The Pietist Option for Bethel (Luke 24)

Here’s the text of my Chapel talk at Bethel University last Friday morning. I’ll skip past some of the introductory remarks — mostly clarifying that Pietism, lamentably, has nothing to do with pie — and get right into the biblical passage for the talk. I explained that Luke 24 is what G.W. Carlson had urged me to read when I first started asking about Pietism. While it’s obviously significant for all Christians, the Emmaus road story illustrates several of the religious instincts that I use to define Pietism, not just as a religious movement of 17th century Germany but a religious ethos that keeps popping up in various settings. I used the 1984 version of the NIV for my text, for a reason that will become clear near the end of the talk. UPDATE: Audio and video of the talk are now available.

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.

He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:13-18)

There’s a lot that goes unsaid as this story starts. We don’t know why these two disciples are headed to Emmaus, and only one even has a name. But what we don’t know matters less than what we do: there are two of them on this journey, and then Jesus makes a third. We’ll come back to it later, but briefly, we’ve already got the first Pietist instinct:

We’re better together.

Now, I don’t want to read too much into this. Maybe they’re just walking together for security. Roads are frightening spaces in the pre-modern world. Surely these two have heard Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, about a different road leading out of Jerusalem and a lone traveler beset by robbers, beaten, and left for dead.

But then why invite a complete stranger into the journey? If they’re already confused and fearful, why add another layer of worry and uncertainty to the mix?

I think there’s something more happening. I think Pietists would like the African proverb that Pastor Laurel has repeated once or twice this fall in Chapel: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Let’s see just how far…  As we pick up the story, Cleopas and companion ask Jesus:

“Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.”

“In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (vv 18-27)

From Moses through the prophets, Jesus “explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” And so we’re deep into Pietist instinct #2:

Read the Bible

Time for just a little history… Pietism was first called Pietism in the late 17th century, in what became Germany. A Lutheran pastor named Philipp Spener hoped to bring about religious revival in a deeply polarized society. He published six proposals for renewal in 1675, starting with this:

The more at home the Word of God is among us, the more we shall bring about faith and its fruits… the diligent use of the Word of God, which consists not only of listening to sermons but also of reading, meditating, and discussing (Ps. 1:2), must be the chief means for reforming something…

His followers took this proposal to heart. Called Pietists, they started small group Bible studies, printed millions of inexpensive Bibles, sent the Bible with missionaries to South Asia and the Caribbean, and became leaders in biblical scholarship and translation. In 19th century Sweden, Bethel’s spiritual forebears were part of a new Pietist revival; they were so dedicated to the Bible that the Swedish word for “reader” also came to mean “Pietist.”

So what does this mean for Bethel today, as a Pietist college?

You might not have Rabbi Jesus literally explaining everything from Moses to the prophets to you, but you have come to a place where wise teachers will help you understand God’s Word. You will take Bible courses with world-class biblical scholars, who will help you read the Bible rigorously, teaching you hermeneutics and exegesis and even biblical languages. You’ll hear campus pastors and chapel speakers interpret and apply the scriptures.

But that’s not the only way Bethel will affirm your instinct to read the Bible. Bethel is a Christian, Pietist college not because it requires Bible courses or encourages chapel attendance — helpful as they are — but because the entire curriculum invites you to read the Bible afresh. For example, what do we do in the Christian liberal arts but seek to understand Genesis 1 — as sciences probe the first days of Creation, the humanities inquire into the creatures fashioned in the Image of God, and the arts help us understand more clearly the act of creation itself?

If you follow our first instinct, you’ll find that the Bible is ever open before you, in classrooms and labs and dorm rooms, on stages and in studios, in work and in worship.

And that would encourage Spener, to see God’s Word so much at home among his spiritual descendants. But he would now warn us that the Bible can easily be stripped of its power if we misuse it. Spener and his followers looked around their churches and lamented that the lectern — the place where the Bible was read — and the pulpit — where it was preached — had become “dumb idols,” still speaking… but going unheard. Like Pastor Laurel said last week, Pietists “want to see the Bible alive among us” — but that implies that the Bible can seem dead among us… if we misunderstand what God is trying to do through it.

These disciples on the Emmaus Road have no doubt read and heard the Scriptures over and over… but they haven’t understood. When Jesus says that they remain “slow of heart” in verse 25, the Greek has him accusing them of something like the Greek version of Psalm 4:2, what my Bible translates as “How long will you love delusions?”

But their hearts are about to quicken, as they learn that the Bible is more than a collection of information and rules and predictions… For Pietists, the Bible is where we encounter God. It is God’s chief means of forming and sustaining a relationship with us.

Let’s continue our story:

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (vv 28-32)

“Stay with us, for it is nearly evening.” The journey completed, Cleopas and the other now invite this stranger even deeper into their lives: to share food and shelter. And in that act of hospitality and vulnerability, they finally recognize Jesus. Just like the Damascus Road, the Emmaus Road ends with an epiphany: a dramatic encounter with the living Word, Jesus Christ, the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) suddenly made visible.

