Friday 1 October 2021

Education for Burning Hearts

They said to each other, “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

I have long been fascinated by the story of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus. The story is utterly mysterious. The travellers do not recognize Jesus at first, but they are rapt as he opens the scriptures to them. They recognize the power of his words, without recognizing Jesus himself. Then, after they convince their fellow traveller to break bread with them, they suddenly recognize Jesus, and in that very moment he vanishes.

After their moment of recognition and Jesus’s simultaneous disappearance, the two travellers turn to each other and immediately understand why their hearts burned within them when the would-be stranger was speaking to them. A heart on fire—what a powerful image! It evokes the deep passion, yearning, and desire they already possessed for precisely the good news that Jesus had opened to them. When the two travellers finally turn to each other after Jesus disappears, they seem to conclude that their hearts had in fact recognized Jesus, even when their eyes did not. And now they find themselves alone once more, but transformed, hearts afire.

In my seminars at ICS, I ask students to perform a presentation exercise I call ‘The Burning Question’. I came up with the idea for this exercise because I wanted to steer students away from simply summarizing the reading, and instead to focus on the intellectual, existential, and spiritual issues the reading raises for them personally. Where in this reading does a volatile combination of passion and intellect erupt for you? Focus on that part of the text and unpack it for the rest of the class and attempt to explain why it arouses your perplexity and desire to understand. In this way, I hope to create a safe space for students to bring their spiritual passion into the classroom, and maybe even give them the chance to leave a sacred discussion with their peers in possession of the same burning heart that the travellers to Emmaus once possessed.

I have entertained the idea that Jesus disappears precisely at the moment when the travellers recognize him because that is the exact moment when his gospel of healing and transformation penetrates to the very core of their being, and they no longer need him to be physically present. For when we are in the grip of this passion, are we ever truly alone? In that moment, Jesus vanishes into, and indeed becomes, the fire in our hearts, and the grace of his passion may now fuel our efforts to join with the rest of our Messiah’s disciples in seeking God’s kingdom of shalom.

In the first letter of John, we are taught a similar lesson about God’s presence in absence: “No one has ever seen God,” we are there told, yet “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). In love, God is with us even though we never see God—sort of like Jesus after he vanishes.

You, friends of ICS, make possible a school whose teaching is geared to fanning these same embers of divine love smoldering in all of us, to setting hearts aflame with our Messiah’s passion. It’s a risky, incendiary project—we’re not supposed to play with fire, after all—but it is an absolutely vital one.

Shalom, my friends,

Ron Kuipers