All of us have, at one time or another, heard a ghost story. Usually we’re introduced to them when we’re kids. They’re popular at summer camp around the campfire, and at Halloween. Sometimes we find them funny or silly, sometimes terrifying. We may have friends who claim they have experienced the presence of a ghost or a haunting, we might have had such an experience ourselves, and as we grow older we either buy into a belief in ghosts, or tend to disbelieve completely.
That a large segment of the population is, at the very least, intrigued by the idea of ghosts can be seen in the many TV shows dedicated to covering the paranormal. There have been fictional shows, such “Ghost Whisperer”, and ones that claim to be the real deal, like “Ghost Hunters”. These shows run for a while, then the series ends, only to be replaced by new shows on the same subject. There is even a religion, Spiritualism, based on the firm belief in ghosts.
The idea of ghosts tantalizes and fascinates the modern mind, but the concept is ancient. We find it in pre-literate cultures, in ancestor worship, and in ancient religions. But, we might ask, did Jesus’ followers believe in ghosts? Obviously, some of the people closest to Him did.
Jesus himself stood among the disciples and their companions and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened…”
If you stop to think about it, it does sound like a silly question. The last time the disciples had seen Jesus, He’d been hanging on a Roman cross, and they had it on good authority that there He had died. Not too surprisingly, they misinterpret His sudden appearance among them. Ghosts have always been feared, because the idea that the once-living would remain on earth is a contradiction to what religious beliefs have always maintained, that the soul goes on, to punishment or reward. For the once-living to remain earthbound can, with few exceptions, only mean trouble, and thus, ghosts are terrifying.
But Jesus understands what His friends are thinking and adds, 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. With this He holds out His hands, and we can imagine the disciples reaching out, cautiously grasping His hands, His wrists, His arms, and then exploding with joy.
Why does Luke, from whose Gospel today’s reading comes, find it so important to establish that Jesus is flesh and blood? The answer is, because that is how it was and is. Human nature is to try to find some other explanation for the resurrection, we still hear theories today, but hard as it is for some to accept, Jesus bodily resurrection is the Truth. And in rising from the dead, Jesus gives us, not only something to look forward to ourselves, but someone concrete to whom we can relate, in whom we can believe, someone we can trust.
Mother Teresa often said that she never prayed to God the Father, but only to Jesus, His son. Her reason was, she said, that she had no imagination, and that God the Father was something way beyond her ability to grasp. She preferred to pray to God in His incarnate form, to Jesus. Jesus walked the earth as a man, and He rose from the dead as a man. The mystery of the resurrection she could accept, though not fathom, but a human being, this she could understand.
She would kneel for hours in front of the large crucifix in the chapel, next to which was a sign that read, “I Thirst”. Only that which is flesh and blood can thirst, and Mother Teresa maintained that Jesus’ thirst was a constant reminder that today He still thirsts - for souls to turn to Him and be saved. This she could also understand.
“I thirst” is what our Lord said just before He died, and His hunger continues in today’s resurrection story. He said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish. Broiled fish is a Galilean dish, common food of the common folk, and Jesus took it and ate in their presence.
The first part of our reading today establishes, beyond any shadow of a doubt, Jesus living, physical, bodily Presence after His crucifixion and death. It expresses His love for His followers, in that He comes to them, calms their fears, reestablishes their connection to Him, and it makes clear what is meant by “the resurrection of the body”. It also presents us with Jesus hunger, which can be interpreted as representing not only His physical need at that time, but also His continuing desire for souls to come to Him and be saved.
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.
After establishing that He is truly flesh and blood, Jesus commissions the Apostles, and us, His followers today. In Luke, when Jesus speaks about the forgiveness of sins, He doesn’t mean an exclusively psychological or spiritual transformation. Rather, forgiveness is an act that touches every dimension of human existence. We have become so accustomed to the words “forgiveness of sins”, we usually don’t think twice about them. We reason that whatever it is we’ve done wrong, if we are truly sorry for having done it, we will be forgiven. This is true, but without taking time to consider the source of our wrongdoings, it is difficult to follow Jesus’ commission. We need to have an idea of how we qualify as sinners, because understanding our own brokenness gives us strength to be forgiving of the brokenness of others.
Here are some things to consider. Thomas Aquinas would remind us that anything we have that is more than what we need has been stolen from the poor. Jesus thought being angry was terrifyingly close to murder. Interest at levels of usury, and our overwhelming need to use it, simply put a polite face on our ability to ignore “you will not covet”. And the new command, “Love one another as I have loved you” never does seem to apply to those who are different, those that threaten our finances or our idea of security, or to those where love costs more than we choose to bear.
We are people who really need to be forgiven, people who need to examine our lives closely and make some drastic changes. If we look to Jesus Himself we see what forgiveness means. Healing, empowerment, exorcism, befriending the poor and disenfranchised, speaking the Truth – all of these actions of Jesus are expressions of forgiveness. We are told to seek this transforming forgiveness, and when we do, to use it to become more forgiving to others. This is our calling.
Jesus comes to His followers after His resurrection and He is real, solid, living. He is not of the world of ghosts and spectres. He is in this World, but not of it. He sends His followers, us, out to do concrete work among the poor, the needy, the disenfranchised. We are to, by our deeds, our words and our example, help all people we meet experience the love and forgiveness of Jesus and the joy of becoming His followers and His workers in this world.
Though not in today’s reading, the Apostles are also told that before they begin their work, they are to wait for the coming of an Advocate. This Advocate is the great gift Jesus’ gave us after His ascension. For years we’ve called this gift, the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost. This is our Ghost story, not one concerned with terrifying spirts of the dead, but with the living.
For us, the temptation to fall into unreality is as strong as it was for people in Jesus’ day. They surrounded themselves with imagined ghosts and gods. We too like escaping into the phantasies our minds can produce. We encounter the poor and let our minds become filled with fears and misconceptions. We see a beggar and make a judgment. We often withhold our caring our support our love, because we have spun falsehoods in our minds.
Jesus resurrection calls us into reality, the reality of serving Him, and of loving all people in His name. We shirk our duty when we continue to insist that reality is what we think it is, to act on our prejudices and preconceived notions, and, not see ourselves as sinners. Jesus calls us to see who and what we are, understand the great gift of forgiveness, and do what He has commanded us to do.
Through His rising from the dead, Jesus enables us to go without fear into a world we are called to serve. Through our baptism we are filled with the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit, which empowers us to do the work Jesus has given us. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just some miracle we remember annually. It is a call to service, to cast off the world, to trust Him, to love all people in His Name. Living Christ’s mercy, forgiveness, and self-emptying, these are the things that should define us.
The Psalm today asks, "You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; how long will you worship dumb idols and run after false gods?" We have to turn from the allure of the false reality of the world, and begin living Jesus’ reality, the reality of the resurrection and all that it means for our lives. Empowered by the Holy Ghost, we must go forth into the world, but be not of it. Defying worldly reason, we must love and forgive as we have been and are loved and forgiven, we are to Love and forgive as Jesus has commanded us to do.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, help us to serve others with a joyful heart; never keeping score; always giving; never expecting to receive. Help us to give of ourselves, of our talents and of our goods, of our time and of our energy, of our hearts and of our souls. Help us understand the needs of others, never criticizing, never demeaning, never condemning. You have been so gracious to us, always loving, always forgiving, always restoring. Help us to serve others as You serve, with gentleness, compassion, and tenderness, extending mercy to all, as You have extended it to us. This we ask for Your love and mercy’s sake. Amen.