A Beautiful Story That Lives in Our Hearts
Every detail of this beautiful story lives in the imagination of Christendom. Never a week passes but some earnest heart is travelling with the two down to Emmaus. We see them joined by the stranger on their journey, and then the talk turns on all that has been happening. We see the three entering the house, and sitting down to supper, where the bread is broken. Then the eyes of the two disciples are opened; they recognize that their fellow wayfarer is Christ, and in the very moment of that recognition they glance again and He is gone. Like the followers of Cortez of whom Keats sings, they look at each other with a wild surmise; and in that moment of tumultuous excitement they speak out frankly, as in such hours men often do. “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?”
One Distinctive Mark of Christianity Has Been, This Burning of the Heart
Someone—I think it was Matthew Arnold—defined religion as morality touched with emotion. In all the fulness which such words are capable of bearing, that is conspicuously true of Christianity. We know how the Gospel has renovated morals, yet the Gospel is far more than any moral philosophy. We know how the Gospel has quickened and expanded intellect, yet the Gospel is not primarily intellectual. Its deepest appeal is not to the intelligence: its deepest appeal is always to the heart. I have seen a fountain with one great central basin, and round about it a dozen little basins—and of course it is always possible to fetch water, and to fill these lesser basins separately. But the fountain was not intended to be filled so. That was not the idea in the mind of the designer. He meant the water in the central basin to rise, and well up to the brim and lap and overflow, and in that superabundance from the center every vessel and receptacle in the structure would be filled. It is thus that the Gospel deals with human life. It does not begin with the brightening of the intellect; it begins with the burning of the heart. It touches what is deepest and truest in us by the power of a love passing the love of women; and all its influences in the world of conduct, and all its expansive action on the brain, and all the recreation of the nations, with the new ideals and aspirations of the ages, are the result of that burning of the heart.
We see this distinctive feature of the Gospel very clearly in its earliest days. What most impresses us in the Acts is not the heroism nor the resource of the first preachers. It is the extraordinary way in which the Gospel reached to the very center of men’s lives, and filled them, sometimes in an instant, with a glowing ardor that was rich in promise. In the dead of winter, when the frost is keen, you know how sometimes our windows get frosted over. The glass is dimmed like the fine gold of which the prophet speaks, and ceases to be transparent through its frosted veil. We cannot see the figures in the streets, nor the trees in their beauty of ten thousand diamonds, nor the infinite depths of the cloudless winter sky—they are all hidden from us by that icy covering. Now, it is possible for a child to take his knife, and doggedly and steadily to scrape the frost away; but there is a simpler and surer and quicker way than that. Kindle the fire; set wood and coals a-burning; heighten the temperature of the room within the window, and in an hour the warmth will achieve for you what a whole day’s rasping never would accomplish. It was the dead of winter when the Gospel came, and men were trying to scrape away the frost. Every honest effort that was being made to lead mankind to better and nobler things was like the child with his knife upon the pane. Then Christ, through His love and sacrifice, kindled the fire—heightened the temperature of the secret and mystical chamber—and the frost melted with incredible speed, and men recognized their brother in the streets, and nature was clothed in unexpected glory, and in the depths of heaven there was home. All that forces itself on us in the Book of Acts. That book is like the most valiant human lives: there is no glitter in it, but abundant glow. From the day of Pentecost with its tongues of fire, we hear as it were the echo of our text, “Did not our heart burn within us?”
It has been noted by Professor Lecky in his work on the “History of European Morals,” that one great change has come over the moral temper of Europe. That change may be summed up in a word by saying that the emotions and the affections—in a word the heart—have won a recognition for themselves in modern life, which they never gained in the life of the old world. We all have some idea of what a stoic was: we know how zealously he repressed all emotion; and though perhaps we are apt to overdraw the picture (for the human heart is always too big and strong to be effectively fettered by any iron creed), yet the fact remains that in the old pagan world the burning of the heart was not distinctive. It was not the virtues of the heart that were applauded; it was the virtues of the judgment and the will. Today as the very crown of all the virtues there stands love; but in the old world love was not a grace—it was an appetite. Today to be tender-hearted is a noble thing; but then to be tender was to be reckoned weak. Today it is a mark of the highest manhood to be pitiful; but in the eyes of the stoic, pity was a vice. Compare the cold severity of Grecian statuary with the warmth and tenderness of Raphael’s Madonna; contrast the lot of woman in antiquity with the honor and glory of womanhood today, and you will feel that some power has been at work shifting the accent of the moral life. Somehow into the life of Europe there has come a recognition of the heart. Pity and tenderness and love and charity have won a hearing for themselves at last. The heart has been touched and has begun to burn; and it is the Gospel of Christ Jesus that has done it.
