Sermon for Kohima anniversary service, 4 May 2014: A companion on the way

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Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 4 May 2014: Year A, The Third Sunday of Easter

SERMON
Text: Luke 24:13-35 (read in the KJV)

the quotations are from the NRSV

A companion on the way
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

As I said earlier, it’s a privilege once more to be welcoming members of the Cameron Highlanders Association here to their old regimental church, the Old High Church of Inverness. The congregation of Old High St Stephen’s values the connection we have with you. We are honoured to be custodians of the Cameron Memorial, which we dedicated last year, and to now be taking into our safekeeping further items, including the 1st Battalion colours which the congregation of Glasgow Cathedral have so generously passed into our care.

If you are visiting us today, you join us at a time of year when the Church is still concerning itself with the implications of Easter. The Gospels give various accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, and his appearances to his disciples. One of the most intriguing of these stories is the one we have heard today. It is a strange tale, this story of the walk to Emmaus. But if we listen to this story with imagination, it can perhaps teach us about such things as memories, hope, and the presence of God in difficult times- themes which are very pertinent to today’s service.

Luke the Gospel writer places the story ‘on that same day’- the same day as the tomb of Jesus was found empty, and when some of his friends had begun to report that they had seen him alive. Whatever we may make of the Easter stories, for the Gospel writers, and for the earliest Christians, it was clear that something had happened which had incredible implications. Luke’s Gospel, until the beginning of chapter 24, has dealt with the life- and death- of Jesus of Nazareth. He’s written of his healings and his teachings, his arguments with his enemies, and his impact on the life of those who met him. It seems to end tragically, with his execution on a Roman cross. But with the discovery of the empty tomb, and the first appearances of the resurrected Christ, Luke seems to be telling us how Christ continues to affect people even after his death, how the presence of Christ continues to be felt by his followers.

And so, ‘on that same day’ as the discovery that Jesus’ tomb was empty, Luke introduces us to Cleophas and his friend, walking to a village some distance from Jerusalem. They are, we are told ‘talking about all these things that had happened’. They meet a stranger they do not recognise, who asks them what they are discussing so intently. As they turned to face him, we are told that the two friends ‘stood still, looking sad’.

Happy Easter!, we are used to saying to one another. For we are so used to hearing about Easter, which is so much part of our culture, that we have perhaps lost something of the shocking and disturbing nature of it. Our culture has reduced Easter to a spring celebration, all about the joys of new life- bunnies, chicks, daffodils, and chocolate eggs. But the heart of the Biblical Easter story is rather grim. No wonder Cleophas and his friend are sad, for they have seen Jesus crucified Pathetically, Cleophas tells the stranger that ‘we had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel’. Their fondest hopes have been dashed. And the latest news is something which they cannot yet believe or understand: ‘some women’ have come with tales of visions of angels, and claiming to see him alive- tales which just add to their puzzlement. Cleophas and his friend have had a traumatic experience. It’s not surprising that they are talking it over when we meet them. Nor is it surprising that they look so sad.

Most of us here can hardly imagine the trauma of being caught up in a battle, to witness death and destruction on all sides, not knowing if you will get out alive, losing friends and comrades. The battle for Kohima went on for weeks, and was part of a larger struggle which went on for years. Perhaps it is only afterwards that you get the chance to think through what it all means, what the implications are, for in the heat of battle there is little time to pause or reflect. Today, as we remember, our memories are tinged with the sort of questions which must have gone through the mind of Cleophas and his friend as they thought back on Jesus’ life and his tragic death: What was all that about? Did it achieve anything useful? Can we give this death any meaning?

The story of the women find the grave and having visions does not- yet- comfort them. Very often, in the first period after someone has suffered a loss or gone through a trauma, we are tempted to jump in with explanations, words of comfort, reassurance. The Twentieth Century was the bloodiest in history, leaving millions grieving, injured, homeless, traumatised. We are still, I suspect, as far away as ever from finding any justification for all that violence.

Gordon Graham, in his book The Trees are all Young on Garrison Hill– his personal account of the jungle campaign, notes that the war there was fought by two armies- British and Japanese- neither of whom came from the lands they fought over. ‘We were strangers in strange lands’ he noted (p67). Speaking of the ordinary soldiers on either side at Kohima, he writes,

This head-on battle was clash between two cultures profoundly ignorant of each other… The British represented a nation seeking to restore a fading empire, the Japanese a nation seeking to secure a new one… Japanese conscripts, mainly from rural areas, instilled with a mindless readiness to die, were pitted against British counterparts mainly recruited from towns and cities, who had joined up to defend their home islands against the Germans. (p45)

In the end, neither empire survived. Britain and Japan went on to be prosperous nations whose influence around the globe would be based on trade, not military conquest. It seems to have been a strong sense of duty which kept the Camerons and their comrades going. And afterwards, perhaps those taking part would learn of some wider strategic purpose which had been achieved.

