May 2015: Burning hearts

In Luke 24, after Jesus’ crucifixion, two disciples meet a stranger on the road to Emmaus, who explains the Scriptures concerning what has happened to the grieving disciples. He goes on to be recognised as the risen Jesus when he breaks the bread at their meal - and then he disappears. The disciples reflect on this — “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32, NRSV) — and then they head off back to Jerusalem to tell the others what has happened.

So often these days, we get caught up in our heads. The classic arguments about creation and evolution, about understanding resurrection and what Jesus actually did, about the nature of God and about all the vividly-described future events in Revelation, are all head stuff. When we argue about these things, we are like the disciples on the road before they met Jesus, trying to work it all out rationally. Was Jesus really the promised Messiah? Why didn’t he throw the Romans out then, and set the people free?

The stranger showed them a different, wider view of what was going on - and then in the moment of recognition, disappeared! To try to understand this rationally — “How can a man disappear, that’s impossible!” or “They were hallucinating!” — is to apply modern, scientific-style analysis to an account that was never meant to be taken that way. It would be like dismissing Shakespeare’s writing because it didn’t fit modern style guides. The disciples’ hearts cannot literally burn within them, unless they were both undergoing spontaneous human combustion — but they made it back to Jerusalem alive, so that’s not it. No, this story is in Luke’s Gospel because the experience described is one that changed their lives, in a way that is familiar to many followers of Jesus today: something happens in which Jesus is fleetingly revealed, our life is changed so as to set us free in some way, and then we carry on in the same world but with a shifted perspective. Rational explanation fades as love sets fire to possibility and hope. The burning bush Moses encountered, which was not consumed by the fire, figuratively becomes a burning heart, still beating. The sceptic becomes the devoted follower, like Paul after his encounter on another road, to Damascus. Jesus seems to make a habit of waylaying people and changing them!

Faith certainly needs understanding, and there is nothing wrong with a rational explanation for it; but it seems to me that we understand the ways cars work, and nuclear fission, and electricity too, but these things don’t actually set us free from the pressures that limit us - keeping up appearances, wearing the latest fashions, our self-doubt, our habit of comparing ourselves with others, the way the latest thrill fades. Life isn’t what the TV ads make it out to be, even when we buy whatever it is they want us to buy. It’s missing something — a heart that burns, the deep *knowing* that defies rational thought, a way of living generously based on abundance instead of scarcity. It is the heart that signifies our inner motivation, and our own love for others. May our hearts burn too as we encounter a Presence that defies logic! — Steve

Parkdale Church of Christ 2012-18 —A community of faith, hope and compassion.