Genesis 6:5-8 and 7:1-5,10;
Christianity – contrary to popular opinion – is a religion of the heart. It engages us at the deepest levels of our being.
I say “contrary to popular opinion” because the most common perception of Christian faith in modern western minds is that Christian faith is about accepting a certain set of “beliefs” to be true.
Christians, in the minds of most people, are people who “believe” certain statements or propositions about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, about the human condition, and so on.
I would say that this notion of Christian faith as giving mental assent to a set of beliefs is the prevalent understanding today for Christians and non-Christians alike.
For most people, Christian faith means believing certain things to be true: believing, for example, that there is a God, that the Bible is the revelation of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for our sins. Certain Christian groups have their own criteria for believing. To be considered authentically Christian in some groups, members may be expected to believe in creationism rather than evolution, or to believe that Christians will be raptured from the earth before Christ comes to destroy the whole world, or to believe that speaking in tongues is the primary indicator of the Spirit’s presence in our lives.
What one believes becomes the chief criteria by which one is recognized as a Christian or not. This kind of thinking makes Christianity a religion of the mind, rather than of the heart. Salvation depends on what one thinks or believes.
What we believe is no doubt important – communities are formed on the basis of similar values and beliefs – but this kind of believing – asserting that various statements about God or Jesus or the Bible or the world are true – does not accurately reflect the fullness of what Christian faith is all about. The emphasis on this kind of believing is a modern development. The understanding of faith expressed in the Bible and in the tradition of the Church is much broader and deeper.
Christian faith has more to do with the heart than with the head. Again, this is not to deny the importance of right thinking, of theological study, or of sound scholarship, but to recognize that Christian faith deals not just with the mind, but with the deepest levels of the self. Christian faith operates at a level below our thinking, feeling, and willing; it engages our hearts.
We can sense Jesus’ frustration in the gospel reading for tonight when, following the miracle of the feeding of the 4,000, the disciples fail to see and understand what he has been teaching them about faith.
They are still operating on the most superficial level. They are following him, but only in the most literal sense. They have not yet begun to see as Jesus sees, or to understand what Jesus understands, or to live as Jesus lives. Their faith is weak, faltering, unformed.
In exasperation Jesus says to them, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?”
We don’t often speak of “hardened hearts, although the expression is common in the Bible. We might say instead that their hearts were closed – closed to the real meaning of Jesus’ words and actions, oblivious to the presence and activity of God in and among them, detached from the invisible realm of the Spirit.
They see and understand what is happening all around them at the most concrete and superficial level. They are self-preoccupied, turned in on themselves, cut off from the larger reality that surrounds them. They cannot see God or recognize the presence and activity of God in their daily lives, even in the company of Jesus! Their hearts are closed.
We recognize this condition, don’t we? We recognize that we too can be blind to God’s presence and activity in and among us. We too can be turned away from God, our hearts closed in on themselves, focused only on ourselves and our desires. We too can find our hearts closed toward God and toward one another – when we get lost and entangled in jealousy or greed, in anger or resentment, in misplaced ambitions or in a preoccupation with possessions.
The light within us dims. We forget who we are. We forget whose we are. We lose touch with the spiritual world in which we live and move and have our being. Our hearts are cut off from God.
The ancient Israelites told a story of a time when there was great wickedness on the earth. Human beings, having been created in the image and likeness of God, turned away from God and closed their hearts, so that “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen 6:5,6) God destroyed the earth in that day, the story tells us, except for one man and his family, whose hearts were open to God and who had “found favor in the sight of the Lord.” (Gen 6:8)
Sometimes our hearts are closed by our own choice. We have chosen to turn away from God, to reject the ways of God, to focus on what we want or think we want.
Sometimes our hearts are closed in response to something external that has happened to us. We may have experienced rejection, or some deep suffering or pain, a life-changing loss – and our hearts close down in grief or disappointment or despair.
Sometimes our hearts are closed in response to something internal. Feelings of fear, anxiety, self-doubt, anger and resentment, can all affect the closing of the heart.
We recognize this condition, this blindness, this inability to open ourselves to God or to others or even to ourselves. When we inhabit this darkness, it eats away at our souls. Opening our hearts is like flinging open the windows on a spring day, allowing the fresh air to sweep away all that is stale and arid.
When our hearts are open, we awaken to the wonder and mystery of life, and of God, and of each other, and of ourselves..
We become aware of God’s presence and activity all around us. We experience what it is to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.We are sensitive to the breath of the Spirit, lifting and carrying us forward.
The heaviness and darkness begin to lift, and light pours in.
Opening our hearts makes a way for forgiveness and healing to enter. The bitterness, resentment, anger, and discontent that were the expression of our closed heart give way to compassion, understanding, and love. We need open hearts to be made whole.
Opening our hearts brings gratitude into our lives. A closed heart sees no reason to be grateful; it is aware only of its own unmet desires, its own sufferings and disappointments. But an open heart is full of gratitude for all that is. It sees goodness and beauty in ourselves, the world and others; it senses hope and possibility.
Opening our hearts prompts within us a concern for others. It fosters empathy and compassion, and sparks within us a passion for justice. It urges us to reach out, to stand up, to speak out, to act.
In what state is your heart today? Can it best be described open or closed? If it is closed, why is it closed? Is there some pain or disappointment or loss that has caused it to shut itself? Towards whom is it closed? Towards God, or towards some person or group of people?
Explore your heart today. Pray for a heart that is open.
Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations in the middle of the last century, has left us this prayer:
Give us pure hearts, that we may see you;
Humble hearts, that we may hear you;
Hearts of love, that we may serve you;
Hearts of faith, that we may abide in you. Amen.
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