We cannot really survive without hope, without the sense that the sacrifices during our life have some kind of purpose. Even with their sad faces, Cleophas and his friend were perhaps inching towards a kind of hope. The tale of the women sounded like nonsense, and it did not yet give them solid ground for hope. And yet- was it, perhaps a rumour of hope? Maybe, just maybe, Christ is risen. Maybe, just maybe, he has indeed redeemed Israel, in some way that the cannot yet fathom. It takes time for us to work things out after a trauma- some, perhaps, never quite make it.

One way to make sense of things is, of course, to talk about it. That’s what Cleophas is doing on his way to Emmaus- talking it all over with his friend. And when another joins them, even although he is a stranger, Cleophas is happy to share- perhaps, indeed, needs to share his thoughts. The other- this stranger whom Cleophas does not recognise, for it is the risen Christ- puts things into a new perspective: ‘”Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures’.

It often needs someone to help us interpret events. Perhaps many of you find that over the years your fellow-veterans have helped you make sense of your experiences. Sometimes the people who help are family and friends. Sometimes, perhaps, it is someone who begins as a stranger to you- someone you hadn’t met before, but who can help you make sense of life.

For along time, we tended to think of veterans as old men. But now the picture is changing. This country is just coming out of more than ten years of continuous warfare, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, the five deaths in a recent helicopter crash in Afghanistan reminds us that there are still British troops in that dangerous country. Far fewer people were involved in those conflicts than in the great wars of the twentieth century, and the casualties are fewer- but the number are still significant. There were 179 UK service personnel killed in Iraq; and, so far, 453 killed in Afghanistan; and in both cases, many people were also many injured, some left with disabilities for life. And for many there will be mental scars, hidden for now, perhaps, but bringing issues in years to come. Whatever we think of the politics of those conflicts, the fact remains that a high price has been paid both by the inhabitants of those countries, and by servicemen and women. Communities in this country will need to be willing and able both to listen to the stories of ex-servicemen, and to offer practical help. We owe them that. We need to see what we can do to help them make sense of life after these conflicts.

At the end of our story, Cleophas and his friend invite the stranger to join them for the evening meal. The result of their hospitality to the stranger is remarkable: ‘When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight’. Their eyes were opened, and they realised it had been Christ all along.

For people of faith, there is in this story the wonderful thought that, even in the hard times of life, Christ walks alongside us- even if we do not recognise him at first. And so as well as the possibility of conversations with other people, there is also the possibility of prayer- talking to God about what is worrying us, what we cannot work out, what we do not understand. It’s striking how often in the Easter stories in the Gospels, people at first do not recognise Christ. But when they do, it is as if he knew what there questions were all along.

Luke writes of how Christ ‘was made known to them in the breaking of bread’. Just a few days earlier, Christ had shared his ‘Last Supper’ with his disciples- for many of them, the last time they’d seen him he was breaking bread. And now, a few days later, in another room on another evening, he breaks bread and they recognise him. For Christians, of course, there are echoes of the sacrament of Holy Communion, where we are very aware of the presence of Christ in the breaking of the bread. But may not Christ also be present wherever bread is broken- where friends share a meal, talk over events, help each other understand the perplexities of life?

One last point. On the road, Christ had said that the Messiah had to suffer and then enter into glory. That’s a comment about how we are supposed to understand the tragedy and horror of the cross. There is no justification for what happened to Jesus, but to death in that horrible way by evil men. But Easter points to reconciliation- to new possibilities rising out of the horror of the cross. Christians believe that the cross stands at the centre of God’s plan to bring salvation to humanity. St Paul, who thought deeply about the meaning of the cross, wrote, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.9 NRSV alternative reading). God can bring good even out of evil.

It’s been fascinating, as I have prepared for this service, to hear of the work of the Kohima Educational Trust. This was set up by veterans of the British 2nd Division to provide educational opportunities for the Naga people, the inhabitants of the area of north-west India where the Battle of Kohima took places. They acted as guides and stretcher bearers for the British forces. Today the Kohima Educational Trust provides scholarships for children, books for libraries, and much more. Perhaps even more remarkably, Gordon Graham speaks in his book about his involvement with the reconciliation movement he has been part of with Japanese veterans- a controversial and, I’m sure, challenging process. I spoke earlier of hope- are not these signs of hope, building for the future, even as we remember a painful past?

Ascription of Praise
Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who by his great mercy
in raising Jesus Christ from the dead
has given us new birth into a living hope:
the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for us
which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither! Amen!

From 1 Peter 1.3-4

Biblical references from the NRSV
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo

2 thoughts on “Sermon for Kohima anniversary service, 4 May 2014: A companion on the way

  1. Pingback: Proposed Cameron Highlanders Memorial Area | Old High St Stephen's Church

  2. Pingback: Cameron veterans remember those who fell at Kohima | Old High St Stephen's Church

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