Eastertide Part 1: The Emmaus Road – Between the Now and the Not-Yet
Part 2 of this Beyond Words series can be found here.
“Liminal space is a unique spiritual position where humans hate to be, but where the Biblical God is always leading them.” –Richard Rohr
Luke’s account of Resurrection Sunday includes the story of two dazed and distraught disciples traveling along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It was Sunday, the third day of the most traumatic weekend of their lives, and they were on a roller coaster of emotion.
On Friday these two disciples along with many others had witnessed the painful, humiliating and violent death of their beloved leader, teacher and friend. That night and through the day on Saturday they sat with each other in utter despair. And now, on this day, a glimmer of hope had been introduced into the situation.
When the Wish Dream Dies
Some of the women in their group had visited the tomb in which their leader had been buried and found it empty. There was talk of resurrection, but it was too soon to tell whether it was a miracle or just a hoax of some sort. They had hung around in waiting mode as long as they could, and now it was time to get back to real life.
These disciples had lost so much more than just a friend. Their dream of what the kingdom of God would look like as they had imagined it…the hopes and dreams around which they had oriented the last three years of their life… the vision that had caused them to give up fishing and tax collecting and the like in order to commit themselves to following Jesus…it was all gone.
Each one who had been a part of the community of Jesus now had to come to terms with life on the other side of the death of their wish dream. They had to figure out what to live for now that the vision that had brought order and purpose to their lives was no more.
Hanging Out in Liminal Space
Not knowing what else to do, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple were now wandering home, trying to make sense of it all. They were suspended somewhere between loss and possible gain, grief and possible joy, profound human suffering and perhaps some kind of redemption, dashed hopes and maybe daring to hope again. They were wrung out—emotionally, spiritually and physically. They had been powerless to prevent the events of the last days, and they were powerless now to do anything to change their situation.
The road from Jerusalem to Emmaus was the road between the now and the not-yet.
Although they were probably not aware of it, these disciples were in what Richard Rohr calls “liminal space”—a particular spiritual position where human beings hate to be, but where the biblical God is always leading them. The Latin root limen literally means “threshold,” referring to that needed transition when we are moving from one place or one state of being to another.
Liminal space usually induces some sort of inner crisis: you have left the tried and true (or it has left you), and you have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. This is Abraham leaving his home country and his father’s house for a land he did not yet know.
It is Joseph in the pit.
It is the Israelites wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.
It is Jonah in the belly of the fish.
It is Mary weeping at Jesus’ tomb.
It is the disciples huddled in the upper room.
It is the disciples on the Emmaus Road betwixt and between the life they had known and whatever was supposed to come next.
This was a time for intimate emotions and dangerous questions. Maybe something new and wonderful was in the works, but who knew? And just when they had gotten about the business of trying to adjust to their new normal, they were unnerved by the unexpected, pushed off center by intimations of the unimaginable.
Thank God they had each other!
A Radical Choice
The disciples’ choice to walk together and talk about all the things that had happened to them was, in some ways, fairly radical. They could have decided that what they had been through was so personal, so traumatic and so confounding that they didn’t want to talk about it until they had gotten a handle on it. Or they could have chosen to walk together but avoided talking about what was really going on, chatting away about anything else but that.
But no. While the experiences of the weekend were still fresh and raw, unvarnished and unresolved, they chose to walk together and talk with each other about all these things that had happened. And there was something about the willingness to walk together and speak honestly about the fundamental issues of their lives that caused Jesus himself to come near.
They weren’t praying in any formal way. They weren’t having a Bible study or worshiping in the synagogue. They were not having a formal quiet time. No, they were discussing the stuff of their lives—the things that had happened that were impacting them so deeply—and something about the nature and quality of their conversation opened up space for Jesus to draw near.
When Jesus Draws Near
The encounter that took place between Jesus and these two disciples was completely reorienting and life changing. Transforming, if you will!
And that is the essence of Christian community. Before Jesus draws near, a group of people journeying together is merely a human community. Once Jesus joins us on the road, it becomes a Christian community. As we discover ways to open to Jesus’ transforming presence on the road between the now and the not-yet, it becomes a transforming community!
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2021. This article is adapted from Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community (InterVarsity Press, 2014.)
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