On the Road and Around a Table

The end of Luke’s Gospel can teach us a lot about where spiritual formation happens.

It’s Easter afternoon. Two individuals, likely a man and a woman, are traveling the road to Emmaus after having been in Jerusalem for Passover. The recently resurrected Jesus appears to them. Not recognizing who he is, the couple relates to him the events of recent days, including the execution of a controversial rabbi from Nazareth and the strange rumors about an empty tomb. Eventually Jesus breaks in. Then, in what must have been the greatest Bible study lesson of all time, he turns to Moses and all the prophets and “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).

As someone who teaches Old Testament for a living, I would give anything to have the transcript of that lesson! But what’s equally important as what Jesus said is where he said it. Jesus does not direct the couple to quit their present journey and go to Jerusalem to begin rabbinical studies. Nor does he send them off to a local synagogue. Jesus brings the teaching to them – he joins them on their journey and goes where they are going.

In the verses that follow, the learning begun on the road continues around a table. Arriving at Emmaus, Jesus breaks bread with the couple and fellowships with them. It is only at that moment that their eyes are opened and they recognize this stranger as the risen Christ (Luke 24:31). Immediately, they get back out on the road to proclaim to others the good news of the resurrection. Their discipleship leads to apostleship.

That the first teaching after the resurrection happens on the road and around a table is fitting for Luke. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem takes one chapter; in Luke it takes 10. In those chapters we find almost all of Jesus’ parables, and the majority of Luke’s, use of the term disciple (22 out of 36). The theological effect is to emphasize that the disciples’ spiritual formation happens outside of traditional sites of learning, such as synagogues or schools. Instead, it happens in the midst of daily journeys, out in public, and where neighbors and strangers naturally gather.

Somewhere along the line, we have lost sight of the point Luke is making. We get in a rut of thinking that the goal is to get people to particular places, such as church buildings or seminaries, which we assume are necessary for formation to happen. Don’t get me wrong: deep, meaningful spiritual formation can and does happen at churches and seminaries. But when we focus too narrowly on these places, we inhibit our ability to think creatively about the “where?” of formation.

From the side of the church, we have to start making formation an “away game.” Instead of investing all of our energy into making it easier for people to come to us, what if we started thinking of ways to make formation opportunities available where people already gather – pubs, coffee shops, art venues, parks, libraries, and so forth? What if instead of bemoaning the fact that kids miss youth group because of sports practices, we started showing up at soccer fields in order to cheer them on and form authentic relationships where their passions are naturally taking them?

From the side of seminaries, we have to flip our model inside out. While efforts to make theological education more accessible through online and hi-flex teaching are commendable, they still assume that enrolling in a formal degree program is the starting point for in-depth learning. What if, instead, we took seminary teaching out into churches and communities and designed it for those who likely will never go to seminary? What if we saw theological education not just as professional training for future clergy, but as an avenue for deep formation for anyone, regardless of their vocational goals?

There’s no guarantee all of this will work perfectly; and certainly challenges will come up along the way. But experimenting in this fashion just might open up new ways of imagining the “where” of Christian discipleship.

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