When I was a lot younger, probably still in elementary school, I remember a conversation among some friends. While the details are hazy, I do remember that we were discussing in earnest the question: “Who are the stronger, more faithful Christians? Us (my friends and I) or the people, like the disciples, who lived with Jesus?” This, at the time, was the critical question that needed an answer.
Behind the question and conversation was our belief that for something to be real or true, there must be proof. There must be the hard evidence to support the claim. Perhaps many of you can relate to this kind of logic. We live in a world, perhaps always have, where we are taught to have concrete evidence to back up claims. Scientists and conspiracy theorists, novelists and others over the years spend a lifetime trying to dig up evidence of Jesus and the many other accounts told in the Bible. Did he live in the way in which the Bible says he did? Is this piece of wood part of the actual cross on which Jesus hung? Is this the very spot where he was born . . . or died? You know the questions and seen the documentaries.
While I forget the details of the conversation I was having with my friends at the time, I believe that we came to the inevitable conclusion that in fact we, those of us living today, are more faithful and have a higher degree of faith than the disciples. We believed this to be true simply because the disciples could see, touch and talk to Jesus, whereas we can’t. The assumption being that it is easier to believe when we can touch and see the real person in front of us. So, there you have it. In case you had any doubt.
Our reading from Acts is Luke (who many believe to be the author of Acts) telling the story of life after the Resurrection. In story form Luke says how Jesus showed himself to the disciples after his death and gave, “ample proof that he was alive” (Acts 1: 3) as per the The Revised English Bible translation. Apparently, this need for proof was a “thing” for the Early Church too.
Over the past several weeks in Easter we have read how Jesus has appeared to the disciples. We read early on how he appeared to a couple of them on the Emmaus Road. This is where he was walking along with them and was invited for dinner. It was after the fact, after Jesus left, that the two remarked, “were not our hearts on fire as he talked with us” (Luke 24: 32). How can we forget the time when Thomas had to place his hands in Jesus’s wounds before he would believe again. Then again, not too long ago, we read how at daybreak, while walking along the shore, Jesus asks Peter and the others to throw their nets on the other side of the boat. Of course the catch is large. Much larger than they expect. Jesus prepares and serves breakfast to the tired and hungry disciples. Jesus is recognized and remembered in the breaking of bread and sharing of a meal.
Our reading from Acts touches on something deeply for us. We want to see Jesus. We love the narratives where Jesus appears to the disciples and we wonder if that could happen to us too. The disciples wanted to see Jesus. They desperately did. We can only imagine the heartache and disparity they felt when their friend, teacher and Rabbi, the one who they left everything for, was tragically killed. We can only imagine how they felt and how desperately they wanted to have something to cling to; a reminder of their time with Jesus.
The Ascension, the feast we commemorate today, marks a turning point in our encounters with Jesus. The focus now shifts from appearances in the flesh, to appearances and the presence Jesus in other ways.
While we don’t have the proof we always desire, we have proof of Jesus’s presence in our lives and community. We meet Jesus in the grocery store, at work, with friends, those we love and those we don’t. Jesus shows up in unexpected ways and often when we least suspect. In the smile of a friend, a much-needed hug, recovery from illness or even in death where there is a release from suffering, Jesus shows up and makes himself known.
We have examples of Jesus’s presence in our own parish community too. While it is difficult to pin point exactly when, inevitably on occasions such as when the altar guild is setting up for Easter or Christmas and everyone is busy with their respective chore; or when while helping prepare for the Shrove Tuesday pancake supper or on any other similar occasion there will come a point when I will sit back and watch. I will watch everyone participating in their own way, focused on what their particular job is, and I will suddenly realize that it doesn’t get any better than this! When the people of God come together, work together and be a part of something larger together; Christ is most definitely in the middle of it all.
In these ways and many other ways, we receive our proof. Jesus reveals himself to us in the breaking of bread and through people, ordinary people carrying out ordinary everyday work and errands, Jesus us comes to us in our world.
So, are we more faithful . . .? I don’t know. In a way, that’s not the point. The point is that Jesus says whenever two or three are gathered in his name, he is present. Whenever we break bread with one another, he is present. Whenever we find ourselves elated and on top of the world thinking life couldn’t get any better, he is present. Whenever we find ourselves lost or forgotten, he is present.
We believe, not because we see hard evidence. We believe because we have witnessed, experienced and realized Jesus in our lives, life and community. We believe because no matter where life takes us, we know we will find God one or two steps ahead of us every time.