The writer of the Gospel of Luke is a masterful storyteller. Without his contribution we wouldn’t have the story of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, as well as the four wonderful songs Luke includes at the beginning of his Gospel woven through his account of Jesus’ birth.
One of the powerful stories at the end of his Gospel is his account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. It’s a story of shared grief but also of transformation. Some scholars have suggested that Cleopas’ fellow traveller was his wife, Mary. In John’s Gospel we learn that…standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas’… This story explores the movement from despair to hope, from darkness to light, as this couple are joined on the road by a stranger who spoke to them on the road. As they walked together the first thing the stranger did was listen. He asked them why they dragged their feet in such a mournful way, and they unburdened themselves to speak so positively about Jesus and the hope he engendered in them, and how their world imploded when he was arrested and, in a few days, tortured to death on a cross.
The way Luke tells this story reveals the depth of sadness and grief these disciples carried for Jesus, and how the big dreams and hope he planted in them about the Kingdom of God, had now begun to wither like a vine that has been uprooted. It is at that ‘rock-bottom’ moment in their lives that Jesus walks beside them, firstly to listen to their grief but then showing them where in the story they have told him God is acting. Luke tells us that “…beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures”. We know that when these two disciples eventually realised that this stranger was the risen Lord Jesus, they also named just what happened to them on the road as he opened the scriptures to them – were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road…
The encounter with the risen Jesus transformed them and literally turned their lives around so they found the energy to run back to Jerusalem to see the rest of the disciples and tell them all about what had happened.
In our Gospel reading for this week, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus, and it’s in that reading that we hear the exact same words we read in the story of the Emmaus road encounter. “…beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures”.
When a writer repeats a phrase like this we should stop and wonder why. Luke is giving us an important clue as to where we may encounter the risen Jesus today. Luke is writing not just for his generation but for the many generations that will read his Gospel throughout history, and he wants to impress upon us that in the midst of the hardships and trials of life, our grief, our loss, our illnesses, our frailties, the risen Christ does accompany us – and often we are not aware of his presence because (as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says) he comes in the guise of friend and stranger.
It is through the reading and interpreting of the scriptures that we encounter Jesus and in that encounter are given new life and hope. The Ascension is both about Jesus’ physical absence and his on-going presence among us through Word and Sacrament, and where he calls us to be his voice, his hands, his ambassadors of Good News.