Last week I wrote about seeing God in the small things and the small blessings in our daily lives – those little things that are making the present challenge bearable. It seems there is a strange paradox going on at present. This morning, I saw a headline in the daily CofE media digest that took me to the Mirror – where it announced that only 9% of people want things to go back to precisely the same normal that we took for granted only a few short weeks ago. So many of us are appreciating our friends and families more, enjoying our homes, valuing our food, just to name a few things. We are reading more, communicating better with each other (ironically!), and making far more effort to be in community and to value one another.
And all this is happening whilst we are forced to be apart and at a distance. It is indeed a strange paradox. But paradox is often at the heart of the Christian faith. The teaching of Jesus show us a vision of a better world and how to live that and create it in our own lives and communities; and as Christians we believe in that hope and try to live it out in practice. But for all our attempts, this better world is very clearly both here and not here at the same time – we have only to look at the news to see the pain and suffering throughout the world, as well as seeing the blessings and miracles that do occur.
On Easter day, in my sermon I spoke about not always recognising the presence of God, despite God being very much with us. One of the examples of this is when Jesus walks with the disciples who are travelling home to the village of Emmaus on the Sunday, after witnessing the tragic events of Good Friday in Jerusalem. This is our gospel reading for this Sunday, and it has always been one of my favourite passages. Jesus’ appearances after the Resurrection seem to very often involve conversation and food with his friends, and for anyone who wishes to put the spiritual above the practical, there is the wonderful story from John’s gospel (chapter 21) where Jesus has the breakfast barbeque waiting for his friends.
God is often not where we expect him to be, nor does he appear in the form that we expect to see him. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t there. It just means that he invites us to see differently. To see with his eyes. To remove the limiting window frame of our expectations and wants, and to go outside and see the whole view. It’s not always comfortable viewing admittedly. God does challenge us to come out of our comfortable habits and ways of being and doing. But if we are willing to take that step, and to recognise his presence with us on the journey, then it seems to me there is also the promise of the practical care that Christ shows in these Resurrection appearances; where time and rest and refreshment together are given to us before we arise and step out on the next part of our journey.
As this lockdown extends, and the return to “normal” recedes further and further away, all the things that have given us strength and hope in the early weeks must be renewed and refreshed to help us continue. The paradox of closer and better community whilst being forced to remain at a distance will continue; and there is a long journey to take to find what will be on the other side of all this.
Much has been written on how to survive the kinds of trauma that suspension of normality brings – often in a war situation. And it is both true and helpful. The cliche of ‘marathon not a sprint’ may be annoying to hear repeatedly, but it’s worth noting. And the first disciples had the same challenge ahead of them.
After Jesus’ death, their normal was shattered. It was shattered again by his resurrection. Everything they thought they knew went out the window, never to return. What on earth was to come next?? Before that ‘next’ could be revealed, they had to come to terms with the ‘now’. And Jesus spent time with them, made them wait and rest, and gave them refreshment – spiritual and literal – before sending them onwards and outwards to share and to build the new vision into reality.
I wonder if there may be some hope in reflecting upon this for ourselves this Easter season. Our normal has been shattered, and the longer that this lasts, the less our chance of returning to what we used to take for granted. As I wrote at the beginning, the vast majority of us already don’t want to return to it. We have already seen glimmers of a better future and possibility. But we need to rest and be in the ‘now’ that is the present moment, before we can hope to move on to the ‘what next’.
Because the ‘what next’ has to be built upon the reality and the needs of the ‘now’. This is as true for the Church as for any other part of our society. What is the Church going to look like in the future? Most of us have had our heads in the sand on this question for at least a couple of decades now. We can’t do the ostrich any longer. But before we start to try to run forwards on a new course (which ostriches do extremely well by the way), we have to take time to look around and see what direction we want to travel in!
Our best direction is surely wherever God is, and wherever he is suggesting we go. Whatever we choose, he’ll go with us; that’s just how God is. But first, let’s take the time to rest and recognise where God is, and which direction he might be ever so gently pointing in…