Eastertide : Then They Told What Had Happened on the Road
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord had risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:33-35)
The story of the disciples’ journey on the Emmaus Road doesn’t conclude with a nice meal and a good night’s sleep, although that would have been a fitting ending to a really big day. They were so jazzed that sleep was impossible. They had been transformed in Christ’s presence—from dazed and dejected wanderers to confident and joyful bearers of good news—and they couldn’t wait to tell their story.
So that same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem to share their experience with the other disciples. And what they found out was that they were not alone in having experienced the post-resurrection Jesus! There were others who had experienced Jesus’ transformed and transforming presence on the other side of that weekend’s traumatizing events, and each encounter was unique.
Now there was a whole group of Christ-followers who could share stories of how Jesus had made himself known to them. Together they would ponder, celebrate and make meaning out of a journey that had taken them to Jerusalem to experience the birth of a vision and the death of that same vision, had carried them away from the hub of religious activity to a personal encounter with Jesus in the more intimate places of their lives, and then back to Jerusalem, to the very community where it all began.
From there, Jesus would send them back out into the world to bear witness about what they had experienced.
Journey Inward, Journey Outward
The journey motif is the central metaphor in the Emmaus Road account, and it illustrates the key movements in the spiritual life—from the personal encounter with Jesus into the larger community of others who have encountered Jesus in life-changing ways and then out into the world beyond. As we share stories of transformation and begin working out the implications with each other in community, Jesus appears in our midst continuing to bring his peace, his presence and his perspectives (Luke 24:36-37). And before we know it, he commissions us, saying, “You are witnesses of these things.”
Almost immediately we discover yet another truth of the spiritual life: even as our journey of transformation brings meaning and joy into our own lives, it is also for the sake of others who do not yet know him. As Henri Nouwen points out, chronology is important. The journey inward must precede the journey outward, or else we have no basis for our togetherness with others and nothing to share. The journey inward eventually leads quite naturally to the journey outward—into community with others who are experiencing the transforming presence of Christ and then into some sense of mission in the world beyond.
Chronology is important because we must be deeply grounded in the unconditional love of God in order to see and know other people rightly; we must be experiencing transformation in and through the living presence of Christ before we can invite others into the transformational journey. The transformation we experience through real encounters with Christ is then expressed through love for others.
Evangelism: Invitation to Spiritual Transformation
If the Emmaus Road story tells us anything, it tells us that our own transformation in Christ’s presence is what prepares us to have any kind of good news to share with others. In fact, evangelism is an invitation to spiritual transformation offered by someone who can bear witness to that transformation in their own life.
When this kind of life sharing bubbles up from our own experience, we don’t need a pamphlet or a tract or special training; evangelism becomes simply telling what has happened to us on the road and how Jesus has been making the ordinary extraordinary through his presence in our lives. When we share the story of how we have encountered Christ on our own road between the now and the not-yet, evangelism becomes an invitation to the kind of deep and lasting change we are all longing for. We are inviting others into the fellowship of the burning hearts, where Jesus’ transforming presence starts to make sense out of everything.
As Dallas Willard so eloquently states,
When the identified people of Christ reach a certain level of growth and don’t go on, they limit their evangelistic potential. Why? Because the witness of the identified people of Christ to the reality of God in their own lives is weak and becomes a testimony to the contrary. To have earthshaking evangelism, you have to have a different quality of persons, and that is what spiritual formation is all about.
The best evangelists are people just like the Emmaus Road disciples who can’t wait to tell others what happened to them on the road and how Jesus met them.
Transformation, Discernment and Mission
Transformation into the image of Christ is to love the world that Jesus loved and gave his life for. It could not be any other way. As the sacred heart of Jesus is formed in us, we are able to discern loving, God-guided action in the world that Jesus loves. And that becomes our mission.
Spiritual transformation is both an end in itself (for the glory of God and the abundance of our own lives) and a means to other ends, in that it enables us to mediate the presence of Christ to the world. We become partakers of the divine nature (1 Peter 1:4) so that Christ is actually present in the world—through us!
As we share our faith, giving generously of our resources, work for reconciliation, justice and peace, engaging the needs of the world with compassion and care, and work for the betterment of the human community in Christ’s name, we become Jesus’ hands and feet in a world desperate for hope and healing. The important thing is to be able to discern what is ours to do in the midst of it all rather than relying on human wisdom and human activism, which will eventually wear us out. This is why the relationship between spiritual formation and mission is so important. Spiritual formation results in the ability to discern how God is sending us into the world uniquely to do his will.
Mission cannot be discerned without formation, nor can mission be sustained without an ongoing commitment to transformation in Christ’s presence.
Living in Creative Tension
Robert Mulholland points out that there will always be “a creative tension between our spiritual pilgrimage and the world in which it is lived out. If we attempt to undo this difficult tension, we move either into an ‘unworldly’ spirituality that isolates us from the world or into a ‘worldly’ spirituality that isolates us from the radical demands of a vital relationship with God.”3
Spiritual transformation results in an increasing capacity to discern the will of God so we can actually do God’s will in the world. This is how spiritual formation and mission come together in fruitful synergy for the good of all. As we draw close to Christ, who had the courage and will to lay down his life for the sake of others according to God’s purposes, we too find the courage to do what God asks us to do on behalf of the world he longs to save.
The whole process takes place in transforming community, where we assist one another in discerning what God is calling us to do and support one another in saying yes to God’s risky invitations.
As we continue in transforming community, we may discover that there is a shared mission God has in mind for us as well—something we are called to do together for the sake of the world. Then together we will learn how to live within a constellation of beautiful paradoxes that are held together in creative tension. Love for God and love for neighbor. Solitude and community. Silence and word/Word. Prayer and action. Work and rest. Discerning and doing the will of God. Formation and mission.
Just like the disciples who journeyed from Jerusalem to Emmaus and back again, we will learn how to move into the center and out and then back again; and at every point along the way, Jesus’ presence is there, causing our hearts to burn within us as we walk the road together.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2021. This article is adapted from Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community (InterVarsity Press, 2014.)
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