the burning within

Luke 24:13-35
April 30, 2017
Isaac Villegas

“Stay with us” (Luke 24:32).

That’s what Cleopas and the other disciple say to the stranger on the road—the stranger who they finally recognize as Jesus when he takes their bread, blesses it, breaks it, and feeds them in what appears to be a kind of Communion meal.

Stay with us. It’s what we all want to hear—that kind of invitation. For someone to like us enough to ask us to stick around, to keep them company. We want to be wanted. To be desired—for someone to acknowledge us, to recognize who we are, to know us and to say, “Stay with us.”

That’s what it means to be church together. We turn to each other—first as strangers, as people who don’t know each other, and we risk an invitation, we risk friendship, the vulnerability of a shared life, as we let our selves be known, as we risk letting ourselves be loved—letting ourselves be loved into this community, loved into communion with God. The church, our church, every church begins with this invitation: “Stay with us.”

And the wonder of the story, of this scene in Emmaus, is that when the disciples invite a stranger into their home, he turns out to be Jesus. There’s a theme in our Scriptures, of strangers turning out to be God—a theme that goes back to Abraham and Sarah, in Genesis, when they invited three travelers to rest in their tent, washing their feet, feeding them bread, and giving them water.

“Rest yourselves,” Abraham tells the strangers, “Let me bring a little bread, that you may be refreshed” (Genesis 18:5). And as they eat and drink, Sarah and Abraham soon discover that they are in the presence of God. The book of Hebrews picks up on this story, and turns it into a command: “Let mutual love continue,” it says in chapter 13. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:1-2).

There’s a theme of humanism in our Scriptures, a devotion to life, drawing together the divine and human, God and our neighbors, making it impossible to separate our worship from our relationships, our prayer life from our lives in public, our spirituality from our ethics.

“Is not this the fast that I choose,” God says in the book of Isaiah, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house” (Isaiah 58:6-7). To pray includes our daily concerns for justice. To worship involves everyday commitments to peace for ourselves and for strangers—to worship with our hands, as we rebuild houses, as we feed hungry people, as we open our homes to strangers. “Why do you fast, but you do not see?” God asks us in Isaiah. “Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (v. 3).

You do not see, God says. You do not notice. Our problem has to do with our inability to notice the world around us, our lack of awareness.

To pay attention to a stranger is to learn how to pay attention to God. That’s what happens in the story about Emmaus, when the two disciples welcome someone into their home, a someone who turns out to be their friend who had died, the resurrected Christ.

In Genesis, when Jacob and Esau are reunited, when those estranged brothers reconciled, Jacob turns to Esau and says, “To see you is like seeing the face of God” (33:10). The face of God recognized in someone else—the flash in their eyes, the creases in their cheeks, lines in their forehead, their features marked with God’s countenance. “Let us create humankind in our image,” God says to God in the first chapter of the Bible (Genesis 1:26). You and your neighbor and the stranger—all bearing the likeness of God.

But we, like the disciples in the story, tend to misrecognize God—and not only God, but each other, because the truth revealed in that house in Emmaus is that we easily miss the subtleties of God’s presence, we are unaware of the divine mysteries hidden in the people before us. And when we fail to notice God, we miss out on knowing each other because God is in our lives, in our depths. God: the secret of our being. As it says in Colossians, “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

I wonder if the disciples fail, at first, to notice Jesus because they didn’t pay attention to their our hearts. They can’t see Jesus because they can’t see themselves. They don’t see God in another because they don’t recognize God in themselves. It’s all there in verse 32, after they recognize Jesus and he quickly disappears. With Jesus now gone from their dinner table, one disciple turns to the other and asks, “Were not our hearts burning within us?” (Luke 24:32).

Their hearts were on fire, as they talked with the stranger on the road, before they recognized Jesus, but the disciples ignored the burning. It’s as if their hearts knew the stranger’s secret before the disciples were willing to acknowledge it to themselves, before they were able to admit it. Something in their depths knew the truth, but they weren’t listening.

“Our hearts burning within us.” That’s such an interested way to talk about how they felt. I looked up all the other places in the New Testament where this verb for “burning” appears—and all of them are about fire, all consuming fire, like the sea of fire in the book of Revelation, or the fire that burns away the chaff in one of Jesus’ parables.

There’s a dangerous uncontrollability to these images. And I wonder if that’s why the disciples tried to smother the burning in their hearts before it became out of control—to put out the embers before the fire spread from their hearts to their whole being, their whole lives.

Because they believed in this Jesus once before, and his death crushed their souls. They couldn’t risk belief again—not after all that pain, not after all that sorrow, the overwhelming desolation. They couldn’t risk another confession, there on the road—their hearts’ confession about this man, this Jesus, the one who promised a new world only to be killed, their hopes crucified with him on the cross.

“Were not our hearts burning within us?”

Fire is dangerous because we don’t know what will be left of us if we are so consumed. There’s a risk here, a risk in paying attention to how God might be stirring in our lives, a risk in noticing how our hearts burn when hear that God is near, that God is on her way. In Romans the apostle Paul calls it the groaning of the spirit, a crackling perhaps.

None of us want to groan. None of us want to burn, to long for another world, for redemption, for love to wash over us, because we’re convinced that we can’t bear this life if nothing changes. We can’t bear our life if all we know is the burning. We can’t endure a life where hope is forever postponed.

Yet the promise of this Emmaus story, the promise of the gospel, the promise of resurrection is that in the burning, there is God—our hearts bearing witness to God’s presence in and around us, God’s love ready to burst into flames.

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