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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Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
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This is timely for me as a leave on a spiritual retreat this week pondering what is next. I’m taking Invitation to Retreat with me. It’s been an exhausting year and I’ve gotten to the place where I have little left to give. There are also new opportunities possibly on the horizon. I look forward to time away with just me and the Lord. Thank you for this helpful opening remembering I am between the now and the not yet.

Go with God!

We needed to hear these words today. My husband is leaving his current pastoral position and we are currently in a period of waiting for God as we are on the threshold of leaving a secure, familiar place and not knowing what is coming next.

I am so glad this met you right where you are today. God is good that way! Blessings as you walk your own road between the now and the not-yet. I am glad you have each other.

So very very helpful when journeying through these luminal spaces. Learning to trust others with my pain is an ongoing process. The call is to community, the hardest call for me of all. Thank you

Beautiful, Ruth. Highlighting the power of community within liminal spaces. But often when we’re in these spaces we hide away in our caves rather than seeking to be with others. But, being with good community is what we need and as you point presents the opportunity for Jesus to turn up and transform us.

Thanks for illuminating through scripture the way Jesus meets us in our transitions. So very helpful in understanding my own.

This describes me to a T…”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.”
Trusting others with my most hurtful, painful losses is a risk. A risk of embarrassment, judgment, friendship, etc. So, I guard myself. Trusting only God. I know this choice limits my closeness with others, my “authentic community” relationships, but it’s a hard barrier to overcome. Yet, I see your point(s) and desire this authentic community relationship. So, as I journey through my own “not yet” I pray for God’s transformation of my soul and ability to trust my soul to His care through my spiritual friendships/community. Thank you for this writing.

Joining you in this prayer….it is an essential prayer if we are to experience transforming community.

With “community”having become such a buzzword employed by an increasing number of churches, this simple introduction clarifies what Biblical community is really all about. Thank you,Ruth.

So glad!

I’m so looking forward to reading your eReflections. I just signed up. Our church’s womens’ group is doing your Spiritual Rhythms study and it has been amazing. Our group comes together just like you mention here. It opens up the spaces for Jesus to draw near. We walk through pain, in all different phases of our lives but yet we come together. And worship Him.

Beautiful description of what I experience when I walk with another in honest, open trust in Jesus to meet us. Thank you!

You’re welcome!

This passage of scripture and reflections on it are enlightening to me.
My husband is struggling with health issues and is believing God for total healing. He is a meditative person and simply believes in waiting on the Lord.
I on the other side am a doer, reacter, and a “let’s get it done” person. So sometimes the coming together in a place where Jesus can enter in does not seem feasible.
But I do trust Him and know that He is
working in both of our lives.
Thank you for the insight into the
Emmaus walk!

I love the specificity of your comment. Seems like the Emmaus Road experience gives you and your husband an example of how to come together in the waiting. Blessings.

Hanging Out in Liminal Space
Dear Ruth,
Once again you have so concisely and intuitively defined the topic at hand. In exploring this place of ‘Now and Not Yet’, your paragraph detailing the following:
“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” defines many people’s experiences I have spoken with as well as my own personal family’s. Your refreshingly simple solution to those of us living in ‘liminal space’ gives concrete direction on how to navigate – or be navigated by Jesus – through this place by speaking honestly and openly with those sharing your journey. For people who believe
‘liminal space’ issues do not come upon ministers but lay people alone, those of us in ministry know otherwise. Your simple solution is one every person is able to employ: “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.” I have found open discussion to be life-sustaining while enduring liminal space because it closely connects those we are journeying with – consequentially inviting Jesus into our experience and enables us with strength, hope and love to continue on.
Thank you Ruth.

Well said. It is amazing, really how life-sustaining such conversations can be. Counterintuitive, even. It seems so hard, like it might even make matters worse, to talk about the places where we experience ourselves to be “in-between” and them somehow Jesus enters into that space and imparts presence, which changes everything!

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