Easter 3 2008

I'm having a particularly enjoyable bedtime read at the moment. It takes the form of a book all about the end of the world and the disasters set to befall the human race, and every page is a new wonder. Not, of course, because the scenarios are pleasant or amusing, but because of the astonishingly blinkered outlook of the people obsesed by it, an outlook which can view with equanimity the appalling calamities of the endtimes because they themselves will not be involved in it, viewing it all (as they believe) from the detached ringside seat of Heaven.
I can't help but be reminded of that when I hear the apostolic preaching of the Acts reading today. "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation," sounds uncomfortably like an appeal to naked self-interest, inviting the listeners to flee from their neighbour and save themselves. It reminds me of when a preacher was challenged that he was appealing to people's selfishness by his message, and of his uncomprehending response, "Well, doesn't everyone want to be saved?" There is, of course, plenty of Scriptural precedent for this ‘save yourselves' message, starting with the Noah story, but it still causes many of us a bit of concern.
For many Christians, the neat division of the world into saved and unsaved is profoundly uncomfortable. So long as we can persuade ourselves that it's all about faith and not in the least bit about works, we might just about get away with it - but even then we find ourselves asking, "Why do some people find it easy to have faith and others not?" And are we comfortable with the thought that the most badly-behaved believer somehow has a place in heaven, but Mahatma Ghandi has not?
It's notable, then, that our Acts reading this morning is paired by the well-trodden Emmaus Road one. I seem to preach about thirty-seven times each year on the Emmaus Road (which is good going since it only crops up a couple of times), but only noticed this time how the two can be connected.
It is easy to look at characters in the NT and see them already with haloes attached, so we miss the real picture. The two on the Emmaus Road are defeated and have given up. Going away from Jerusalem isn't just a physical statement, it's a metaphor, about going away from the place where God is. They are trudging back to pick up their lives where they left off before the Jesus experience.
What turns them round is not any act of holiness of their own, but rather an experience of God, unlooked for and unsuspected. Quite the opposite from responding to the cry ‘Save yourselves', whatever saving is going on comes direct from God, who intercepts the travellers on the road and changes their journey plan for ever.
So what we have in these readings is a twofold story of conversion. One is the act of will: if you like, the way of the head, a cost-benefit analysis of ‘what's in it for me' at the crudest level, or at another level the weighing-up of the merits and demerits of the argument. The other is an unexpected encounter where change isn't some long-considered and interesting question, but sudden and immediate and total. And both are valid ways to God.
Neither can stop there. Whether we suddenly opt for God with a cry of ‘I believe', or whether we say, ‘Did our hearts not burn within us?' either way there's a pay off. The ‘head' convert submits to baptism and the pilgrim journey, during which she or he will discover it's not all about hanging around for the Rapture. And the encounter convert has to turn their steps around and take that encounter back to others, back to Jerusalem. Both are a far cry from the introspective, self serving, ‘I'm going to heaven' of my bedtime story book.
The other thing to note is this: those moments of conversion are not once and for all. They will recur and repeat, as occasions for the deepening of faith or unexpected encounters present themselves - and the head type may be laid low by an encounter, and the encounter type may be confronted by some new truth. Perhaps of all the things on our pilgrim journey, this is one of the most important to bear in mind - that it is a journey, of discovery of new truth, new depth, new insight, new meetings, and that the journey ends in the New Jerusalem - where, I confidently believe, there will be more people to welcome us home than those longing for ringside seats at the End of All Things can imagine. I hope they won't be too disappointed.

Rev. David Rowett (web page by Adrian Worsfold)