Sermon by Fr James Heard, United Benefice of Holland Park, Sunday 30th April 2017, Easter 3

Sermon by Fr James Heard, United Benefice of Holland Park, Sunday 30th April 2017, Easter 3

The neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a book in 2010 called, The Mind's Eye. In it he explores how the plasticity of the human brain compensates for different types of blindness. He identifies different kinds of blindness. This can be
·      from birth defect
·      accident
·      injury
·      disease
He gives some fascinating examples. In one of them, a person can recognise the tiniest letters on an eye doctor’s chart, but couldn't read words or music, even though she was a famous pianist. Other examples include those who can't recognize common objects like their own car. Oliver Sacks himself had an inability to recognize faces.
In our Easter season of stories, we hear about two of Jesus’ disciples walking despondent on the road to Emmaus. Two disciples who were suffering from a sort of spiritual of faith blindness. They talked about Jesus, recalling who he was and what he had done the preceding three years. They even talked to Jesus, who walked with them for seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. But they couldn’t recognise him (Luke 24:16, NASB).
The story describes how they reach Emmaus and Jesus looks as if he’s travelling on beyond the village. The disciples are unwilling to see this stranger go off into the dangerous night and press him to stay with them. And then there’s the famous revelation where their eyes were opened and they see clearly – it’s the subject of a thousand paintings, of sculptures and stained glass windows and the beautiful depiction of Caravaggio at National Gallery and in today’s Service Sheet.
We looked at this image during our course last year, Exploring Faith through the Arts. Caravaggio is famous for his use of light.  His painting is baroque theatre and this new style was considered shocking at the time.
He shows extremes of light and shadow without much in between, which heightens the dramatic and emotional effect of his paintings.  Here the evening light is coming in from somewhere high up and off to the left, highlighting all the lighter colours – the white table cloth, white and light brown items of clothing, the faces and hands of the people.  There are four figures in the scene – two disciples and Jesus, plus a servant waiting at the table.  Jesus appears to be leaning forward out of its gloom and into the light, and his face is emphasised. 
There is something unusual about Jesus’ appearance. He’s shown clean shaven, which is highly unusual. And he has a round, soft, almost girlish face. 
Caravaggio attempts to draw us in to this dramatic scene. It captures the Gestalt “Ah ha!” moment, the shock realisation of who is present. As the stranger in their midst blesses and breaks the bread, the moment occurs. The stolid inn-keeper doesn’t get it, but the pilgrims do. The disciple on the left is moving backwards with his chair, creating a sense that this front side of the table is being opened, exposing us as viewers to the person of Jesus.  At the same time the disciple on the right is flinging his arms wide open. The trick of perspective makes it look as though his left hand is coming straight at us, out of the canvas, as if to pull us in, whilst his right hand is almost touching Jesus’ shoulder.  It’s as though that disciple on the right is a tangible link between us and Jesus.
The bowl on the edge of the table about to fall off. It’s a very odd thing to see in a still life painting. But he’s doing it for effect. Just as the disciples are involuntarily exploding out of the picture towards us, so we are involuntarily drawn in to prevent a domestic accident.  Caravaggio is determined that we don’t remain spectators, distant in space and time. He’s going to drag us into the action and make us personally present at this supper. 
At the same moment, Christ raises his hand towards us.  A gesture of blessing over the food, yes; but also a gesture of invitation and welcome, extended towards us, drawing us forward to sit with him at table and eat. 
One’s reminded of that wonderful George Herbert’s poem, ‘Love,’ in which the person of Love invites the reluctant sinner to join his banquet: 
    ‘You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:  So I did sit and eat.’
Meanwhile, the servant just doesn’t get it. And here we return to the theme of perception, of having eyes to see and a heart that’s open. Like many people today, the servant is going about his everyday business, laying food on the table, but largely unaware and perhaps indifferent to God’s presence in his midst, witnessing God’s extraordinary generosity, but failing to recognise it for what it is, even when it’s right in front of them.
The story is a disturbing reminder of how we can be oblivious to God’s presence even when he's right beside us. I wonder what your, my, blind spots might be – and whether we dare allow our eyes to begin a new way of seeing.
One of the things I’ve learnt from my yearly retreat to St Beuno’s is an important Ignatian spiritual practice. We are encouraged to spend 45-60 minutes reading such stories and to imaginatively place oneself within it, asking what God might be saying to us.
So, perhaps its worth reflecting today where you fit into this picture.  Whether you are like these two disciples, needing to recognise Jesus afresh in the blessing and breaking of bread.  Perhaps you are the unseen viewer whom Jesus himself, is inviting to pull up a chair and join the company at the open side of the table, to sit and eat at Love’s banquet.  Perhaps you are like the servant, and somehow God has just escaped you and you’ve never really understood what all the fuss was about.  Jesus’ blessing includes you… you also are invited. Here we see all the life of the Church, of whatever variety, gathered around our Lord, being blessed by him, being invited and welcomed to his table.
The invitation is to have eyes to see, the invitation to have our eyes opened, and our hearts warmed that we may recognise his presence, and respond with joy. To finish, the poem ‘Love’ by George Herbert.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                           Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Jonathan Baker, Canon Missioner, Peterborough Cathedral