No longer are these two “slow of heart,” but they realize that their “hearts [were] burning within” them the whole time. For centuries, Pietists have used this “burning hearts” image to convey the power of a relationship with Jesus.

The Pietist Impulse in Christianity coverIn the history of Bethel, there was no greater spokesperson for our Pietist heritage than President Carl Lundquist. When he finally retired from Bethel in 1982, he founded a new organization dedicated to Bible study and other spiritual disciplines. He called it the “Evangelical Order of the Burning Heart”; when we published our first book about Pietism eight years ago, the cover included the burning heart sculpture that art professor Dale Johnson had made for Lundquist.

On Wednesday on this stage, our current president mentioned another faculty-made artwork that he owns: a pot by Kirk Freeman. One of the other objects in Jay’s office is a framed quotation from former Bethel church history professor Virgil Olson: “With the trained mind, there must be the burning heart.” It was his way of summing up something different about Bethel: education centered on a personal encounter with Jesus Christ won’t stop with the head; it will change everything about us.

For Cleopas and the other disciple, for Carl Lundquist and Virgil Olson and generations of Bethel people, there’s a third instinct to awaken:

Don’t just know about God —
know God

Don’t just study God as an abstract idea; know God with your heart: what the Greek Scriptures call the kardia, the center of all our affections. Almost more like the gut than the heart, the kardia is the source of our instincts.

Instincts like reading the Bible, but not just reading the Bible. Growing up in the Covenant Church, I heard two pietistic questions over and over. First, where is it written? Meaning: instead of just trusting what pastors preach and theologians write, let’s re-open our Bible and check their claims. But where is it written? only touches our hearts — becomes something deeper than an intellectual exercise — if we ask a second question of each other: How goes your walk with Christ?

Maybe you’re not on a road to Emmaus, but you’re on a journey somewhere. How goes that walk, and where is Christ in it? And your answer will change — it’s a journey, not a destination. Jesus will be near and far to you — to your understanding — at different points along the walk. In fact, you might start to worry that he’s fallen behind, or gone on ahead, or isn’t even there at all.

Karl Rottluff-Schmidt, “The Road to Emmaus” (1918) – Hammer Museum, UCLA

This woodcut of the Emmaus Road comes from a German expressionist artist named Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Like many of his countrymen, he fought in the First World War. Unlike two million of his comrades, he survived to the end of the conflict in 1918, when he made this work. It shows the two disciples with blinded eyes — perhaps Schmidt-Rottluff was thinking of comrades gassed by chemical weapons — walking alongside Jesus through a world of stark lines, menacing forms, and palpable change.

It reminds me of when Sam Mulberry and I have taken students to Europe to study the two world wars. As we walk over battlefields and into cemeteries, I warn students that they might start to feel like Jesus is absent amid our stories of suffering and brutalization and dehumanization. But I add that it’s in the midst of such darkness, such unseeing, that we should expect to suddenly recognize a Christ who knew suffering and brutalization and dehumanization. Who died — and conquered death.

That’s the Christ that Cleopas and companion have suddenly seen. A journey that began with doubt and confusion has ended with truth and joy. Jesus disappears from their sight, but they have been changed — their minds have been trained and their hearts are burning within them… and now it’s time for their hands and feet to respond.

For the Emmaus Road is the route for two journeys, not one. Let’s conclude the story:

They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread. (vv 33-35)

Caravaggio, "Supper at Emmaus" (1601)
Caravaggio, “Supper at Emmaus” (1601) – Wikimedia

“They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem.” Sisters and brothers, this is the most important verse in the whole story.

I told you that we don’t know why they left Jerusalem to walk to Emmaus. But I think we can guess. They were terrified. In the parallel passage in the Gospel of John, there’s no mention of these two, but we’re told that the disciples who stayed in Jerusalem have locked their doors out of fear that they’ll be the next to be crucified (20:19). Meanwhile, Cleopas and his companion have decided that no lock is strong enough; they’ve skipped town.

Like the others, they trust the instincts of fear and self-preservation. But now that they have encountered Jesus, their instincts have changed. Because of Resurrection, they rush back to the scene of Crucifixion.

So here’s our 4th and final Pietist instinct:

Make your faith active in love

That’s a Pietist way of restating what the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (5:6). What counts on this walk with Christ? Not empty rituals in front of dumb idols. Not mouthing the right words to a pastor or a professor. What counts isn’t just saying you believe in Resurrection, but living as if you do: making your faith active in love of God and neighbor.

So walk with Christ — take what our book calls “the journey inward” — but at the same time, walk into the world — what we call “the journey outward.”

I can’t tell you what that will mean for any one of you: where or for whose sake this journey will lead you to make your faith active. But I can tell you about two people whose experience of Pietist communities led them not only to faith in God, but making that faith active in love of others: the journeys of two remarkable women.