I think, too, that in this burning of the heart lies the great secret of Christian progress. A Gospel that carries this power in its message has little need of any other aid. Mohammed conquered, but Mohammed used the sword, and without the sword he would have made little progress. And Buddha conquered—he won thousands of followers—but the message of Buddha never kindled anybody. It lulled men to rest with dreams of infinite quietude, and with the hopes of Nirvana where they should cease to feel. But there is something more inspiring than quietude—it is ardor, enthusiasm, animated feeling; and there is a better secret than a brandished sword: it is the secret of a burning heart. And I humbly submit that if our Lord is conquering, and if His Gospel is going to be a universal Gospel, it is because He has touched that spring in human life. When a man is faced by any great endeavor, it is not more light he wants, it is more heat. Kindle his heart by any ruling passion—love, anger, indignation, pity—and he will fling himself on any obstacle. The only statesmen who ever move a country are the statesmen who can set the people’s heart a-burning—and that is true of the Savior and the world. He meets men as they travel by life’s ways and for every battle you will have new equipment, and for every temptation the necessary strength, and nothing will be too hard for you to try, and nothing will be too sore for you to bear, if you can but say like these two going to Emmaus, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us?”
The Gospel Ever Makes the Heart Burn as Christ Did Here
There are two things only which I ask you to observe. First, we should carefully mark that the hearts of these two men began to burn, not so much by learning what was new, as by a new interpretation of the old. These travelers were no strangers to the Scripture. They were Jews, and had read deeply in every book of it. When they were little children in their village homes, they had clambered round their father’s knee on Sabbaths, and had listened to the stories of Moses and David and Daniel with the eagerness that our own young folk display. They had studied Jeremiah more intently than any of us, and they had heard it expounded in the synagogue. The Scripture was a familiar book to them. And what did our Lord do when He met with them? He took the book they had studied all their lives. He turned to the pages that they knew so well. He led them down by the old familiar texts. And in the old He showed such a depth of meaning, and in the familiar such a wealth of love, and He so irradiated the prophetic mystery and so illumined its darkness with His light, that not by what was absolutely new, but by the new interpretation of the old, their hearts began to burn within them by the way.
Does not our Savior always act like that when He begins to make our heart burn? He does not startle us with unexpected novelties; He touches with glory what is quite familiar. It is the familiar experiences that He explains. It is the familiar cravings that He satisfies. It is the familiar thoughts which have filled the mind since childhood that he expands into undreamed of fulness. We have known what sin was since we were at school. Christ meets us and talks about our sin—and we learn that sin is more exceedingly sinful than we had ever thought. In our most reproachful moments. We learn, too, that He died that we might be forgiven, and that there is pardon for our worst, this very hour. We have known what pain was and we have known what death was, and we have known that there was a heaven and a God; but when Christ meets us as we travel by the way and talks to us of these familiar things, there is such promise and light and love about them all, that everything becomes new. That is the first secret of the burning heart—nothing new or startling or revolutionary but the life we are living, and the sin we are sinning, and the death we shall die, and the God we shall all meet, set in the light of a love that is unfathomable, and interpreted through the consciousness of Jesus.
The Christ behind the Word
But after all, what set their heart a-burning was not the mere word of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was the Christ who was behind the word. It was their immediate contact with that personality, and the mysterious outflow of His life upon them, which stirred them, as only personality can do, and moved their nature to its very depths. I remember two experiences that illustrate this, the one from literature and the other from history. When the essayist Hazlitt was a young man at home, his mind was dull and his faculties unawakened. But in one of those charming essays that he calls “Wintersloe,” he narrates how the poet Coleridge came to see his father, and young Hazlitt walked several miles home with him. Hazlitt tells in his own eager and eloquent way, all that the walk with Coleridge meant for him. It quickened his intellect, gave him a new world, put a new radiance into the sunset for him, and a new note into the song of every bird. His heart began to burn, and it was not the talk that did it; it was the poet who was behind the talk. The other instance is from the life of Napoleon. You will find it in Lord Rosebery’s book The Last Phase. Napoleon was beaten, his great career was ended; he was a prisoner on St. Helena. Yet “everyone,” said the French commissioner Montchenu, “everyone who has an audience of Napoleon leaves him in a state of most intense enthusiasm.” Their hearts began to burn, and it was not the talk that did it—it was the titanic man behind the talk. Dimly, then, and very imperfectly, such instances help us to understand our passage. It was immediate contact with a living Person—true poet, yet captain of the armies of the universe; it was immediate contact with the Lord Jesus Christ that made their hearts burn as they journeyed to Emmaus.
Need I tell you that it has been the same in all the ages? The ardor of Christendom, its life and its enthusiasm, its countless efforts, its unwearied service—all that is rooted, not in any creed, but in the immediate presence of a living Christ. Why are men toiling in our slums tonight? Why are our sisters preaching in the heart of India, and living and suffering in central Africa? Why are men resolutely spurning what is base, and clinging to all that is pure and all that is noble? Ask them and they will say, “Christ died for me.” There is no motive like it in the world. I beseech you to realize the love of Christ. That is the secret of the burning heart, and with the burning heart one can do anything.