Sermons That Work

When We Want to Talk…, Easter 3 (A) – 2011

May 08, 2011

When we want to talk about something or someone we know truly or deeply, we often resort to the language of the heart. Helen Keller said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare wrote, “Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.” And Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, famously said, “The heart has reasons which the reason cannot understand.” When we try to express the way we know something truly or deeply or beautifully, we often turn to the metaphor and language of the heart.

We do this in our religious language as well. We don’t want just second-hand knowledge in religion. Abstract formulas and dusty dogmas won’t sustain us for very long. We want first-hand experience as well. We want to know these things in our hearts. The best and the most beautiful things in the world must be felt with the heart. We do need to know them with our minds. But we must also know them with our hearts.

Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s most important and creative theologians, often used the phrase “the sense of the heart” to talk about the way we truly know God. Edwards’ vision of God was primarily aesthetic; he talked about the beauty of God’s holiness. And our knowledge of God is also aesthetic. We know God through a sense of the heart. For Edwards, knowledge of God is not unreasonable. Our rational minds are engaged in religious knowledge. But it is more than rational because it includes our whole being, includes our heart as well as our head.

In Edwards’ Personal Narrative, he writes about his religious experience. He said:

“The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden as it were, kindle up a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of my soul, that I know not how to express. … I walked abroad alone, in a solitary place in my father’s pasture, for contemplation. And as I was walking there, and looked up on the sky and clouds; there came into my mind, a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. … The appearance of everything was altered: there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature. … I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the daytime, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the meantime, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer.”

For Edwards, the sense of the heart is the key to true religion. There certainly is a rational knowledge of God. But without the sense of the heart, this knowledge is abstract and cold, what Edwards’ calls merely “notional” knowledge. The sense of the heart adds the experience of inward sweetness. Edwards says it’s like the difference between having an abstract, rational judgment that honey is sweet, and actually tasting its sweetness. True religion is not simply knowledge about God or divine things. True religion is the actual experience of the inward sweetness of God, a sense of the heart in which we know the true beauty and mercy of God. And isn’t that what we all really long for, even in a church that prides itself on its thoughtful approach to faith? Don’t we all long for more than abstract, notional knowledge of God? Don’t we all really want to truly know God, to experience God’s inner sweetness, to have a sense of the beauty and mercy of God in our hearts as well as in our minds? Don’t we all long for this sense of the heart?

I think this is why Edwards says that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” The affections are not simply the emotions or passions. They are, rather, what moves us, moves us from neutrality and indifference, and inclines our hearts to posses or to grasp something. Love, of course, is not only one of the affections, but the first and foremost of the affections, because love is the prime mover and motivator of the human heart. Holy affections are the means by which we not only know about God, but grasp the reality of God, and experience the inward sweetness of God.

“True religion … consists in holy affections.”

“The best and the most beautiful things in the world … must be felt with the heart.”

In the Emmaus story that we heard this morning, we hear a story about some early disciples’ hearts burning within them, a story about the sense of the heart. It’s a great story that we hear during Eastertide about the risen Lord who accompanies a couple of disciples who are walking along the road to a town named Emmaus. What’s interesting about the story is that they don’t immediately recognize Jesus. They are blathering on about the events of late in Jerusalem, about Jesus and the other disciples, and they are quite frankly a bit astonished at how ill-informed this stranger walking along with them is. As the story progresses, Jesus, still unrecognized by the disciples, explains to them the events that took place and the scriptures. When they finally get to Emmaus, they still haven’t recognized Jesus, but they invite him stay with them in town. At supper, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them, and finally their eyes are opened and they recognize him for who he truly is. After Jesus leaves them, they turn to each other and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

“Were not our hearts burning within us?” The sense of the heart. The disciples really didn’t get it until they grasped it with their hearts. It’s not just knowing about the events that took place. It’s not even just knowing about the scriptures. It’s knowing about them in a way in which their hearts were burning within them. It’s this type of knowledge, this sense of the heart, that transforms them and allows them to perceive the reality of who this stranger truly is who was accompanying them along the road. It is the sense of the heart that allows them to recognize the Lord in their midst.

“True religion … consists in holy affections.”

“The best and the most beautiful things in the world … must be felt with the heart.”

This is true. We love our Episcopal Church, where we don’t have to leave our heads at the door. But the Episcopal Church is also a church attuned to beauty, to the beauty of God’s holiness. We shouldn’t have to check our hearts at the door either. And in actuality, let’s just get rid of the image of the door entirely. We need our heads and our hearts as we try to understand the totality of our human experience. Wherever we are, whether in church, or in our homes, or out in nature like Jonathan Edwards, we need to pay attention to our heads and our hearts. We need to pay attention to those human experiences that give rise to holy affections. Pay attention to those experiences that, as Edwards said, kindle up a sweet burning in our hearts; an ardor in our souls, where we get a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God.

Pay attention to those experiences when you feel your hearts burning within you. It is precisely in these moments that we become aware of the Lord, who is always with us, who is always accompanying us on our journey.

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Christopher Sikkema


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