I’m trying to imagine what it would have been like, to have been walking along the road with a friend, and to be arguing with your friend about politics, or maybe even religion? Yikes. And, then, to have a stranger saddle up next to you, and to have invited that stranger over for lunch and to have continued debating with them, and, then, to have this stranger stand up, break a loaf of bread, and only then to go, “Now I remember where I know you from!”
I’ve always thought this story from the Gospels—where Jesus appears to his disciples after he’s been resurrected from the dead, and they don’t recognize him at first—I’ve always thought this story is kind of like when you’re watching a movie and you think, “Where do I know that actor from?”
So, you dig out their IMDB page, scroll through their credits, and then it clicks.
“Oh, they were in THAT.”
Jesus’s disciples failing to recognize him until he breaks bread amongst them is kind of like the biblical version of Jesus having to pull up his IMDB page. His disciples sense that they know him from somewhere, but it’s not until he reminds them of what he’s been in (breaking of the bread, feeding the 5000, couple dozen healings) that they remember who he is.
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road . . . ?”
This morning, I want to ask the question: what if we were to celebrate the fact that we tend to recognize Jesus more in image, in sacraments, that is, in outward visible signs of inward spiritual grace, than in carefully crafted arguments and hard-won debates?
Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Religion is caught, not taught.” We say it when trying to make sense of how on earth people come to believe in Christianity in a post-Christendom world. Not everyone on your block today, I would venture to say, goes to the same church as you. Not every one of your neighbours, I would guess, is a Christian, let alone an Anglican! Maybe, even within your household, you’re blessed with interfaith relationships, people of more than one faith make up your home. So, how do people today experience Christianity when it’s no longer “taught”, no longer the dominant religion?
Even for those of us who do have memories of Sunday school and bible camp and regular Christian instruction in our home, even we, perhaps, struggle to remember where everything is in the Bible or what this or that feast day means or what to say when we're suddenly called upon to say Grace. I know I do—and I’m a priest!
How can we who were “taught” Christianity continue to experience the faith or maybe truly experience it for the first time?
One other place where we talk about religion being “caught” rather than “taught” is when we talk about children. Children form most of their beliefs about the world through stories and play; through picture books and dolls, toys and Lego. Kindness, sharing, saying sorry, keeping the peace, dealing with disappointment, all of these are learned by playing house or make-believe or on the soccer field or while reading a bedtime story. Which is to say, so much of early childhood learning is ‘caught’, picked up informally.
Likewise, in church, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been greeting people at the door, and one of you comes up to me and says, “You know, pastor, the sermon was okay, but the children’s talk, that's what really spoke to me today.”
I’ve actually come to love this. This, and the fact that here at St Clement’s, even when there are no kids in church on a Sunday, we still have a children’s talk. Because us adults, we’re kind of like those disciples walking with Jesus on the road: it’s not necessarily in carefully crafted arguments, or in the exposition from the pulpit that we come to recognize God, but when Jesus, in one simple action, breaks a loaf of bread, and we go, “Oh!”
Ethan and Theo will be baptised today. Baptism, a sacrament, baptism an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Ethan and Theo are at the age now where they primarily encounter God in images, symbols, and stories, in tactile wonder and awe. They are at the age where religion is caught.
A couple of weeks ago, Lynley captured a brilliant moment from Easter Day. The children were digging around in the garden for an Easter egg, making a bit of a mess as you would expect. And, Ethan, having watched all of the kids go up before him, finally gets his turn to go. And, when he finds his Easter egg, he opens it, pulls out the message that was hidden inside, sets it down neatly, dusts off his trousers and returns to his seat. Like, “That's how it’s done, folks!”
These days I’m learning that faith isn’t about having it all sorted out up here; faith is about what captures you out there: the symbols and metaphors, the images of the Divine in the world, the holy and sacred stories of the people around you that reflect back to you The Holy and Sacred Story.
Religion that is “caught” rather than “taught” is risky, to be sure. Meeting Jesus in a story or an image rather than an objective set of truths, this, paradoxically, requires a whole heck of a lot more faith. After all, when you break bread, what happens? There are crumbs, and they go everywhere. Kind of like the 3000 people in our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, who get baptised after hearing Peter’s speech, and then go back into their communities. I can just imagine Peter, standing there like a worn-out parent who's just given their child ice cream for dinner, thinking, “Well, there’ll be a bit of a mess and they likely won’t sleep tonight, but at least they’ve been fed.”
Ethan and Theo will be baptised today and then sent home with their families and back into their communities. Parents and godparents, I imagine that raising these kids feels a bit messy sometimes! So, here’s my two cents for what they’re worth: raise them with a faith that’s caught. Mark ahead on your calendar those major days in the church year when you can introduce them to the big images of Christianity: Good Friday, when the image of the cross reminds us that there is injustice in the world and we are called not to look away; Easter, when the image of the empty tomb reminds us that new life follows pain; Christmas, when a tiny baby and a bunch of barn animals remind us that God so loves the world God dared to become human; Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit, like tongues of flame around a campfire, fills the hearts of people everywhere with strength and courage and the will to persevere.
And, for all of us here today, parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, godparents, general members of St Clement’s, all of us who will witness Ethan and Theo’s baptism: may we show as well as teach the kids in our lives the doctrines and tenets of the Christian faith. May we show them visible signs, tell stories, so that, as we say in one of the old prayers of the church, they may “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” Do this and we will do well to raise our children and ourselves to know the God who created us, the Christ who redeems us, and the Holy Spirit who fills us all—now and always. Amen.