Sensbach, Rebecca's RevivalFirst, Rebecca Protten. She was born into slavery in 1718, the child of an enslaved African mother and a European slaveowning father who lived on an island in the Caribbean. But she was eventually freed and came to know Jesus Christ, partly thanks to Moravian Pietist missionaries. Not only did she convert to Christianity, but she became a missionary herself. She preached to fellow slaves on St. Thomas, then went to Germany and married a Pietist. They ended up on the coast of West Africa, teaching children about Jesus in the shadow of Christiansborg, a slave-trading fortress. Truly, Rebecca Protten learned to make her faith active in love.

So did Kimberly Weaver Olson… Kim and I knew each other as teenagers at Bethany Covenant Church in Stillwater, where our confirmation class received the Bible I’ve been using today. But when I went east for college, she came to Bethel, where her father taught business. At Bethel, Kim learned to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God — a walk that took her into the midst of poverty, inequality, and racism: from a First Nations community in Saskatchewan to a rural part of Bolivia and then back to Minnesota, where she became a nurse and served the sick and poor of Minneapolis on the 5th floor of the U of M-Fairview hospital.

But Kim was sick herself. She announced in August that she had Stage IV breast cancer, then died earlier this fall. As I sat at her memorial service, next to long-time colleagues and total strangers, I listened to the choir sing the spiritual, “Walk with me, Lord… While I’m on this tedious journey, I need you, Jesus, to walk with me.” I thought of the Emmaus Road again, and all the roads in North and South America that Kim had walked. And I realized one last thing about this dual journey:

When you realize Jesus has been walking with you the whole time and suddenly see the risen Christ as if for the first time, you’ll start to see everyone else as if for the first time. You’ll look down the road towards Jerusalem — or whatever scary place looms before you — and you’ll begin to see it like Kim did, with the compassion-filled eyes of Christ.

G.W. Carlson
G.W. Carlson, Bethel History and Political Science professor from 1968-2012

It’s part of what I tried to say on this stage three years ago, when I shared a eulogy at G.W. Carlson’s memorial service. I recalled that the final time I saw him, in the hospital room, I read one of his other favorite Bible passages: Matthew 25, where Jesus says that whatever we do for the least among us, we’ll do for him. What we do for the hungry and thirsty and sick and imprisoned, but also for the stranger. And I thought of all the strangers GW had welcomed in his life…

I thought of him telling me to read Luke 24, which starts with Jesus-followers welcoming a stranger who literally was Jesus… and ends with them heading back down the road to a city full of strangers who mean them harm.

My friends, wherever your outward journey takes you, know that you will meet no more strangers, no more people to avoid and distrust and fear. You will only meet potential traveling companions: people to be seen with compassion and offered hospitality; people to be loved.

And that applies to the people of Christ’s church as well, who can sometimes be harder to love than anyone else. So before I’m done, let me go back to the place we started this walk, to our first Pietist instinct:

We’re better together.

When Cleopas and companion went to Emmaus and then back to Jerusalem, they were just doing what Jesus had said to do way back in Luke 10, when he sent out his followers “two by two” to announce his coming. 

That’s still how Jesus meets us and how he sends us out. We don’t take either journey alone. The Pietist instinct is to read the Bible together, to know God together, and then to make faith active together.

But together requires different. It means reading and praying and worshipping and grieving and celebrating and going out into the world with people who are not the same as you, who may even disagree with you.

As Cleopas and the other hurried back to Jerusalem, I doubt they kept silent. I imagine they talked, breathlessly, about all they had heard and seen and all they planned to do. How long do you think it took them to start disagreeing? How long before they started answering questions differently? What did Jesus say again? What did he tell us about the law, or the prophets? Now that we need not fear death, what’s the most important thing to do? Should we feed the hungry or preach the good news, or do we even have to choose one or the other?

Pietist leader Philipp Jakob Spener
Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705)

I don’t know, but I’m sure they argued. That’s been the story of the Church as long as there’s been the Church. That’s why Philipp Spener’s fourth proposal for church renewal was that Christians avoid needless controversies. As Pietists, we should beware the temptation to think that we can argue people into true faith, and instead seek unity within our theological diversity.

As Pietists, we know that reading the Bible together, knowing God together, making faith active together means having the humility and patience and wisdom and courage to not split apart over minor issues. To know the difference between the Good News and every other belief and behavior that Christians dispute. Instead, we trust the instinct to keep walking together, deeper into faith and further out with hope and love.

Speaking of love… When it came time to choose a New Testament passage that would be read and preached in our wedding service, my wife and I quickly agreed on Philippians 2:1-4. It’s a favorite of Pietists at all times and in all places. Let Paul’s words to that church be our final words to and for each other today:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

So may God give you all the tenderness and compassion and humility of Jesus. May you go in peace, walking together with one mind and one spirit to make our shared faith active in shared love. Amen.