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, NRSV
Frankly, it's hard to figure out in middle-class, twentieth-century North America what it means to follow Jesus. It's hard to discern what dying to self looks like in any given instance. Do I pursue a job promotion, or is this "selfish ambition and vain conceit"? Do I take a holiday in the Bahamas, or is this a damnable failure to be "rich toward God," a failure to give to someone in need when I have material possessions? Can I buy a season's pass at a ski resort, or is this gross self-indulgence?
Most Christians I meet feel stuck. They started a journey, but somewhere, somehow, got stranded. They feel like they're living on the border. There they sit, swapping rumors about God. Or they just stop talking about God at all. They can talk about everything else with ease and eloquence, but their tongues thicken, twist, grow mute about naming and proclaiming God. And this: they feel that the most their faith amounts to is just that: mere talk. They've joined a talking cult.
Where is this huge, exultant freedom for which Christ set us free? Why do I still fret over downturns in Asian markets, get irked by reckless or doddering drivers, harbor grudges over petty slights, care more about my rhododendron bush than about the soul of the boy who broke its branches playing street hockey? Why can I sustain a capacity to explore, in my mind, vast tracts of an imaginary world, but can barely focus my prayers on God for more than 30 seconds at a go?
The most wondrous, breath taking truth I've ever contemplated is the story of the triune God and his ways with humanity—with me. But a fly tapping on the window can distract me from this story. Ten minutes of my morning set aside for appropriating the story's meaning into my life seems a sacrifice, and sometimes, just a nuisance.
As a pastor, I hear and see all the time those who want to have a deeper, richer experience with Christ, but they find themselves instead whiling away their days. Their days pass in a blurring swiftness and yet drag on in a dreary sameness—in jobs they dislike, in relationships that baffle and hurt them, with financial worries and health problems.
They don't feel fulfilled. And they carry a secret dread: Is there more, and I'm the only one missing it? Or worse: Is this it, and everyone's pretending it's enough?
Jesus, newly risen from the dead, joins with two of his disciples—one's name is Cleopas, and the other is not named—as they walk to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24:1335). Jesus asks what they are discussing. Gloomily, they tell him about "Jesus of Nazareth," a "prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people." They speak about how the religious rulers handed him over to be crucified. "But we had hoped," they say, "that he was the one to redeem Israel." They tell about the rumors told by womenfolk—more troubling than consoling—of his resurrection. One thing is for sure: the tomb is empty, bodiless.
Jesus listens, and then speaks. "Oh, how foolish you are," he says, "and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"
When they arrive at the village, these two persuade Jesus—whom they still do not recognize—to eat with them. He does, and as Jesus breaks the bread, gives thanks, and gives it to them, "their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 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?' "
The heart condition of these people is actually twofold: slow and burning. That is a strange affliction, and, I think, common. One definition of Christ's followers might be that: people of the slow, burning heart. Sorrow and hope, awe and self-pity, wonder and worry, believing and doubting, yes and no mix loosely in us, tugging us one way, jostling us another. Jesus walks the road with us. But we can look straight at him and not recognize him. Jesus opens the Scriptures to us and often something happens within—a warming sometimes, a scorching at others. And just at those moments when finally the scales fall from our eyes and we see that, behold, it is he, it is Jesus!—at that wondrous moment, he often up and vanishes.
Our encounters with the risen Christ are mostly like that: enigmatic, fleeting, mere glimpses, little ambushes. And we're left with the question, "Didn't our hearts burn within us? Didn't they?"
For the last two years, I have been invited to speak, briefly, to a group of men and women enrolled in a 12-step program our church offers. As the pastor, I am to assure these people that if they get stuck anywhere in the journey, I can help: diagnose accurately, treat effectively, and heal.
Both times I've done this, I have felt sorely inadequate. Some of these people—you can see it in their faces—have homemade maps of hell tattooed into their flesh. I've felt like a kid who studied a book on the Vietnam War talking to veterans who lost eyes, limbs, buddies, and part of their souls in that place. What have I to say to them?
