Rev Dr Stephen Robinson is the National Disaster Recovery Officer of the Uniting Church in Australia. He is currently in Fiji assisting the Methodist Church in Fiji to train their ministers and others to further train those in most heavily hit areas following Tropical Cyclone Winston. He reflects on the relevance of the Easter message in modern times.
As a Uniting Church minister in a parish, Easter was always the season that affected and absorbed me like no other. The danger with hearing any story more than once (let alone many times) is that is we can become complacent to its power, so each year I would try to read the gospels accounts of the passion and resurrection of Christ as if for the first time.
The scriptural accounts of the foretelling, betrayal, denial, trial, passion and resurrection of Jesus connect with a great swathe of emotions and human experience. These accounts resonate with so much of our life. Read anew we can empathise with the disciples’ experience of concern, fear, disappointment, guilt, anger, sadness, grief and hopelessness – even before we join them in their confusion, wonder and joy at the news of the resurrection.
Easter is more than just a good story. It is the point at which God, in Christ, enters every part of our experience, even our despair (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”) and our death.
It’s been more than two years since I conducted Easter worship in a parish setting. For the past two and a half years I have been ministering full-time in the area of disaster recovery as the National Disaster Recovery Officer with the Uniting Church Assembly. This followed 15 years of ministering part time in emergency and disaster recovery chaplaincy. In my current role I have worked all over Australia, and increasingly in the Pacific, amongst people who have experienced loss through disaster, by fire, flood, windstorm, cyclone, accident and terrorism.
As I read the gospel accounts of Easter now, it is increasingly through the eyes of someone who shares time with people beyond the gathered congregation during ‘Easter moments’ of their lives. These are times where loss is deeply real, death is near or seemingly overwhelming and the world as they have known it is shaken, if not destroyed. This has, if anything, enhanced my understanding of the reality of loss, the value of hope, and the power of the resurrection.
The Road to Emmaus
My favourite Easter story of the gospels is that of Jesus with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, told in Luke chapter 24 (verses 13 to 34). It reminds me that the initial reaction to the good news of Jesus’ resurrection was not joy, but fear and confusion. The disciples were not in a place to readily accept the hope of the resurrection; they first had to comprehend, if not understand, the costly death of their beloved teacher and friend.
Cleopas and his companion are walking home after a disastrous weekend. Their worldview has been shattered by the devastating events of Good Friday. The one on whom they had placed all their hopes (vs 21) has been tortured to death.
As they walk, they are talking through every detail of their experience. What they saw, what they heard, in what order it took place, how they felt. They are doing what most of us do when we suffer a life-shattering shock – trying to talk it out and make sense of it all.
It’s at this point that Jesus comes beside them, yet they “were kept from recognising him”. (v. 16)
The essence of chaplaincy is often described as a “ministry of presence”. The very best chaplains I have seen are those who are able to simply come beside people as they move from a place of devastation and loss.
The first and most important gift of this ministry is that, like Jesus himself, we meet people where they are hurting. On the street, as they leave something awful, or as they gather with loved ones to make sense of it all.
On the road to Emmaus Jesus understands that, although he had just died and lived the Easter event, the disciples needed to have understanding from their point of view. Rather than jumping in with incomprehensible news, he asks them what is going on. “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” (vs 17). He sees the need for them to catch up. We don’t leap into resurrection without processing the reality of death. And with this asking comes wonderful regard. I love that, time and time again, Jesus asks the people he cares for what they think, and what they want. Even with his supernatural knowledge of their circumstances, Jesus asked the question and respected and dignified their response by listening as they named the thing they felt they most needed.
Along with the ministry of presence, comes the ministry of silence. Being absolutely attentive to the ‘story’ of the person at a point of need. Even if we judge their story is not entirely accurate or fair – it is their story and listening brings with it a regard for a person’s loss and circumstances. For us, who come from a protestant tradition with a high regard for the word (and a tendency to want to bring answers!) this is not easy. The value of first listening to the one feeling the loss is incalculable.
Picking up the pieces
Major Don Woodland is a well-respected (now retired) Salvation Army chaplain, and no stranger to disaster. He uses the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle to describe a person’s life. As we grow, pieces are added over time to build up a picture of reality, memory and meaning. When a traumatic event happens – that jigsaw picture is shattered, the pieces are scattered, disordered and some lost. The role of the chaplain in these circumstances is to come alongside and to help pick up the pieces. The person’s life will not look the same again – as some pieces may never be found and there will be gaps (such as having lost a loved one) others may take some time to find and replace; but, as life goes on, the picture will be added to – building again from the edges.
This is what Jesus is doing as they walk and talk together. He is giving them time, speaking into their lives with fresh vision, and helping them to reframe the context of this weekend as, piece by piece, he helps bring the bigger picture together to give it new meaning.
Joining them on the way, listening to their concerns, and helping them pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, Jesus arrives (still unrecognised) at his followers’ home in Emmaus. Not forcing himself upon their hospitality, Jesus graciously accepts their invitation to stay and joins them for a meal. He is given the honour of offering the blessing for the meal and, as he breaks bread with them, something powerful happens. Perhaps it was the memory of words spoken and bread broken at a previous table, but maybe something more.
There is something wonderful about breaking bread with people at a time of crisis. Our chaplains make a point of being at the tables in evacuation centres at breakfast, lunch and dinner times. The act of sharing a meal transcends a professional/client relationship to something that is more akin to family or friends. After floods, chaplains go out on the streets, joining people experiencing the grief of returning to their water-ruined, mud-filled homes. Later, in the evacuation centre they eat with these people as they share their loss and began to make decisions regarding the long and difficult journey to recovery.
The Easter Event
As a Christian and a chaplain, I am absolutely reliant on Easter – for only in what Jesus did can I find God joining me completely, and overcoming all that can come against me. Christ’s actions in Easter give us blessing, forgiveness, healing, assurance, salvation, and eternal life.
In disaster recovery chaplaincy we share life with people who will say they have “lost everything”. Life as they know it has been shattered, and all they have depended on appears to be gone – houses, possessions, even loved ones. The present is unimaginable; can there possibly be hope in the future? Our very presence and ministry brings a quiet assurance that there is more than this. This is not the end.
One of the great mysteries of the Emmaus account is the nature of the risen Christ. His resurrection body is physical enough to walk, talk and eat; yet he can disappear from sight and reappear through locked doors kilometres away. He is alongside in life, yet now beyond death and our earthly limitations. He offers comfort in his physical connection, hope in his transcendence.
The role of chaplaincy offers both these things – connection and hope. We lend our ears and our hands to support a real and present need, but we also bring something beyond this (now here’s a mystery!). To walk onto a fire-ground and hear the words “Thank God, the chaplain’s here”, is a reminder that, through and beyond us, the risen Christ continues to walk alongside suffering people. Even as we are sustained by the sure and certain hope of the risen Christ, we allow other people to lean upon us, and bring God’s assurance that this is not the end. A new day will come.