A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on April 30, 2003.
Based on Luke 24:36b-48 (3 Easter, Year B).
It’s been awhile since I’ve heard a good ghost story. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been to summer camp for a few years now and the closest I’ve come to a campfire recently is firing up the gas grill in my backyard.
But, even though it’s been a long time since I was last scared out of my wits at a campsite, sitting around and telling ghost stories is always memorable. And we can all probably remember doing this at some point in our lives. There’s something both comforting and disconcerting about it. You sit around in a circle shoulder-to-shoulder with some close friends. There’s a slight chill in the air from the late evening summer breeze as the sun sets and yet the warmth of the hot coals draws you in. You’ve had a hearty meal – maybe hot dogs and corn on the cob. Certainly something out of a can. And smores were undoubtedly on the menu. Marshmallows were toasted. One or two dropped into the fire along the way, creating a fireball of gooey chemicals. You may be tired out from hiking all day but you’re relaxed in a satisfied way. Life is good; you’re among friends. And as you sit you perceive a curious blend between the familiar and the unknown because you’re in an unfamiliar place with people you know. There are strange noises and smells. And just as you gently let your guard down, there’s a rustle in the woods. It’s probably a chipmunk or a squirrel but it could be a bear. And then someone begins to tell a ghost story. It starts out slowly and softly, barely audible above the crackling of the ever-dimming flame. And then the tale builds to a crescendo and ends when the story-teller suddenly leaps up to deliver the news that the creature is still alive and well and out to get you.
In Scripture, the closest we come to ghost stories are Jesus’ post- resurrection appearances. He shows up unannounced to the disciples on several occasions and, understandably, they think they’ve seen a ghost. And they’re terrified. Of course, unlike a classic ghost story, Jesus doesn’t try to scare the unsuspecting disciples. He doesn’t leap out from behind a tree wielding an axe. “Peace be with you” he says – hardly the chilling climax to a ghost story. There’s a reason for this of course. Jesus isn’t a ghost and this isn’t a ghost story.
Jesus is neither ghost nor spirit nor apparition. It’s not the supernatural at work but the divine hand of God. Jesus has not returned to haunt the disciples but to redeem them. So, if there is initial fear in these encounters, there is also ultimate comfort. There’s a difference between being haunted by Jesus and recognizing his loving presence in our lives. I’m not sure if ghosts exist or not but I know that Jesus does.
The whole story of the Gospel of Jesus rests on the eyewitness testimony of the apostles. The story of faith we inherit is based on what they experienced in those last days. It’s not a ghost story. It’s not fantasy or fiction. It’s something we have been told as the faith has been passed down through the generations and it becomes something we experience in our lives. For us there’s no way to rationally verify the resurrection. Jesus doesn’t stp by our homes for dinner. But his living presence is what pervades everything we do and all that we are.
Through his appearance to the disciples and through his presence in our own lives, Jesus exorcises the ghosts and demons of doubt and replaces them with faith. This isn’t a ghost story but a gospel story. A story passed on by the apostles and countless generations of Christians so that we may share in the resurrection joy of Jesus Christ.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003