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A Ghost Story / The Third Sunday of Easter

Luke 24:36–49

But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.

It’s not every day that you see a ghost. In fact, you may never see one. Still, judging by numerous cultural examples, ghosts occupy a prominent place in the public consciousness. What’s more, this belief goes back thousands of years. The disciples of today’s Gospel reading believed in ghosts, and for a good reason: They saw one!

If you like to snuggle up with a good novel on a cold, rainy day in April, you’ll likely do so with your favorite genre in your hand, or on your tablet. Lovers of fiction know that there are many literary genres, but we tend to stay with a favorite.

Some readers prefer “literary” fiction “highbrow” novels in which character development is more important than plot. But other categories exist: mystery, thriller, horror, historical, romance, western, science fiction, fantasy, and many more.

However, our Gospel reading today suggests another category that’s also very popular today: the ghost story. In the reading, the disciples, minus Judas, have gathered in Jerusalem, along with “their companions” as well as the two men Jesus encountered on the road to Emmaus. Suddenly, Jesus popped in unannounced and said, “BOO!”

Actually, He said, “Peace be with you.” But the effect was the same. They were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

Ghosts fascinate us, don’t they? Ghosts occupy such a prominent place in the English-speaking world that there’s a book listing scary ghost stories: The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories. Hundreds of novels are in print with “ghost” in the title books like Ghost Town, Ghost Moon, Ghost Riders, The Ghost in the Machine, Ghost Abbey, Ghost Children, The Ghost Next Door, The Ghost Writer, Ghost Road, Ghost Train, Ghost Ship, The Ghost in the Closet, Ghost Wolf. And movies? Where would we start? Remember Ghost with Patrick Swazye, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg? Or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. And of course, who could forget Ghostbusters.

In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples thought at first that they were seeing a ghost. This wasn’t the first time. Remember, they were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and a storm came up. Jesus, who had been praying on land, saw that they were in distress, and walked out on the water for a better look. But when they saw Him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw Him and were terrified.

It’s not like they were used to seeing ghosts like we saw as kids, Casper the Friendly Ghost. They knew, as do we, that water doesn’t support a human body; that someone who is certifiably dead just doesn’t show up willy-nilly at the table a few days after His execution for a dinner of fried tilapia on a bed of couscous primavera with a side of roasted Parmesan-rosemary potatoes. They knew that Jesus was dead. Dead and buried. He was so dead that the soldiers didn’t even need to break His legs as He hung on the cross, something they’d ordinarily do to hasten suffocation. And Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, had taken the lifeless body of Jesus and arranged for His burial in a garden tomb.

Yes, He was dead … yet here He was asking them if they had anything to eat! They fumbled around and found some “broiled fish” and gave it to Him, and He promptly ate it “in their presence.”

What’s striking about this reading and Luke’s subsequent recording of the event is Jesus’ insistence in dispelling the notion that He was a ghost. Jesus goes to great pains to demonstrate that He’s not an apparition, phantom or ghost. He quickly establishes the physicality of His presence. Look at My hands and My feet. See that it is I Myself. Touch Me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.

Years later, Paul and all the Gospel writers, but especially John, would insist that the Jesus they knew was a real human being, a person of flesh and blood, who ate and drank with them, who laughed and cried with them, who got tired and angry and experienced temptation.

For example, John begins his first letter with: We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life, this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it. Then he adds, By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.

From the time of Jesus’ resurrection to His ascension into heaven, approximately 50 days passed. This equals on today’s calendars, Easter Sunday through Ascension Day (10 days before Pentecost Sunday). During this time, Jesus had conversations with hundreds of people. The first person He saw was a woman, Mary Magdalene. He also saw Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, Peter and the two men on the Emmaus road. He appears in today’s text, but Thomas seems to have been absent. Later, He confronts Thomas face-to-face. He also had breakfast with seven disciples on the Sea of Galilee.

Something I find very interesting is that there’s no record of Jesus having a reunion with His mother. But many scholars believe that He must have, noting that the Gospels don’t record all His post-resurrection encounters. Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time. It stretches credulity to believe that Jesus could have met such an enormous crowd “at one time,” without the Gospel writers not even giving it a mention, unless you understand that the Gospels don’t record every encounter Jesus had with His followers. So, they discreetly omit what must have been an emotional event when Jesus was reunited with His mother Mary.

The question is: Why are these appearances and His real physical presence important? Why is there a doctrine of the Real Presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist? Some of the answers are due to what was going on in the world in those days. Then, too, we must consider theological answers. And finally, there’s the factor of what His humanity means to us, and to all people of every day and age.

First, the ancient world. Plato put it simply, and that everything was bad, if not downright evil. It was absurd in his view to think that what was divine and therefore good, would become matter or flesh. To him the incarnation was laughable. And so would have been the crucifixion. The apostle Paul acknowledges that a crucified deity was “foolishness to the Gentiles.” So, false teachers in the early Church thought, that Jesus only “appeared” to be human. He wasn’t really human. It was against this thinking that the apostles Paul and John reacted so strongly, and it explains why Luke mentions Jesus eating and drinking like a normal hungry and thirsty person.

Second, theology. The Bible says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Jesus is described as the Agnus Dei, the lamb of God. It was a metaphor every Jew in Jesus’ day understood. If there was to be any atonement for a person’s sins, or the sins of the world, a ram in the thicket, or sacrificial lamb, would be needed.

Finally, Jesus is our brother. The Bible stresses that Jesus was one of us. The writer of Hebrews explains: Jesus “had to become like His brothers and sisters in every respect … Because He Himself was tested by what He suffered, He is able to help those who are being tested.” The author continues: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” The importance of this is that we can now pray to Jesus because, as a national ad campaign suggests, “He Gets Us.”

Jesus is one of us. The disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. They were wrong. He was one of them. And if we are to have a ghost of a chance at experiencing the power of the resurrected life of Christ, we, too, must put aside any ghost stories. Jesus was, as the creed says, “born of the Virgin Mary.” He “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” This doesn’t happen to a ghost.

The creed continues: He “rose again from the dead on the third day.” That doesn’t sound like a ghost story either! He is risen.

Thanks be to God.