Life Together in Christ, Ruth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Summary: Using the account of the two disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus road, Barton explores how we may experience life transformation through our encounter with Christ in the presence of others in Christian community.
I thought this was an exquisitely wonderful book! Barton honestly explores how our dreams of community and life transformation often fall far short of reality, a refreshing acknowledgement in itself. Then she goes on to talk about the Emmaus road account in Luke 24:13-35 as a model for how communities might, in their encounter with Christ and each other, become spiritually transforming places.
It all begins with two disciples who choose to walk the road together and honestly acknowledge the realities of their lives. Barton writes:
The disciples’ choice to walk together and to 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 avoid 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 (p. 26).
She describes their situation as a liminal place where their “wish dreams” had died, but they did not yet understand what would take their place.
Then the stranger comes along and they do something uncharacteristic. They welcome him, and in so doing, welcome Jesus, who often comes in the strange, and as a stranger. Jesus listens to them as they describe the events of that fateful weekend and is simply present, not trying to fix them but giving them the freedom to speak. Haley writes:
Even though he certainly had his perspective on the situation (which he shared fruitfully later on), his initial invitation to them was the complete freedom to tell it like it was for them. The goal of such listening is to lovingly and humbly evoke the freedom of others, to invite them into the fresh air and light of unjudged and unafraid expressions of who they are in God (p. 62).
He lets them voice their hopes and desires for the one who they saw as “the hope of Israel.” She talks about communities where we voice our hopes and desires in the light of scripture to be discerned and affirmed or directed in community.
One of the most compelling chapters centers around the astounding report of “some women in our group.” Barton writes refreshingly and realistically about partnership between men and women in the body of Christ in the way I found a breath of fresh air amidst the church’s discussions of gender roles and the culture’s discussions of gender politics.
She then turns to how Jesus speaks of the Messiah’s suffering and entry into glory and the progression of death into life that is part of spiritual transformation as why die to false selves and come alive to our true self in Christ. In the narrative of Jesus explaining the scriptures to them, she talks about how we find ourselves in the story of scripture, even as we meet Christ. She introduces the shared practice of reading the lectionary and lectio divina as aids to that discovery.
In the concluding chapters she reflects on the burning hearts of the disciples as Jesus spoke to them and the role of communities in discerning the work of Christ in each other’s lives. And she writes of how this inward experience leads to outward witness–indeed the necessity of such encounter for any life-giving witness.
Each chapter includes an “On the Road” section to be used in small group or spiritual formation group discussions. Indeed, this book can serve as a guided experience in spiritual formation in a group setting. The book concludes with biblical verses supporting the idea of spiritual transformation in community, and a discussion of stability, a commitment to not leave community without group discernment, and an example covenant for such a group.
In reading this book, I had the sense of listening to a spiritual director or coach as she reflected on Luke 24. Her reflections both painted a vision and fostered the hope of fresh, life-changing encounters in community, with the quiet invitation to take to the road together in the company of Jesus and his friends.