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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Supper at Emmaus: a farewell sermon

St Luke is one of the best storytellers in the Bible. Take the gospel we have just heard. What we love about it is the way it leads up to the moment of recognition. The two disciples trudge wearily back from Jerusalem ‘looking sad’ says Luke,for they thought they had lost the one who had become the very focus of their lives. That man had been crucified two days before. It had felt like the endsuch hopes had they invested in him. Skilfully, Luke moves the story from bafflement to disclosure. The couple talk with the stranger who walks with them. They invite him in to share a meal, ‘and their eyes were opened and they recognised him’. All the pent-up tension in the story is resolved. There is catharsis, a dramatic cleansing. Something new has happened, and the world is a different place from before. That is the power of Easter.

A recognition scene is always a satisfying climax to a storyAnd perhaps it is not so big a leap of the imagination to make a connection with what we are doing here this evening. Principally, we are here to celebrate the Christian eucharist. Luke’s whole purpose in telling his story about Emmaus is clear: every time we gather at table in memory of Jesus, eyes are opened; there is a disclosure. So in this Easter season, wecome to the altar and perform this simple, this ancient, this profound fourfold action. We take bread, we bless it, break it and give it; and as we dowe know that the risen Christ is among us. We recognise him in the words we hear and in the bread we break, and in the faces of one another who share itEvery eucharist is a recognition scene.

For St Luke, recognition is not simply seeing Jesus in a new way, as risen and alive in our midst. It leads us to see one another in new ways too. Because Easter transforms the whole of life, it raises all our relationships into a new realm. Affection, loyalty, colleagueship, friendship, love all begin to glow in the light of Easter. We glimpse the God-given potential that lies within every human encounter and commitment. Indeed, we glimpse Jesus in the midst whenever heart reaches out to heart, whenever men, women and children understand that it is not good for us to be alone. Recognition transfigures things, as every lover knows. For St Luke Easter is the birthday of the church because it means the renewal of every aspect of life and gateway to new possibilities as they are gathered up and given fresh expression in the resurrection of Jesus.

And that brings me to the other reason we are here tonight. We are saying farewell and thank you to Jonathan Lawson who has been chaplain of this College for a decade. We may feel that like Jesus at Emmaus, no sooner have we ‘recognised’ him than he vanishes from our sight and disappears north of Tyne. But recognition comes into this too, for it is a word we use when we want to express appreciation and thankfulness to a colleague and friend. And I think I speak for all of you when I use that language. We recognise Jonathan for the decade of commitment he has given this College as its chaplain and in ways that have extended well beyond that role. He has loved this place and its community. Perhaps he would like us to say that he ‘recognised’ something here that he could give himself to, invest in, help build up so that it could flourish. And I believe we need to say that we have recognised these qualities in him, and thank him for his dedicated, caring immersion into the life of this college. He has, I suspect, touched more lives than perhaps he can ever know.

In the Emmaus story, there is one other dimension to Luke’s carefully crafted narrative. There is the parting of friends: Jesus disappears, and for the second time that day, the disciples are left alone. But this time, it is in a very different spirit from the empty forlornness of that afternoon. ‘That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem.’ That meant another seven mile journey, this time in the dark with all the threats it held. Yet the memory of what had happened to them when the stranger broke the bread in their home impelled them; it energised them to go back to tell the others that Jesus had risen from the dead. The memory held a legacy, and acting on it could not wait, not even the few hours until morning. This too was an act of recognition: to understand what was required of them by the events they had played a part in.

So, what we recognise at this farewell service is not simply a past decade with so much to celebrate. We also recognise the legacy of Jonathan’s service here, and how it contributes to shaping the future without him. That legacy, I believe, has been to consolidate chaplaincy in this College in a way that has been admired across the University. I even dare to say that some Durham colleges that have no chaplain have envied StHild and St Bede for its privileged position as a college that is so well provided for. This is thanks to generous funding by the Hild-Bede Trust, a legacy of the time when the two colleges of St Hild and St Bede were Church of England teacher training colleges.

Chaplaincy offers many benefits to a college. Maintaining servicessupporting the music of the choir, and giving pastoral care to those who make the chapel their spiritual home is only a part of this - vital, but only a part nevertheless. A chaplain cares about the life of the whole college. He or she is freely available to all its members whether they are students or staff, whether they are observant Christians, belong to another faith or practise no faith at all. The presence of a chaplain adds the dimension of looking beyond the visible and tangible aspects of college into its deeper values and ethics, its collective imagination, conscience, spirit. It adds what I call ‘religious intelligence’, that is, an understanding of the part religion plays in public life, something that is crucial in today’s diverse society of many faiths and many degrees of agnosticism especially in the articulate world of higher education. Chaplains who minister in open and inclusive ways are part of the glue that hold communities together; they help prevent dangerous misunderstandings that polarise institutions.  This is as true of a Durham college as it is of workplaces such as hospitals, schools, the armed services and prisons. Even in the secular environment of a modern higher education institution, religion is inevitably part of the public discourse as it is in the world at large. This is why chaplaincy is important and worth investing in.

It is now for this College to do its own work of recognition and take Jonathan’s legacy forward. Like the disciples at Emmaus, it is for us to remember what has happened here, and act on it. We do this conscious of the void that is left when we say farewell. But we also do it in the spirit of Easter: gratefully, courageously, confidently and gladly. So thank you, Jonathan, for all that you have brought to us, and all that you have done among us. God bless you in your future ministry; and God bless us here as we continue what you have so effectively sustained during your Durham years as our chaplain and our friend.

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