well. Even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand it at first.”
Chris went on to explain the key concepts from this basic message:
The identity of the ‘Christ’, or ‘the Son of Man’, as Jesus also refers to himself.
The purpose of his death: taking God’s just judgement for our sins on himself.
The resurrection: its physical and historical reality, and its meaning – the confirmation of Jesus’ identity as universal Lord and Saviour, and the guarantee of life beyond the grave for all who believe in him.
As he drew to a close, Chris said “I want to mention three more things about the Christian faith from the story of the Emmaus Road.
Firstly, its not just a set of ideas – it’s a relationship with a person. Cleopas and his friend walked and talked with Jesus, and this is what being a Christian is today as well.
Secondly, this is supernatural. It’s God breaking in to our world. A man rose from death, came out of a grave and ate and drank; angelic beings overcame Roman guards and rolled away a huge stone. In our journey with Jesus today, we should be prepared for surprises.
Thirdly, it’s all written down. Do you notice how again and again it says “he explained everything from the Scriptures” and “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures”. This is so that we who don’t see Jesus physically or hear his voice like they did, still have access to the same truth from the same source. It’s not a secret, something we work out for ourselves, or an unsolveable mystery – it’s all in the Bible!”
There was a palpable sense of joy in the congregation, as they went on to say the creed together, responded to the intercessions, shared the Peace, worshipped in song and received the bread and wine. “The penny hasn’t quite dropped for everyone yet”, he thought to himself as he greeted folk at the door, “but a number of people seem to be really growing in their faith compared with when I first arrived here five years ago”.
But after the joy of the Easter service and the thrilling reminders of the Gospel truth, Chris found himself feeling very despondent three weeks later, sitting in his study with his two trainee lay readers. They were all having a debrief of the Lent and Easter season, and Karen and Michael were reflecting on their latest seminar with the Diocesan lay ministry training programme.
“We heard, er, shall we say a very different take on the Road to Emmaus story, from the Dean, Reverend Doctor whatever his name is”, said Karen. “Yes – a good job you warned us beforehand”, continued Michael. “He was very plausible, and he is an eminent theologian after all. The course leader was going on about how honoured we all were that this guy would give up his time to come and speak to us”.
“Go on”, said Chris. “What did he say?”
“Well,” replied Karen, “On Easter Sunday you said that the angels in the story show that Christian faith is supernatural. I looked for myself and saw that in Luke’s Gospel there are angels at the beginning – at the conception of John the Baptist and at the birth of Jesus – and at the end with the resurrection. And yet Luke emphasizes that his story is carefully researched from eye witnesses. Supernatural does not contradict factual. But the Dean said the opposite. For him, the stuff about angels proves that the Bible is historically unreliable, full of myths, he said.”
“That’s right”, continued Michael. “He also rubbished the idea of Jesus’ death being a sacrifice to take away our sins. He – and most of the people there I think – agreed that God’s judgement against sin is a medieval concept that leads to violence and division. And the resurrection – well for the Dean, it’s not important whether it actually happened. He quoted various theologians who seemed to be saying that the resurrection is a symbol for us having love and peace in our heart”.
“The heart of the story, for the Dean, was the meal when Jesus broke bread with the two travellers”, said Karen. I wrote it down here in my notes. ‘In that moment of hospitality, they recognized Jesus. Jesus becomes present when we share a meal with one another in peace. So the role of the church is to welcome all with hospitality, and build community – that is how Jesus is made known’. So he wasn’t saying a welcoming Christian community leads people to encounter Christ, but that the feeling of welcome is an encounter with Christ.”
“Everyone got really excited about this”, said Michael, “but on the way home Karen and I were saying that this is a completely different message to what you’ve been teaching us. You’re telling us about the cross, the resurrection, the supernatural Lordship of the risen and ascended Jesus, the trustworthiness of Scripture. It’s our shared belief in this which brings us together in community. On the Diocesan course they don’t seem to believe in that at all.”
“Sadly I’m not surprised”, sighed Chris, “but I’m very encouraged that you’re both really well grounded in your faith and in the Word of God, so that you can evaluate different views that people have. Where will you go from here?”
“I’ve spoken to the course leader, and explained that I’m coming from a different place theologically” replied Michael. “She said that’s fine, and it’s great to have diversity in the C ofE, and that our orthodox theology is one of a number of options. As long as I show that I’ve listened to other views when I write my essays, I will still pass the course. I suppose it’s just a set of hoops we have to jump through, so that we can have a licence to do the ministry we think God has called us to here.”
“I’m afraid I’ve come to a different conclusion”, said Karen. “My husband and I have been talking about it for some time now. We really love this church and your faithful ministry, Chris, and we get fed spiritually here. But I feel that my faith is constantly undermined and ridiculed when I go to these Diocesan training events. They talk about diversity but they’re pushing everyone in a liberal direction. I’m thinking seriously about quitting the course. And to be honest, Chris, if it wasn’t for you, Phil and I would be at another church, another denomination. I understand about the sound basis of the Prayer Book and the Articles, but what good are they if today’s Anglican leaders don’t believe in them, and ministers are being trained to contradict them?”
Chris said he was really grateful to Michael and Karen for their frankness. He felt guilty that he had sent them on the course without checking it out properly, but relieved and satisfied that they had been able to evaluate and critique it. They prayed together, thanking God for the death and resurrection of Jesus, and asking for guidance about the way forward.
Afterwards he continued to think about his own position in the Church of England. The living in his parish gave him a great platform for Gospel ministry, but the structures of the denomination being on an increasingly liberal trajectory, undermined what he and his team were trying to do, and would not equip the church to provide a clear witness to Christ in the nation.
[In response to this piece, one of our regular readers has written this:
…your article hits the nail on the head. Just one year ago I was that Lay Reader in training.
Since coming to faith, at age 50 years, I discovered that, although my faith was Bible based, my local vicar was an extreme Liberal – a Sea of Faith apostate – and moreover my Reader training was predominately, attempting to push me in a liberal direction. It was only because some Sundays I was able to attend services in Biblically faithful churches, …coupled with much anguished prayer, which helped me complete my training, under mounting pressures from both our incumbent and the course to conform.
Eventually things reached a head and after licensing, I transferred to a very good orthodox, evangelical parish where I now serve as Reader and I am very happy. It has been quite a struggle ! Let the glory be to God ! So yes “The faithful are deciding!” ]