Predictably, immigration has turned out to be one of the major sub-themes of the General Election debate, and I wouldn’t mind betting that today’s gospel, Luke 24.13–35, is being quoted by many in support of the notion of welcoming the stranger in our midst.
The Emmaus story is challenging on many levels. We are all familiar with ‘Emmaus moments’ when the veil over the ordinary is lifted and we see, as for the first time, the true meaning of something. Broken bread and a shared cup become the Body and Blood of Christ and we understand, as never before, what that means. Someone speaks, and the words touch the very depths of our being. We long for Jesus to explain the scriptures to us, and then realise that he does so every time we open them or hear them read. He accompanies us every step of the way, no matter how long or lonely our way may seem. The stranger, the alien, is God in disguise.
Here this morning is an illustration of the Emmaus story that presents another kind of challenge. We are used to hearing about the prejudices of our ancestors, their anti-semitism and their hatred of those who were different. Our rediscovery of the Jewishness of Jesus is often regarded as a modern phenomenon, but I have a small collection of medieval images that make me question that. Here are Jesus and the two disciples breaking bread at Emmaus, and all of them are wearing the characteristic Judenhut or Jewish hat of the time. It is all the more remarkable because the illustration is thought to come from Norfolk, perhaps even Norwich, and is dated about 1190.
Why is that remarkable? A mere forty years or so earlier the spurious story of William of Norwich had stirred up virulent anti-semitism. A hundred years later such anti-semtism was a major factor in the expulsion of Jews from England. But here, in 1190, we find an illuminator who has no hesitation in portraying Jesus as a Jew among Jews. It is worth thinking about that.
We are often quick to make assumptions; quick to condemn. Just as the Emmaus gospel encourages us to welcome the stranger in our midst, so its portrayal through the ages encourages us to examine more critically the attitudes we have inherited from the past. Immigration is something we must all think about and find a just and fair response to. Our starting-point might usefully be that of Cleopas: open about our hopes and fears, and ready to be convinced.