Burning Hearts

The. Rev. Dr. Matthew Potts
Sermon by Matthew Potts, Associate Professor of Religion and Literature and of Ministry Studies, Harvard Divinity School, Sunday, April 26, 2020. (File photo)



At the church I used to serve, we had an Easter egg hunt for children each year on Easter morning. It was a lovely, if chaotic, affair, with children dressed in soft pinks and yellows and greens, all of them hustling and stumbling over one another to grab at plastic eggs pasteled in the same soft colors as their clothes. Like a lot of families, my wife, kids, and I have been talking about the things we’ve missed during this time of isolation, and a couple days ago the kids mentioned that crazy Easter egg hunt. My wife Colette wondered aloud to them how hunting candy in molded plastic eggs came to be an Easter tradition at church. Millie, our sugar-motivated ten-year-old, speculated that it was probably the best way to get kids to want to go to church, which was not a bad guess. Eight-year-old Sam, less interested in candy than Millie, showed more theological ambition. “Well, since the tomb was empty, maybe it’s like looking for Jesus,” he said. Colette asked him, ‘Did you ever find him in those Easter eggs?’ Sam replied, “Nope.” Then he added with a cheery confidence, “But I found him in my heart.”

“Were our hearts not burning within us?” the two disciples ask one another this morning in our gospel lesson. “Were our hearts not burning within us?” These two disciples, sitting in a village outside Jerusalem, having just walked with Jesus and talked with him, having just broken bread with him and pondered scripture with him, having just recognized him as their beloved friend and teacher, and then having just watched him disappear into thin air right before their eyes, these two disciples turn to each other and exclaim: “Were our hearts not burning within us?”

What should we think of this interesting exclamation? I think we want it to mean – or at least I confess that I want it to mean – that these burning hearts are a warm and comforting thing, like the slow glow of embers in a cozy living room fire. Or maybe we might read them as a spirited and expansive thing, like the leaping, dancing flames of a bonfire. Or better yet both at once, a conflagration both conquering and comforting. It’s tempting to read this story this way – not just this Emmaus story, but this whole Easter story, and the whole Christian story too. Here we are, we modern Christians, two weeks removed from Easter, easily unastonished by the miracle of this triumph. Here we are, we modern Christians, two thousand years removed from that extraordinary morning, with all the span of Christian history and all the knowledge of Christianity’s wildfire growth already in our heads. This is victory, pure and simple, right? Jesus appears on this road, he sits down for a meal, he gives these men communion in fact. And then, hey, presto, the world is saved, our hearts are on fire, now cue the triumph of Christendom. Right?

I don’t think that is quite right, actually, as you might have guessed. This Emmaus story, I think, is altogether more distressing than all that. Consider again this ancient story of an intimate meal in a village outside Jerusalem. In fact, it is only a couple days, not a couple of weeks, certainly not a couple of thousand years, after the crucifixion. Good Friday is a fresh memory. The violence and trauma of that loss are vivid in the minds of these disciples. They have only lately seen their friend and teacher dead, tortured and executed in the most cruel and miserable fashion. What’s more, he was killed for fomenting insurrection. The whole movement is now under threat. Jerusalem is not safe for any friend of Jesus. Even further, his tomb is empty; the body is missing. Some women have said that they had a vision of an angel who told them Jesus is alive, but I don’t get the feeling that these disciples buy it. The scripture says that the women ‘astounded’ them with this news. But the English rendering ‘astounded’ makes it sound like they were startled at some highly unexpected fact. The Greek word here literally means, “set to stand outside yourself.” In other words, these disciples are beside themselves. Their friend has been murdered, his body is missing, probably stolen, their lives are threatened. They are utterly beside themselves: beside themselves with grief, beside themselves with fear, beside themselves with worry. No wonder, when this stranger appears on the road to ask them what they’re talking about, that they are stopped in their tracks for sadness. This isn’t a leisurely walk into the suburbs, pondering the developments of the day. These men are fleeing. They are getting as far away from this mess, as far from all this Jesus business, as they can, and they are not waiting one more moment to do it.

The fear and sadness they must have been feeling on this road from Jerusalem to Emmaus therefore bespeaks the profound courage of their hospitality in inviting this man, a stranger they just met on the road, to supper with them. Indeed, I can only guess that their subsequent vision of Jesus had something to do with this brave willingness to welcome a stranger, to offer food and comfort to a lonely person on the road. Jesus arrives when we welcome the stranger. That seems to me plenty lesson enough for a Sunday sermon and I could fruitfully stop my preaching right now. But however much we marvel at and preach upon this appearance of Jesus, it’s his disappearance that gets me, that’s the thing I can’t stop thinking about.

“Were our hearts not burning within us?” I had a parishioner once at my church whose wife died after living with a difficult cancer for many years. For months after she died this man told me he would still see her sometimes in their bedroom, seated quietly in a corner. He insisted these were not dreams or visions. He was awake and alert and she was vivid and present and there before his very eyes. His heart would swell at the sight of her, but then she’d always vanish before they could speak. And he told me he would look forward to these visions, because he missed his wife so much. But he also dreaded them too, because he could not bear to see her and lose her again and again and again.

These disciples are beside themselves, they are on the run, hounded by grief, fear, worry, and danger. Their hearts are on fire in this lesson, but it may be that the flame which burns them sears as much as it soothes. This restoration, this resurrection, is confirmed by a vision only emphasized in its vanishing. The gain these followers witness is one mmediately accentuated by loss. Which is why what these disciples do next is so startling, so courageous, and so important for us in our own moment, two thousand years later, when so many of us are beset by grief, worry, fear, and danger. Revisited by loss, these disciples rise. They get up and they go, not away, but back to Jerusalem, back into the fray. In the middle of all this, in the midst of a loss which only becomes more confusing and hurtful every moment, they rise. It’s after dark, the road is lonely and the moment is full of risk, but they get up and they turn around and they immediately go to Jerusalem to take up the work of resurrection, to build God’s kingdom. The vision these disciples have seen has so deeply fired their hearts that even in the midst of losing it, even before the bare fact of its disappearance, they cannot but strive to live that vision into permanence. They have seen the Lord, and even having lost that vision, they are not the same. This is the significance of their return to Jerusalem. To be clear: Jesus is just as absent on their return journey as he was in their escape. What’s different is what they have seen. What’s different is what they must do and must become because of what they have seen. What’s different is their hearts burning within them.