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EMMAUS ROAD: BURNING HEARTS (Post-Easter 2021)

When I was the Pastor of the Assemblies of God Church in Newbridge (in the late 1970s) there was an elderly lady, Mrs Pullen, who had been converted during the 1904 Welsh Revival. During open times of prayer and worship in the Sunday Morning Breaking of Bread Service she was the first one up to pray. She sat in the front pew and, even though she was only 5’ nothing, would stand tall, and always begin her prayer the same way: ‘Lord, I thank you that I was born in the fire …’ (and then slowly turning to face the rest of the congregation would carry on) ‘… not in the smoke!’ She clearly thought the rest of us were somewhat lacking in terms of spiritual zeal for the Lord and his work.

For most of us the story of the two on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35) is a favourite account amongst the post-resurrection encounters with the Risen Christ recorded in the Bible. The two forlorn figures, their hopes and dreams shattered, trudging wearily home from Jerusalem to Emmaus, who are joined by a stranger on their journey. A familiar journey for Mr and Mrs Cleopas – a road well-travelled – that becomes for them a journey like no other. A journey of discovery as, slowly but surely, revelation dawns on them as to who this ‘Stranger’ actually is. The empathy with which he listens to their troubles (vs.13-24). The wonderful way in which he opens up the Scriptures for them so that they can understand that what is happening is not contrary to the will of God but right at the heart of it (vs.25-27).  The unintrusive way in which he accepts their invitation to enter their home (vs.28,29). The way in which he makes himself known to them through the breaking of bread (vs.30,31). We could learn a lot from reflecting at length on each of these facets which would help us both in understanding how Jesus can help us personally, and how we can minister effectively to others by following Jesus’ example.

What particularly struck me, however, as I re-read this familiar post-Easter passage (and what I would like us to especially think of now) is Mr and Mrs Cleopas’ particular response as they themselves reflect on this remarkable encounter with the Risen Christ. What was it that predominantly stood out to them? We can picture the scene in our mind’s eye as Luke describes them turning to each other and (in a moment of realisation) saying almost in unison: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us, whilst on the road, he opened up the Scriptures for us?’ (v.32).  It was not the empathy Jesus displayed in listening to their shattered dreams, nor the fact that he accepted their invitation to come and stay with them, nor even the fact that they recognised him in the sacramental act of breaking the bread, that left a lasting impression on them (as important all of these are). It was the personal experience of their hearts bursting into flame in response to Jesus opening up the Scriptures for them! 

In passing, it is important for us to note that it was the exposition of Scripture (more than anything else) that ignited the flame that started to burn in their hearts. For the Apostle Paul, it is the Scriptures that (under God) are our authority in all matters of faith and conduct, belief and behaviour. As he tells his young protégé Timothy: ‘There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another – showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us’ (2 Timothy 3:16,17 The Message). According to what we learn here, it is Scripture that uniquely has the inherent power to ignite zeal for God and his ways, within us – rather than empathic pastoral care, or ‘inviting Jesus into our hearts’, or even (dare I say it) the Sacraments, as important as all these things are – as long as we read Scripture and put its teachings into practice, of course.

But what does it mean to have a burning heart? The Greek word Luke uses here (kaiō) means ‘to set fire to’ and is used here metaphorically of the human heart being set on fire for God. It means more than simply being ‘enlightened’. It means being ‘set ablaze’ with understanding of, and enthusiasm for, God and the things of God. We are reminded of John Wesley’s testimony to his conversion on the 24 May 1738: ‘In the evening I went, very unwillingly, to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’ It was Jim Elliot (a Christian missionary killed by Auca Indians in 1956) who asked himself (and us) the question: ‘Am I ignitable? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of “other things”. Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be a flame.’ Jesus came not simply to save us from the power of satan, sin, and death … but to set our hearts on fire for God. John the Baptist proclaimed that whereas he (John) baptised in water, Jesus came to ‘baptise us with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (Luke 3:16). A W Tozer once said, ‘Some fundamentalists know much about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and too little about the dynamic of the Holy Spirit. Though every believer has the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit does not have every believer. In steering clear of “wildfire” fanaticism many of God’s children have only the “no fire” of formalism.’ John Wesley is reputed to have advised his fellow Methodists to ‘Light yourself on fire with passion, and people will come from miles to watch you burn!’

A Minister was roused from his sleep one night by the police with the news that his church had caught fire. Hurrying to the scene he found the fire brigade quickly bringing the fire under control. Apparently more serious damage had been averted by the prompt and zealous action of a man who lived just across from the church. He had spotted the fire, phoned the police and fire brigade, and also managed to put out a good proportion of the fire by the time the fire brigade arrived. Visiting the man a few days later, to thank him for his invaluable help and assistance, the Minister inquired as to why he had not seen the man in church before since he lived so close. ‘Well.’ the man replied, ‘the church has never been on fire before!’

Take a few moments to prayerfully reflect on what you have just read. Then use the verses of the following hymn (written by General William Booth of the Salvation Army, many years ago) as a prayer. Don’t rush through them … pray through each verse thoughtfully and with meaning.

Thou Christ of burning, cleansing flame,
Send the fire!
Thy blood-bought gift today we claim,
Send the fire!
Look down and see this waiting host,
Give us the promised Holy Ghost,
We want another Pentecost,
Send the fire!

God of Elijah, hear our cry:
Send the fire!
To make us fit to live or die,
Send the fire!
To burn up every trace of sin,
To bring the light and glory in,
The revolution now begin,
Send the fire!

‘Tis fire we want, for fire we plead,
Send the fire!
The fire will meet our every need,
Send the fire!
For strength to ever do the right,
For grace to conquer in the fight,
For power to walk the world in white,
Send the fire!

To make our weak hearts strong and brave,
Send the fire!
To live a dying world to save,
Send the fire!
O see us on thy altar lay
Our lives, our all, this very day,
To crown the offering now we pray,
Send the fire!

~ William Booth (1829-1912)

Jim Binney

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