Sunday, April 6, 2008

“Create in Me A Clean Heart, O Lord” : A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

This Sunday's gospel reading from Luke 24, the disciples' encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, offers a feast of possibilities for the preacher. Perhaps the most obvious approach is to talk about the meaning of the Eucharist in light of how the disciples only recognize Christ when he shares a meal with them. For some reason, though, I couldn't get traction with that approach, and it was only when I started thinking of the significance of the word "heart" in this and the first reading from Acts that it started to come together for me.

“Create in Me A Clean Heart, O Lord” : A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
Preached at Grace Church, Ilderton and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre, 6 April 2008

Acts 2:14a,36-41; Psalm 116:1-3,10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

“When he talked with us along the road and explained the Scriptures to us, didn’t it warm our hearts?” (Luke 24:32)

Hearts feature prominently in two of today’s readings. In Luke, after the disciples have recognised the risen Christ at table, they agree that it was a heart-warming experience to spend time with him. Also, in our first lesson, from Acts, the words of Peter “cut to the hearts” of those who hear his preaching (Acts 2:37-38). Peter’s audience goes on to experience a change of heart, because they repent and seek forgiveness for their part in the death of Jesus. So we can say that today’s readings are about God changing hearts and minds.

Medically speaking, of course, the heart has nothing to do with emotions or feelings. It is simply a complex and wonderful bundle of muscles, valves, and arteries that keeps blood circulating through our bodies. I saw this for myself when a professor of medicine from Western came to my running club this winter with several hearts that had been removed from cadavers and preserved in rubber. Runners are intensely interested in heart rates and increasing the body’s efficiency, so this was a fascinating talk, once we got over the creepy feeling of seeing a man holding someone’s heart in his hand. Here was the organ that not only powered our bodies, but also, by its appearance and the professor’s comments, could tell much about the life of its owner.

According to an ancient tradition of the church, St. Luke was a doctor. Paul in Colossians refers to a “Luke the beloved physician” (Col 4:14) and many believe that this person was the same St. Luke who wrote both the gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts. If this is true, then I am sure that Luke knew that the heart is simply an organ that pumps blood, with no special powers of emotion. However, like most of us, he was human enough to use the word “heart” (or kardia in Luke’s Greek) to denote our most deeply held feelings, our inner selves.

In the case of the disciples in today’s gospel, while Luke doesn’t say it as such, they are clearly broken-hearted. They aren’t star companions of Jesus like James and Peter – one is nameless and the other, Cleopas, is never named again in the whole Bible. These are just ordinary people, the quiet types who trudged the long roads with Jesus and tried, as best they could, to understand who he was and what he was talking about. Like the other twelve, they came to Jerusalem with high hopes, and saw the crowds and the palms. They sat at dinner with Jesus in the upper room, and saw him take, bless and give bread and wine, and heard him say that he would give himself. They were with him in the garden, and they abandoned him. As they say, they had hoped that Jesus would be the saviour, the redeemer, but he failed them, they failed him, and hope itself has failed. They are indeed broken-hearted. Luke tells us that these two are going to a village called Emmaus, but as the stranger joins them, they seem to stop moving all together: “They stood still, looking sad” (Lk 24:17).

They act like people after a tragedy, numb and overwhelmed, barely going anywhere at all. And so Jesus finds them, as he has found many others in the same condition. In many of the miracle stories, there is a wonderful phrase that Jesus uses. Just as he heals someone, he tells them “Take heart” (eg Matt 9:22). Likewise he gives these disciples heart. He gives them the energy to finish their journey, he gives them words from scripture that speak of God’s plan to save the world from sin and death, and he gives them his presence at a shared meal. At the end of their time with Christ, the disciples find their hearts warmed, and even these ordinary people will go on to do their part in bringing the good news of the resurrection to the world.

In our first lesson we see another kind of heart-mending, the kind that comes from repentance and new life. Peter and the disciples are standing before the people of Jerusalem, who only a few days ago were calling for Jesus’ death. It’s a risky spot to be in and a dangerous message that they preach, but God’s spirit has strengthened them. In the verses that are omitted by our lectionary, Peter quotes from Psalm 16 that “my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope” (Ps 16:9). Peter, who wept bitter tears of despair when he realized that he had denied Jesus three times before the cock crow, is now a new man, with a brave and joyful heart. His preaching offers the same hope to others, for as Peter says, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). The crowd could have turned on Peter at this point, but we are told that “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do’? (Acts 2:37).

Well, brothers and sisters, what should we do? Our doctors urge us to take any complaint to our physical heart, but what about our spiritual heart, our inner self? Today’s readings challenge us to consider the spiritual health of our hearts. Are our hearts hard to the needs and sufferings of others? Are we willing to follow our Lord’s example and walk beside others who need help and companionship? Do we regard each chance to hear and read the scriptures as a hearwarming encounter with God’s word, or as a chore and a bore? Would our Lord complain, as he did with the disciples, that we are slow of heart to believe, reluctant to trust in the power of his love and in the promise of his resurrection? Do we come to the Eucharist believing that it is a chance to truly recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread and in the companionship of his table?

Each Sunday we begin our worship in the Anglican tradition of praying to “Almighty God, to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden”. Just as the doctor knows much about a patient’s life from the state of their heart, so does God know our spiritual health from the state of our hearts. A patient shouldn’t be ashamed to see their doctor if they have a heart problem, although many are. When I was a student minister doing a placement in a hospital, I met patients, men especially, who were in deep denial after experiencing a heart attack. They couldn’t face this reminder they they weren’t invulnerable. As Christians, we can’t afford to be in denial about the state of our hearts. God knows our hearts need mending, warming, and purifying. Like a good physician, he wants to do heal our hearts. And so may our prayer always be that of the Psalmist, “Create in me a pure heart, O Lord” (Ps 51:10).

© Michael Peterson+ 2008

No comments:

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive