Today is not only Mother’s Day—and a very happy Mother’s Day to all who are mothers!—but in the church calendar it’s also Ascension Sunday or Jesus’ last day on earth in bodily form when, before the eyes of his disciples, he ascended or rose to heaven. Technically the day of Ascension was this past Thursday, May 5th, the 40th day after Easter but we celebrate it on the Sunday that follows. And whereas on Easter we considered the first appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene, for the following forty days until he ascended he continued to appear both to his disciples and even once to a crowd of 500. At the end of this 40-day period, he appeared to his disciples one last time before leaving earth until he returns at the end of the ages.
In our passage this morning we have two accounts, one of Jesus appearing to his disciples who have gathered and are discussing his post-resurrection appearances to them; and another of his ascension to heaven, during a subsequent and final appearance to them. And this final chapter in Luke’s Gospel begins with a version of the account we looked at on Easter—Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and the other women at his tomb. It then recounts his appearing, that very same Easter Sunday, to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. And after Jesus leaves them, these two travel to Jerusalem where the Eleven—in other words all but Judas—were gathered in the Upper Room. And what a conversation must have taken place after they arrived!
When the two get together with the Eleven, the Eleven along with others who are also gathered with them, were already in the midst of a discussion about how many of them had seen Jesus subsequent to his resurrection. On Easter, or Resurrection Sunday, Jesus had one busy day! He appeared not only to Mary and other women but also to Peter. So when these two disciples on the Emmaus road come along to tell how Jesus had also appeared to them, the room was already abuzz. And it’s no wonder. Think about how extraordinary this whole experience must have been for all involved. The Jesus whom they had known—and lived with—and loved—and followed; who had been arrested and flogged and crucified until dead before their eyes; who was laid in a tomb; and who on the third day rose from the dead just as he had told them he would, was now alive and appearing to those who had known and loved him best. No wonder they were talking and sharing and comparing notes with one another!
So when our passage opens with “While they were still talking about this,” the “this” is Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to them on Easter Sunday. And, wonder of wonders, as they are talking “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” Can you even begin to picture this scenario? As his followers are sharing and swapping stories about what Jesus said and did when he appeared to them after he had risen from death, suddenly the entire group discovers that this very risen Jesus is actually in their midst blessing them with his peace. Now we don’t know how it was that Jesus suddenly appeared. Perhaps when the two from the road to Emmaus came, the door was left unlocked—in John’s account of this we’re told that the disciples had locked the door out of fear of the Jewish leaders. But it’s also possible that the risen Jesus’s body wasn’t limited the way ordinary human bodies are.
Whatever the case, the initial reaction of all gathered is understandable: “37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost”—the word here is literally “spirit” (pneuma). Well, of course they were startled and frightened! This would be akin to talking about someone we loved who had passed away and suddenly finding that person standing in the room with us. To assume this was a ghost would be a natural default assumption for ghosts are the only explanation we humans have to explain the appearance of people who have already died. But Jesus is no ghost. There’s no sense here of a shadowy presence through which you can see objects on the other side of the room. Jesus talks with his beloved disciples. “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?” he says to them. He’s heard their discussion. He’s aware that they’ve been trying to process and understand the events of the day, especially his appearances upon rising from death to many who were gathered together here.
But this risen Jesus goes out of his way to demonstrate that the person now speaking with them is continuous with the Jesus they ever knew and loved and lived with prior to his crucifixion. And he is seeking to alleviate their doubts and fears and demonstrate to them that he, who had told them before he died, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” was the very Jesus who stood before them now, alive, never to die again. He encourages them to look at his hands and feet. Do ghosts have hands and feet? Don’t they recognize these hands and feet as belonging to the Jesus they knew? The Jesus who, four days earlier, the day before he was crucified, had crouched on these very feet and used these very hands to wash their feet during his last supper with them? He encourages them not only to look at but even to touch and see him for, he says “a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (39). And saying this he showed them his hands and feet.
The reaction of his disciples recorded for us here is so touching. In taking all of this in, “they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement” (41). Have you ever disbelieved for joy? Have you ever received news that was so good you could hardly believe it was actually true? Think about it. The one thing these followers of Jesus wanted more than anything else was to see him alive after having been crucified. But a part of them must’ve known how unbelievable such a desire was. And the fact that upon seeing Jesus in their midst they still don’t immediately believe is a powerful indication of just how human they were and bears witness to the fact that they didn’t make all of this up. Even they were surprised by the events that were transpiring that day.
But Jesus isn’t satisfied with their disbelieving for joy. He wants to move them from disbelief to belief, from doubt to faith. So he asked them if they had anything to eat and when they gave him a piece of broiled fish, “he took it and ate it in their presence” (43). Again, ghosts can’t eat because ghosts don’t have bodies. But Jesus ate. Jesus had a body. Each time we recite the Apostles Creed we confess this truth—we believe in the resurrection of the body.
And it gets even better. Jesus now connects the dots for them. He shows them the continuity between what he taught them before he died with his subsequent crucifixion, death, and resurrection. Verse 44 states that he said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” We keep seeing this over and over again, don’t we? Jesus and his closest disciples, all of whom were Jewish, understood that in the person of Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah, all of the promises of Scripture, given by God, were fulfilled. Again, when we read the word “Scriptures” in our New Testament, we need to remember that this means the Hebrew Scriptures or our Old Testament. Jesus is stating here that the whole of Scripture—from the Law of Moses, to the Prophets, to the Psalms—was written about and fulfilled in him. The three-fold division of the Hebrew Bible that Jesus uses would have been well-known by those present and continues to be referred to today by Jewish believers with the term “Tanakh” indicating the initial consonants in Hebrew of “T” “N” and “K” referring to the “Torah”—or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible— “Netuvim” or the Major and Minor Prophets—and “Ketuvim”—or the Writings—respectively. And Jesus’ point is that as he told him when he was with them, the entirety of the Scriptures must be fulfilled that is written about him in our Old Testament.
Not only that, but Jesus then gives his disciples a special teaching. He “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (45). This also continues to be true. If we understand and believe in the truth of who God in Christ is and in the truth of God’s Word it’s because God himself has opened our hearts and minds to believe and understand these truths. And though it would have been wonderful to have been present to actually hear what Jesus had to say, fortunately for us, Luke records the gist of Jesus’ teaching in verses 46–47: “This is what is written:” Again, he’s referring to what is written in our Old Testament. “The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Brothers and sisters, this is the Gospel. This is the reason Messiah came—this is the reason Jesus came—so that you and I might have a means for our sins to be forgiven. This required that Jesus suffer for us—and die in our place—and rise from the dead on the third day. But because he has, anyone who recognizes and acknowledges and turns from their sin and turns to him to ask forgiveness, will receive forgiveness. And this message of how humans may be reconciled to God begins in Jerusalem, with the Jewish people, the people God initially created for himself, but is eventually extended even to the Gentiles, even to all who turn to the one true God in Christ, no matter what their background, ethnicity, or nationality.
Jesus then lets his disciples know that they are witnesses of these things (48). But at this time the Holy Spirit hasn’t yet been given so Jesus tells his followers that he is going to send them what his Father has promised, that he is going to send them the Holy Spirit. But he tells them to stay in Jerusalem until they “have been clothed with power from on high.” They are to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit is sent to them. And we’ll be looking at that wondrous sending next week on Pentecost Sunday!
Now though it isn’t stated here, in the account of Jesus’ ascension that Luke provides in the book of Acts, he indicates that the ascension occurred forty days after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. So though it isn’t immediately evident, given that the opening events in Luke 24 occur on Resurrection Sunday, the closing event in his Gospel takes place 40 days later when Jesus leads his disciples out of the vicinity of Bethany, lifts his hands and blesses them (50). And as he was blessing them, “he left them and was taken up into heaven” (51). Having appeared to his followers for forty days after the day he had risen from the dead, Jesus now leaves them as he ascends into heaven. And the response of those gathered, appropriately enough, is to worship him who ever was and is and will be God and to return to Jerusalem as he told them to. And they do so no longer with fear or disbelief, but only with joy, staying continually at the temple praising God. Their disbelief for joy has turned into joyful belief.
Our passage this morning should cause us not only to disbelieve for joy but to believe for joy!
We should believe for joy because we are reminded that we were made for love. And because of what God in Christ has done, we know that that love is able to survive even death for Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who is the resurrection and the life has conquered death in his body and gives his eternal life to all who believe and follow him.
We should believe for joy because we know that because of what God in Christ has done, we can experience God’s peace even in the face of death. And so we know that any separation from loved ones due to death is only a temporary separation for one day we will be united again with those we love.
We should believe for joy because one day you and I who are blessed because even though we do not now physically see Jesus yet still believe in him can rest assured that one day our faith will be turned into sight. One day we will be able to see and hold and worship the Jesus we now serve.
This Ascension Sunday we should believe for joy because we celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven the fortieth day after he rose from the dead. We celebrate his ascending because apart from it we wouldn’t have his Holy Spirit now indwelling us, enabling us to believe in the truth of who Christ is and in the truth of the written Word he has left us to encourage and guide us during our earthly sojourn.
We should believe for joy because the Scriptures we believe aren’t a made-up account but are there to tell us the history and reality of who God is and why he made us and how, from the beginning, he has loved us and how that love will not only survive human history but will carry us through all eternity.
We should believe for joy because the historical fact of Jesus Christ’s ascending to heaven to be with the Father means he is now ruling in heaven, over heaven and earth. This ruling is known as Christ’s session and it, too, is something we affirm each time we recite the Apostles’ Creed in the portion that says, “and he is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” And though he is “seated,” Jesus’ session isn’t one of rest but of rule. He who is our King, who in coming to earth in human form inaugurated his kingdom and began his earthly rule on earth, will one day bring that kingdom to completion. As R.C. Sproul has observed, “We Americans pride ourselves on living in a democracy, but as Christians we live in a kingdom, one that is actively ruled by the King of kings. His reign is ongoing. Jesus is King at this moment. He is on His throne even now.”
Brothers and sisters, we should believe for joy because even if our experiences of disbelieving for joy may have been too few and far between during our earthly lives thus far, one day our disbelief for joy will be turned into a belief for joy because our gracious Lord Jesus will turn our faith in him into sight before him.
We should believe for joy because one day we will learn that everything God’s Word teaches is true. That everything that Jesus taught was true. That everything his prophets and apostles taught is true.
We should believe for joy because one day our salvation will be complete—and all earthly hurts will be made right—and all earthly ills and sicknesses will be healed—and all earthly separations will be restored for we, who were made by our Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer to love him, who is love, with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength and each other as ourselves, will see and love him—and will be joined again with those we have loved.
So, brothers and sisters, this morning and always let us believe for joy.
And let us pray.
 I Corinthians 15:6.
 Luke 24:1–12.
 Luke 24:13–35.
 Mark 16:9–11; John 20:11–18
 Matthew 28:9–10.
 Luke 24:34.
 John 20:19–20: “19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” However the ESV study Bible note on John 20:19 suggests that because Jesus’ resurrection body was a real body, complete with flesh and bones, it’s possible that the door miraculously opened as it did for Peter’s escape from prison in Acts 12:10: “They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.” And yet might not the fact that they thought Jesus to be a ghost (pneuma – spirit) indicate Jesus’ appearance was out of the ordinary?
 John 11:25–26 when he raised Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother, from the dead.
 The washing of the disciples’ feet is recorded in John 13:1–17. The origin of “maundy” is the Latin word for mandate, commandment (mandatum) and refers specifically to the new commandment Jesus gives in John 13:34 later in the chapter: 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
 Torah = first five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy); Nevi’im = Major (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and Minor (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) Prophets; Ketuvim = Writings and includes Poetic books (Psalms, Proverbs, Job) as well as the five scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther), and Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
 Acts 1:3: After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
 John 20:29.
 The word “session” originally meant seated.
 The Most Important Session of All. < http://www.ligonier.org/blog/most-important-session-all/>