john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    Luke 24 - The Dead Man Walking in a World of Motion

    Bridestowe and Lydford Communion Services
    8/5/2011


    1 Peter 1.17-23, Luke 24.13-35


    We live in a world of motion. The writer Anthony Bartlett says that
    The world we are in today is bedazzled by movement. [Movement] has become a way of life in its own right, a super-medium, one that contains an almost unlimited number of variations on its essential theme. It would not be exaggerated to say that movement has become today the primary mode of human existence, one unimaginable to our [forebears]. From car travel to jet travel, from radio waves to broadband, from barter to digital trading, the world finds itself aboard a speeding train that no one has any idea of how to stop or really any desire to do so. [1]
    We might share this bedazzlement at our world of motion if we consider how much movement we ourselves have generated just this morning - the streams of electricity we triggered by flicking a switch, the billions of gigabytes generated by the news media we accessed, not to mention the physical movements which got us out of bed in the first place - and from there, by a succession of different manoeuvres, through the high velocity of our car engines and the gentler repetition of our footsteps on the ground, eventually into church.

    We might see this world of motion as benign - the availability to us of just about everything and everyone, digitally, at any time is a wonder of modern technology: and how grateful we were for the gift of streaming gigabytes which enabled us to see on screen and speak with our son Gary in Japan just hours after the tsunami had struck last March. Thank God for Skype!

    On the other hand, contemplating the effect on our collective psyche of all this terrifying motion, we might see as prophetic the words of W.B. Yeats, in his poem The Second Coming, when he wrote,
    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. [2]
    The world is full of so much movement it dizzys us, and we feel that those things we once had to hold onto have been swept away in an acceleration of oscillations which we are powerless to subdue.

    The reality is not anarchic. Rather, this world of motion relies heavily on innumerable, identifiable signs and fixed points which offer us stability and guide us through the changes and transactions of each day. Whether that's the button you press on the cashpoint, the postcode you punch into the SatNav, the photograph of your loved ones you have as background on your phone, the prayerbook by your bedside with which you end each day, you surround yourself with signs that help you move through life in the way you feel is right and as intended for you. And though our networked world is defined by movement, movement relies for meaning on fixed points - on a journey from A to B, that journey only makes sense because of A and B; as a society we would not be so fixated on property and location unless we regarded these things as fundamental to our identity and well-being. It's not all about moving through space; place is important to us, too.

    'Place is space which has historical meaning,' says Walter Brueggemann, 'where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation and envisioned destiny. Place [...] is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment, and undefined freedom.' [3]

    But motion is the thing we started with because in today's world motion is the thing. And the Church - rooted in static places and programmes, a captive to history - sometimes struggles to know itself in this world of motion. Is the rock on which we stand on terra firma or is it engulfed in the avalanche of signs, lost in an information overload? A recent Anglican report challenged the church to reconsider its mission in the face of increased mobility, loosening employment patterns, increasing divorce rates and the consequent changes in the patterns of family life, a rise in social networking and the fragmentation of physical communities. [4]. Can the church plug into a networked society? was the question it posed. Can Christians be a people in motion?

    The answer is in the affirmative, because from the very outset Christians have been on the move. In fact, even before they embraced the term 'Christians', the followers of Jesus Christ were known as the 'People of the Way'. In Acts 24 we find Paul confessing to be a follower of 'The Way, which they call a sect'; the same book carries accounts of the unconverted Saul and others persecuting the followers of The Way. [5]

    We can be reasonably sure that these early disciples were so named because of their attachment to the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus who had pronounced himself 'The way, the truth and the life' (John 14.6). And from the very start, the Christian world was a world in motion. Jesus was a man on the move. His followers were so called for very clear reasons: they had to stay in motion to keep up with him. And the story of Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus Road is a story of the people of The Way on the move. Their story shows us that in a world of motion Christ provides his people with signs to guide their way, and offers fixed points, safe platforms, on which to take refuge, inspiration and direction.

