Over the Fifty days of Easter we hear accounts of encounters with Jesus and how the early church experiences the presence of the risen Christ. This Sunday we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus, which at one point in the history of the Reformation Church was one of the big ‘feast’ days kept by the church, marking the beginning of the church’s mission. There was an elderly woman in my first parish who came from the Netherlands, and she once said to me, ‘Why don’t we mark the Ascension anymore?’ One practical reason is that in the liturgical calendar Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday, and most people are at work, or busy with shopping or other commitments.
What did the Ascension mean for the disciples? I can only imagine that the first Easter was a whirlwind that completely changed everything for the disciples. First they had to deal with their grief and loss and then the abrupt intrusion into their grief of Jesus’ resurrection. It must have all seemed so unreal and confusing. The Gospel writers make a big effort to show that Jesus wasn’t a ghost – as he could be touched and ate food with them, but also he wasn’t just the same as before – he came among them when they had bolted the doors, he appeared on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius. Then all of a sudden he ascended into heaven and while he was no longer physically present in the same way, he was strangely still present and among them. Much of this language is ‘poetic’ language, trying to describe what is almost indescribable. Suffice it to say that Jesus appeared to the disciples in bodily form, assuring them of his on-going presence in the power of the Spirit.
Before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion we hear him assuring the disciples that he would not leave them orphaned – he would not abandon them! That’s a very powerful promise, and he goes on to speak about just how he would be present to them by sending the Holy Spirit to be both a ‘Comforter’ and an ‘Advocate’. The image of a Comforter is of someone who sustains and strengthens us in times of doubt, suffering and challenge. The Advocate is someone who stands up to defend us when we are unable to defend ourselves. The Holy Spirit often uses people in our lives through which to accomplish all this and surround us with the help we need.
The story of the Emmaus Road encounter with the risen Christ, was another way by which the early church understood how Jesus would be present among them in the future. He would be with us on our journey of faith wherever two or more are present in his name. He would be present through the power of the Holy Spirit to remind us of all that Jesus said. Remember how those two disciples found their hearts set on fire with joy and insight? All through the history of the church people have been inspired by the living Word of God as they studied the scriptures and encountered the presence of God inspiring them and leading them to faith.
The journey of discovering on the road speaks about the Christian faith as a living, growing encounter with Jesus nurtured by our engagement with the Scriptures. But that particular journey ended in a meal, where the risen Jesus broke bread with these disciples. The term ‘broke bread’ is Luke’s way of speaking about the meal we call ‘Holy Communion’ and it’s there in that meal that the penny drops for those disciples. All of a sudden everything becomes clear in their minds – the stranger on the road, the stranger they had invited into their home for a meal and rest – was Jesus himself! Celebrating the Lord’s Supper together alongside reading and interpreting the scriptures were the two most important ways by which the church finds Jesus present among us. The invitation to Holy Communion says, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good, happy are those who seek refuge in him.’ The Ascension is all about Jesus being present among us – empowering us to continue his work.