I tell them the story of the road to Emmaus. I tell them that there is a way that grief both blinds us to Christ and yet also makes us see him like we never have before. This journey—whether 12 steps or 12 million steps—is haunted by "what ifs" and "whys," by the pain of loss. It is a journey of nostalgia and lament. One refrain of the journey is "but we had hoped . …" (v. 21). I tell them that Jesus walks with us but seldom do we recognize him. When we do, the moment of epiphany, the moment of seeing the risen Christ before us, is often sparked and sealed, not by grand gestures, but by simple, homely things, like nail marks in the hand, like the breaking of bread in thankfulness. I tell them that just as suddenly as we can see Jesus appear, suddenly he can disappear again. I tell them we are the slow-hearted and the burning-hearted, the two things criss-crossing each other.
One of our persistent cultural myths is the myth of fulfillment—the promise that, on this earth, the fullness of all I truly need and all I really desire awaits. And it's not just a Hollywood myth. It's a Christian one, too. Maybe it's especially Christian.
Me, I'm one book away from fulfillment, one conference shy, one significant experience or insight short. If I'm slain in the Spirit, or attend a marriage retreat, or go on a missions trip, or get involved in a real community of fellow believers, or pray more, I will be fulfilled. That's the myth. It pushes and lures me personally. It is the constant thing I am asked to dispense as a pastor, apothecarylike, to all the spiritually, emotionally, physically unfulfilled people who come to me.
The problem is, I don't see fulfillment this side of the Jordan promised in Scripture. I see joy promised and peace. But also tribulation, soul-piercing. I see that the "great cloud of witnesses" who surround us, cheering us on, have among them those who "faced jeers and flogging … were chained and put in prison … were stoned … sawed in two … went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated … wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground." What's more, "none of them received what had been promised" (Heb. 11:3639, NIV).
The portrait of the faithful is not a portrait of the fulfilled. What defines them—what defines all of us on the road to Emmaus—is hope. What defines them is a slow, burning heart. What defines them is a yearning: knowing in their bones, in spite of loss or sorrow or aloneness, that there is Something more, Something else, Something better. What defines them is a hauntedness, a shaky but unshakable conviction that the Christ they see now through a glass darkly, in little fleeting puzzling glimpses, they will see one day face-to-face.
But for now, on this road, their slow hearts burn.
We don't know anything more about these two disciples on the road. We read on, and Luke tells us that they ran to tell the other 11 disciples, and that Jesus himself showed up again: calming their doubts, demonstrating his resurrection, opening their minds to the Scriptures, commissioning them for world missions, promising to endow them with power from on high (Luke 24:3653).
But these two get lost in the crowd. Who is Cleopas? He flits into the story and then out, never heard from again. Who is the other one? She or he hides forever behind a thick scrim of anonymity. Unlike Peter, whose rashness and cowardice and then unflinching courage stamp him with vividness; unlike Thom as, whose mix of stubborn doubting and steadfast believing evoke the man with particularity; unlike Paul, whose gruffness and tenderness, canniness and honesty, irritableness and long-suffering make him unmistakable, unforgettable: unlike such as these, these two are mere silhouettes. We see them in dark outline, devoid of feature.
Except this: their hearts are slow and burning. They are, I think, Everyman.
Were they fulfilled after this? No more fights with the spouse? No more shouting at the kids? No more days of feeling—you know that feeling—both empty and heavy inside? No more doubting, no more despairing, no more fretting over whether the trickle of money will ever catch up with the torrent of bills? Never again missing the risen Jesus in their midst?
We don't know, because we're not told. But if the stories of the other disciples give any clue, the best response to the question, Were they fulfilled? is to answer, That's the wrong question. Was Paul fulfilled? Was Peter? Was John? It's the wrong question.
Fulfillment is heaven's business. What Paul, Peter, John, Cleopas, and the other one knew was that the thing they had hoped for—that Jesus is the one who is going to redeem not just Israel, but the whole world—is a sure hope. Their yearning was not a hollow wistfulness, a whistling in the dark. It was, in fact, a homing device in the heart, drawing them on no matter how long the road, no matter that the "day is almost over" (v. 29), no matter that their hearts are slow with doubt and broken with grief. Even then—especially then—their hearts still burn, and they know this journey is a good one, leading Somewhere.
And it's never taken alone.
Mark Buchanan is pastor of the New Life Community Church, Duncan, British Columbia, Canada.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.