Can you preach about the Road to Emmaus?

This sermon was preached on 19 April 2015 in St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow using ideas that were also explored in the sermon preached for Fr Chucks Iwuagwu in Haslemere, Surrey.

Sermon preached by Kelvin Holdsworth on 19 April 2015 from St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow on Vimeo.

There are a number of texts in the bible about which it is almost impossible to preach. If I were to ask you which texts were there which preachers really shouldn’t attempt to tackle then I fancy that you might come up with some of the genealogies – the lists of who begat whom. Or maybe some of the more obscure purity laws in Leviticus which have little to do with our lives in a modern world.

And it is true – some of those texts are next to useless for anyone trying to preach the gospel.

But there are also a small number of texts about which sermons are pretty tricky for the opposite reason. If I’m honest, I’ve never heard (or preached) a sermon on the good Samaritan which actually improved on the story itself. It is the same with the Love Chapter – that glorious paean to love which St Paul sent to the fractious church in Corinth. No matter how badly it is read at so many weddings the ultimate truth shines out.

Love is patient, love is kind. (And that just can’t be improved upon.

And the same might be said of Psalm 23 – when did you ever hear a sermon on it that improved on the poetry or the pathos of the human condition so precisely observed.

And so it is with the gospel reading this morning.

The road to Emmaus is the Easter reading par excellence – it is familiar and comforting and disturbing all at once because it contains within it the surprise of recognising the Lord himself who appears, as is our experience with the breaking of bread and the fellowship that results from the breaking down of barriers between people.

But who can improve on the story?

What preacher ever beat Luke at his own game?

The answer, if there is one is to presume that we’ve never heard Luke telling of the story at all.

The answer is to put ourselves into the shoes – or probably the dusty sandals of the two who made their way to this place called Emmaus.

And the thing to remember is that they’ve not heard the story. They’ve no idea what’s about to happen to them much less any idea that we might still be talking about them these centuries later.

As they walk along, can we walk with them and overhear their conversation.

Before the stranger catches up with them, what are they saying?

Luke just tells us that they were talking about what had happened. Jesus had been put to death and Jesus had been buried. He was gone. No doubt there was a lot to talk about.

If we read this as pious Christians who know how the story turns out then we might presume that they were having prayerful discussions about how Jesus’s death fitted in with the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures. If we read the story as empathetic fellow travellers on a spiritual tradition we can probably see into their grief and share it.

But what makes us so sure that is what they were talking about.

What makes us so sure that they were not angry with Jesus for provoking just about everyone and finally going that one step too far and getting himself killed off long before his time.

They may not have been experiencing pious thoughts at all. They may have been really rather cross.

And surely they must have been wondering what was coming next.

They’d been part of a great movement. And they’d lost their Messiah – what comes next? Who will replace him?

How do you replace a Messiah anyway?

Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You just put an advert in the Church Times for a new one. Maybe that’s what they were talking about as they made their way along the road.

How to write the advert for a new Messiah.

I’ve got this week’s edition of the Church Times here. This is how those adverts usually sound.

• City based church seeks Messiah. Our priorities are missional leadership, imaginative outreach and children and young people. We seek a Messiah who has a personal relationship with God. (These adverts are all written in code).

• Here’s another one – Honorary Assistant Messiah needed for 8 rural parishes in Norfolk. House provided but no stipend. Must be self-motivated.

• Messiah required to be rector of beautiful rural parish in the Garden of England. Good schools, lovely people, well-appointed Rectory. Resolutions A, B and C have been passed. (That’s code for – no female Messiah’s need apply).

It is funny the things they put in these adverts.

If I’m ever tempted to read these out in the office on a Friday morning when the Church Times comes I have to make sure that there are no coffee pots near to the Vice Provost. He has been known to get over excited and break crockery in his fury at what they say.

You would think sometimes that the Christian Gospel had been spread for 2000 years by mission development plans, people able to accomplish goal based ministry and those who have a passion for “innovative work with families and children”.

Fortunately, I think that I worked out some time ago that this simply isn’t true.

The Christian Gospel is spread by kindness, good humour, by people who bear the marks of Christ in their souls to enable them to reach out to a world that needs to know more about God’s love. It is spread by the enthusiastic witness of those who know the love of God to be true and to be the most wonderful thing in the whole world. But somehow the adverts don’t usually mention those things.

The stranger reached over the table and picked up the bread and gave thanks and broke it and their eyes were opened.

Opened I suspect to the good company that he had been on the road. The good humour he had exhibited that made them invite him in. The kindness he had shown them at a difficult time. Familiar factors. Familiar signs. Familiar symbols.

And all of a sudden their eyes are opened. And all of a sudden he doesn’t seem to be there.

Or is he?

All of a sudden they have a burning desire to rush back to Jerusalem. All of a sudden they have a burning desire to tell their friends that all it not lost. Love has not died. Kindness has not gone. The one who broke bread with them before has broken into their world again.

They don’t need a new Messiah.

It is worth remembering sometimes that the church doesn’t need any new Messiahs. One was always enough and he’s still around.

Still around and still turning up where bread is broken, stories shared and God’s people with humour and kindness celebrate the greatest news in the world – that God is love.

Turned up there in Emmaus. And turns up here.

For if Christ were not risen, we would not be gathered here in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.



  1. For a text that’s impossible to preach on, you did a pretty good job with this.

  2. You just sent me running for the lectionary checking I hadn’t used the wrong Gospel reading yesterday! How come you had Emmaus rather than broiled fish?

  3. Glad you did! 🙂

  4. Ender's Shadow says

    “The Christian Gospel is spread by kindness, good humour, by people who bear the marks of Christ in their souls to enable them to reach out to a world that needs to know more about God’s love.”

    As an Evangelical bought up on stories of revival which tend to become normative in our community, I instinctively react against this. But you are somewhat right; the truth is more subtle – the gospel is only truly spread when people encounter God for themselves and the Holy Spirit becomes real in their lives. The danger of the revivalist approach is that people are bullied into the kingdom by emotional pressure. The danger of your approach is that the church becomes a social club where everyone is very nice to everyone, but there’s no actual engagement with God.

    For me the real test as to whether there’s something real is a steady change in people as we realise that we are sinners whom God needs to change for the sake of everybody – ourselves and those around us. At some point there needs to be a real awareness of our falleness in the face of a holy God. Our getting there may be by various routes; the alternative will be outward conformity and hypocrisy.

  5. Ann Fontaine says

    Road to Emmaus is a favorite of mine – especially the moment of breaking bread. Here is a painting that speaks of that moment to me.

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