    I love the story of the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, the story of two people whose awful sense of bereavement, confusion, and probably guilt and shame was replaced - in an encounter on the move and in a moment of great significance - with an explosion of warmth and wonder, with the realisation that the stranger they had been sharing their troubles with, the guest at their table, had been Jesus himself.

    All that this required was that they welcomed the stranger who joined them on the way; opened themselves up to the radical re-reading of scripture which he shared with them; and offered him hospitality as they reached their destination.

    And so it became clear: the Messiah they had seen crucified, the leader they had betrayed, had been there walking beside them, a companion on the road. The God who might have wreaked vengeance on them for their culpability for his death had instead been graciously, carefully, explaining to them the glorious significance of the resurrection, the raising from death to overcome death, to enter into glory and to share that glory with them. Cleopas and his companion: they recognised him in the breaking of the bread. As the crumbs fell to the table, they realised this: that the Dead Man Walking was the Dead Man Raised.

    The moment that Jesus broke the bread was a fixed point in their moving encounter. A point of significance which transformed their whole view of the world then and forever. The power of that moment still resonates in our world of motion today. It continues to be a moment of transformation for anyone who enters it, as we have today in our opening up of the scriptures, as we will again later as we share the broken bread together. The moment in which the bread was broken tells us as it told those two men, that the Dead Man Walking was the Dead Man Raised. And at that moment of transformation we see the Dead Man Raised at the very centre of the moving world, a world of retribution into which he sends out signs of absolute forgiveness, a world of violence into which he sets into motion transformative new forces of love.

    There are signs everywhere of the transformation which the resurrected Christ generates in the world. You may have seen the film or read the book Dead Man Walking. It tells the story of Sister Helen Prejean and her relationship with Matthew Poncelet, a prisoner on death row in Louisiana, accused of killing a teenage couple. The Sister helps Poncelet with an appeal against his death sentence, and gets to know his mother and the victims' families, who don't understand her efforts to help him, and want 'absolute justice': his life for the lives of their children. Retribution. The pardon is declined, and on his day of execution, Poncelet admits to Sister Helen that he killed the boy and raped the girl. He appeals to the boy's parents for forgiveness and tells the girl's parents he hopes his death brings them peace. Poncelet is executed and later the murdered boy's father attends the burial ceremony and begins to pray with Sister Helen. [6]. The film Dead Man Walking projects into a motion-picture world signs of compassion, love, forgiveness which are only visible, only possible, because of that moment in history when the original Dead Man Walking became the Dead Man Raised, a moment marked by the sign of the empty cross and remembered at the meal table in Emmaus in the sign of the broken bread. [7]

    From the fixed point of Calvary Christ projects into our world of motion the empty cross - sign of the dead man raised; from the fixed point of Emmaus Christ projects into our world of motion the broken bread - sign of the dead man walking with the People of The Way. At the end of that day in Emmaus Christ disappeared from the company of Cleopas and his friend to begin to make himself known to others who are seeking him in the universe of signs which make up our rapidly-moving world. The resurrected Christ moves unhindered towards us through space and time, in absolute love and forgiveness. In our world of motion the resurrected Christ continues to generate signs of his absolute transformation. If you look for them you will find them everywhere.


    Notes
    [1] Anthony W. Bartlett, 'A World in Motion' in Virtually Christian, p.96-97, was the trigger for this sermon, and his book's analysis (outlined in the Introduction, p.1-4) provokes the central thrust of my argument, leading towards the conclusion that 'if you look for signs of the transformation which the resurrected Christ continues to generate in our rapidly-moving world, you will find them everywhere.'
    [2] W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming
    [3] Walter Brueggemann: The Land - Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith
    [4] Mission Shaped Church
    [5] See eg. Acts 9:2; 22:4, 19:9, 19:23, 24:14, 24:22. I am grateful to Mark A. Copeland, executableoutlines.com, for guidance here.
    [6] Dead Man Walking on Wikipedia
    [7] The use of Dead Man Walking as an illustration has its genesis in Paul Neuchterlein's mention of James Alison's 'Dead Man Talking' section of Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 41-44, in Girardian Lectionary, Year A, Easter 3a, though my treatment of it is far less inspiring than his.