The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Ghost Story: A Sermon on Luke 24:36b-48

[Delivered on April 15, 2018, The Third Sunday of Easter, at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC]

Alleluia! The Lord is Risen!
The Lord is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

So what were they so afraid of?

I’m asking from personal experience.

When I was 11 years old, my grandmother, the sweet, gentle “Nana” who loved my sister and me to distraction, died. Quite suddenly, of a heart attack, dying in my grandfather’s arms.

Too soon, but probably just how she’d want to go.

A few days after her death, I saw her, walking across the street. I ran to catch up with her, called out “Nana!”

But when I reached her, there was a very different, very puzzled woman facing a little boy she’d never seen before.

I knew my grandmother was dead. I knew that if I caught up with her, she still wouldn’t be alive.

But I thought she’d still be Nana.

That’s a ghost story without a ghost.

And so is today’s Gospel.

Which brings me back to my starting point. What were the disciples so afraid of?

What did they know that I didn’t?

Wouldn’t even a ghost of Jesus be better than no Jesus at all?

And yet the Eleven are terrified when he comes into the room. He says “Peace be with you,” and they’re still terrified.


In that same period of my life, I loved ghost stories. And to be honest—I still do. Enough that in my teens I read up on parapsychology, and learned about what people who took seriously the experiences of people who have seen ghosts think about the meaning of ghosts.

I’m not alone in this. Susan Howatch, the Anglican novelist, has read some of the same books I have, and it shows in the finale of her six volume chronicle of life in the Church of England from the 1930s to the 1970s. In that final volume, Absolute Truths, Howatch’s rational, highly intellectual protagonist, Bishop Charles Ashworth, believes he has seen a ghost in the Cathedral.

But before we get there, Howatch tells us some things about ghosts, things that the parapsychologists tell us, too.

That there’s always a connection of some kind between the viewer and the viewed.

That usually that connection means unfinished business.

And that, Hollywood portrayals of the charming romantic ghost aside, the ghost is not the person you knew. To use Howatch’s phrase, a ghost is a “discarnate shred of a former personality.”

Let that last phrase sink in for a minute. Evocative isn’t it? A little ominous perhaps. But what does it mean?

Discarnate? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it quite simply: “stripped of flesh,. . . or bodily form, unembodied” but then adds “the reverse of incarnation.”

Remember, these disciples in this reading are still cowering in the aftermath of Good Friday. Oh, they’ve heard the story of the women at the tomb, and the unnamed two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, recognized him in the breaking of the bread—only for him to vanish.

They’re afraid. Something is going on, little hints of some tectonic shift in reality, but stuck in their extended Good Friday, hidden away in fear, they don’t know what it is, and whether it’s for their good or their harm.


That’s the fearful power of Good Friday, under which these disciples are cowering. We take it for granted in the Apostle’s Creed in our 1979 Prayer Book: “He descended to the dead.” In older iterations—or in Rite I—it’s starker: “He descended into hell.”

As late as 1727, a book posthumously published book by Thomas Burnet could state that “the soul of Christ was perfectly human,” that “Jesus went through all” that we do, that, after the Crucfixion, “he went to the region of human souls—that’s Hades, to Burnet, by the way, a fancy way of saying Hell, but the classical Hell not our Christian one where the Devil is a charming imp with horns—“and being discarnated.”

In other words, Good Friday reverses the central miracle of Christianity: The Incarnation is violently ripped inside out, and God having become man becomes—what?

No wonder they’re afraid.

But it’s more than that, you know. A “discarnate shred of a former personality,” remember?

It won’t be Jesus, they’re thinking. Not really. Some echo of him, some phantom of him.

No, it has to be some last, powerful, emotion Jesus felt in his dying, and that won’t let him rest until the unfinished business is completed.

In antiquity, that unfinished business is usually revenge.

A ghost, traditionally, cannot rest until it has revenged itself.

But the disciples loved Jesus, followed him—hey, it was Judas who betrayed him, not—well, wait a minute.

They all fled.

Peter denied him three times.

And if a ghost is only a shred of the former personality—usually the angry, vindictive shred—well, there’s enough guilt washing around in that room that they can all bathe in it.

So there is the connection between the viewers and the viewed.

There’s the unfinished business.

It’s guilt. But not any guilt of Jesus’s making. It’s the disciples’ own marinating in their failures at Gesthamane, at Golgatha.

And guilt being what it is, they’re probably doing the deep dive, remembering failures great and small.

Whether it’s Jesus saying to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!”, or James and John vying to sit on either side of Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Or most likely it’s all of them, remembering that at the Last Supper—in their last moments of peace—when Jesus interrupted them arguing over who was the greatest among them, and rebuking them, reminded that he came as one who serves, and so must they. And Peter again remembering his boasting that he would never deny Jesus.

Maybe there is a ghost in this story after all.

Eleven ghosts, to be precise. Eleven men, who once walked in the sun and the air, who cast out demons in Jesus’s name, who cured the sick—now cowering in the Upper Room, waiting for something to happen to them. To bring them back to life.

And that’s just what happens.

These guilty men, these traitors, failures, skulking in the dark—they can’t believe their ears when they hear that much loved voice use that familiar phrase:

“Peace be with you.”

And so Jesus approaches them, one after the other, touches, them, lets them see and touch his wounds—whatever it takes to help them understand what is standing right in front of them.

And it really is Jesus—he’s even hungry, and eats some fish with them.

Jesus is right there, and there are no ghosts.

Eleven men, who were fading away into something very like ghosts, though, have been reborn with joy, and a sense of the awesome possibilities of life.

The dark miracle of Good Friday has been transfigured with light; Jesus has risen, and the reversal of the Incarnation has been set aside.

That was many years ago, in another country, and besides, the witnesses are dead.

But we gather here weekly in a building named for one of them—St. Bartholomew, also known as Nathaniel.

This whole city is dotted with churches named after the disciples, dedicated to the worship of God, and spreading of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

So maybe we should follow today’s Gospel reading to the end. He resumes his teaching of them, opening the scriptures to them. He explains that his ordeal and resurrection had to be, and then gives them their marching orders: repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Jesus’s name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

And they did it.

Traitors? Failures? Braggarts?

Once, maybe.

But then they fell to earth on Good Friday, and could not find themselves in its wake. They needed to be found by the man they had failed, by Jesus.

And the ghost story is replaced by a resurrection miracle, an Easter miracle.

We all have our guilt. We all have our failures, are guilty of our betrayals, small and large. And, often, we can feel like we need to hide from that guilt, skulking in our own version of that Upper Room. So sure we are beyond forgiveness. Unworthy.

But the Easter miracle is that, when the door is opened, and we turn, expecting the nightmare figure of vengeance, come to denounce us, we see no such thing.

We see our teacher and friend, Jesus of Nazareth, who offers us his peace, shares a meal with us, and then begins to say, as confidently if we’ve never failed him or anybody else, “Get out of this place you’ve been hiding in.” And what are we to do once we’re out in the open air? I think St. Francis got this right: Go preach the gospel. Use words if you must.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

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