April 18, 202
I recently had a conversation with a friend about whether or not we believe in ghosts. My friend lives in a really old house and has had several mysterious experiences that might be explained by some kind of supernatural presence. I’ve certainly known people who have seen or felt the presence of loved ones who have died, often when those people were near death themselves. We didn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but we both agreed that the veil between this world and the next is probably more thin than we like to admit.
If we were willing to entertain these ideas with all of our 21st century sophistication and sensibilities, imagine what ghostly ideas people accepted in the ancient world. In fact, one of the questions on the minds of the disciples in today’s gospel is “How can we be sure the risen Jesus isn’t a ghost?”
Much like last Sunday, this morning we get another story about Jesus appearing to some of his followers after his resurrection. Notice that in these stories no one ever calmly says, “Hey, Jesus! Good to see you. I see that you’ve come back from the dead just like you said you would.” Instead Jesus usually finds them hiding out somewhere filled with all kinds of emotions – surprise, fear, joy, doubt, wonder. He starts by saying “Peace be with you,” but they feel anything but peaceful. And I can’t say that I blame them.
In today’s account from the gospel of Luke we hear this detail: “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”
So how does Jesus persuade them that he’s not, in fact, a ghost? First, he invites them to touch him, to see that he has flesh and bones just like a real person. He shows them his hands and feet, still bearing the wounds of his crucified body. And then he asks for something to eat. They give him a piece of broiled fish, which he devours right there in front of them.
These disciples had experienced a profound trauma, and I wonder if part of what Jesus is telling them is to remember that we all inhabit bodies. By inviting them to notice that he is a flesh and blood resurrected body, by showing them his hands and feet, perhaps he wants them to be more aware of their own bodies, their own flesh and bones, their own strength and their own fragility.
Jesus also says, “Let’s eat something.” Some people have claimed that he eats that fish just to prove that he’s not a ghost, and while that may be true, I think it’s something more. I think Jesus eats that fish because, quite simply, he loves to eat. He especially loves to eat with other people. Why would he miss an opportunity to do that again after his resurrection, especially when food shared in community can be so healing?
I think everything Jesus does in this gospel is about more than debunking a ghost story.
By proving that he is in a flesh and bones body, Jesus reminds us that all bodies are holy, and all bodies deserve our care. Jesus shows up as someone whose body has been unjustly wounded by the powerful people of his time. That’s especially important to remember in our own time when there are so many assaults on bodies. Jesus in his risen body points us to all the other unjustly wounded bodies to whom we are joined in his name. Everything in his life, in his ministry, in his death, and in his resurrection points us to work for the well-being of the most vulnerable bodies.
Think about bodies killed by gun violence, which happens so often that we can barely comprehend it. 147 mass shootings so far this year, each with at least four injuries or deaths. Indianapolis. Rock Hill, SC. Allen, TX. Orange, CA. Essex, MD. Boulder. Atlanta. Indianapolis again – twice.
Or black bodies killed by the police, including 13-year-old Adam Toledo this week in Chicago and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota – while we await the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis.
Or transgender bodies from whom legislatures are trying to take away health care and other rights.
Or Asian bodies assaulted by those filled with hate; a 65-year-old Filipino woman attacked in broad daylight in New York and left lying in the street while security guards in a nearby apartment building closed the doors and refused to help her.
Jesus must weep when he sees how little we seem to care for bodies. He must wonder why his own body was nailed to a cross if we are going to cling to these particular sins so stubbornly.
Notice that after he’s invited them to touch him and after he’s eaten that fish, Jesus then opens the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures, to see that there is a new purpose that awaits them. The next step of the journey will be the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.
He’s telling them: Remember for yourselves that it’s not too late to turn in a new direction, to confess and name the ways that you have broken the world and hurt each other. To remember that God’s forgiveness is there for all who repent, all who make that turn. And having remembered that for yourselves, make sure everybody else knows that too. Everybody. From here in Jerusalem to everyone throughout the world.
You are witnesses of these things, he says to us too – witnesses of new ways of living, of new possibilities, of the power of repentance and forgiveness. Bear witness in what you say and how you live. Bear witness in what you do to make this world safe for every single body that inhabits it.
The work of protecting bodies in this world is not easy work. Problems like racism and gun violence do not have easy solutions. Because it all seems so daunting, it can be easy to hide under the covers and hope it will all go away on its own.
Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of Ralph Abernathy, a Baptist minister, a civil rights activist, and a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Among other things, Dr. Abernathy collaborated with Dr. King to launch the Montgomery bus boycott, and he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to work for justice. Yesterday was also the day I learned what is on Dr. Abernathy’s tombstone. It’s very simple. It has his name, the years of his life (1926-1990), and this simple inscription: “I tried.”
I tried. How might we live so that we can say the same at the end of our lives? I tried.
The hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes is a new one to us [“Touch That Soothes and Heals,” All Creation Sings 939]. Listen to the refrain:
“See my hands and feet,” said Jesus,
love arisen from the grave.
“Be my hands and feet,” said Jesus,
“live as ones I died to save.”
We are witnesses of these things. So let’s keep trying – keep trying to keep all bodies safe, keep trying to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins, keep trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