A ghost walked into a pub, went up to the bar and said to the landlord, “Can I have a brandy please?” “I’m sorry,” said the landlord, “we don’t serve spirits!”
I wonder if any of you have ever seen a ghost, or had a ghostly experience. Before we moved to Caterham we lived in a house that was over 270 years old. It was a rather grand Georgian House in Clapham that had at some point in its history been purchased by a wealthy priest and given to the church as a vicarage. It had four floors – the top floor was where the servants lived and the cellar had originally been the kitchen, larder and coal-hole. The railings outside the house were even older, Queen Anne – for an older house had originally stood on the site and when it was rebuilt the original railings had remained. It was by far the oldest house that we had ever lived in, and it was difficult not to think about all the people who had lived there over the centuries – both the wealthy owners and the over-worked and poorly paid servants. Fortunately, while we were there at least, none of them decided to appear as a ghost, though like many old buildings you could sometimes sense their presence about the place.
I have never seen a ghost myself, although like many people I do enjoy a good ghost story and I have met people who believe they have seen ghosts – and their stories are often quite convincing. Most of us have never seen a ghost, so it’s difficult to know whether or not to believe in them. There are many well-attested accounts of the appearance of ghosts, and a few photographs which claim to support those accounts, but unless you see one for yourself you’re perhaps left not knowing quite what to believe.
It seems that not surprisingly, the first thought to spring to mind when Jesus was seen by his friends on that first Easter Sunday, was that he was a ghost. But Jesus was at pains to point out that his appearance was not a ghostly one. He invited the disciples to touch him. You can’t touch a ghost, your hand would go straight through since a ghost has no substance. This wasn’t the case with Jesus. He was flesh and blood and he did have substance. Perhaps that was why Thomas in another incident said, “Unless I touch him for myself I shan’t believe.” The disciples of course, were still terrified. SoJesus, ever practical, gave them something mundane and homely to do. He sent them off to cook a piece of fish both to settle them down and to prove that he was real, for ghosts have no need of food. And when they’d eaten together and were feeling a little more sure of themselves and of Jesus, he immediately began to teach them. He opened the Scriptures to them in a new sort of way, just as he had opened the Scriptures to those on the way to Emmaus.
It all sounds very normal and just the sort of thing thatJesusdid during his life, but there are a number of hints that it was actually far from normal. He may not have been a ghost, but somehow or other he appeared in the room even though the doors were locked. Normal human beings in this life and in this dimension don’t walk through locked doors. And Jesus was fit and well. On the Friday his injuries had been so horrific that he’d died from them. Now on the Sunday, only two days later, although he seems to have had scars from the wounds – why else would he have said to them “see my hands and my feet” – clearly there was no bleeding, no discomfort and no pain. Jesus was upright and walking normally and naturally and was as fit and healthy as anyone in the room. Indeed, he’d just walked seven miles to Emmaus and presumably back again – not a journey to be undertaken by the unfit. And there seems to have been something different about the way in which he taught the disciples. Previously, although he spoke a great deal in parables and stories, much of his teaching was quite obscure and had to be explained to the disciples afterwards. We’re told again and again in the gospels that their minds were dull or that they were blind or that they couldn’t understand.
That wasn’t so for the disciples in today’s account, neither was it so for the disciples on the road to Emmaus which immediately precedes this account in Luke’s gospel. In both episodes, the disciples immediately grasped what he was telling them and they were filled with fervour and excitement and enthusiasm. It was as though now they understood with the heart rather than simply with the mind or the intellect. Now he is risen, Jesus teaches them in a new way and their minds and hearts are opened to the Scriptures.
So the Jesus who appeared in the upper room on Easter Sunday evening was not the same as the Jesus who died on Good Friday afternoon. Or rather, he was the same person, yet he was quite different. It was certainly Jesus who died, Jesus the son of Mary and Joseph, and who somehow or other passed through death and was seen alive on the other side of death. But this post-death, post-EasterJesuswas different. He was Jesus the Christ, the Saviour, the Messiah. He was risen!
The resurrection of Jesus is a huge stumbling block for many people, including many Christians. There have always been Christians who have suggested that Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead, that it was some kind of spiritual experience that the disciples had of Jesus on that first Easter Day. Personally I do not see how you can explain the existence of the early Church, the fearless preaching of disciples who had previously been fearful, unless there was an empty tomb and a real, physical risen Jesus. At 2,000 years distance we shall never know exactly what happened or how it happened – the mechanics, if you like, of the resurrection. All we can do is examine the different accounts of the evidence and reach the most likely conclusion. But we can be absolutely certain that something happened, and that it was something momentous, something previously utterly unknown. The tomb was definitely empty. The disciples were convinced that Jesus had conquered death and was once again with them in the flesh.
And the resurrection of Jesus changed everything. The disciples, who for the previous three years had a kind of belief in Jesus and kind of understood what he was about though they struggled with it all, now knew. They understood in a completely different way at a completely different level. They knew in the centre of their being thatJesus was Lord.
And it’s exactly the same today. When they meet with the risenChrist, those who have spent the whole of their lives kind of believing and kind of understanding, suddenly know at a totally different level and in a totally different way thatJesusis Lord. And like the disciples, that new kind of knowing in the centre of being changes everything.
And just as many people are unable to believe in ghosts until or unless they meet one for themselves, so it’s impossible to know the risen Christ at the centre of being until you meet him for yourself. No amount of reading the Bible or doing good deeds or even attending church and saying prayers or listening to other people who say they know him will give an experience of the risen Christ unless and until you meet him for yourself.
People used to talk about “inviting Jesusinto your heart”. Perhaps that seems a rather simplistic thing to do in our advanced and sophisticated age. But it’s actually something we all need to do and something that many people who have been attending church for years have never actually done – and therefore never experienced that moment of life-changing joy when the truth dawns. When, just as the disciples discovered on that first Easter day, the risen Jesusbecomes a reality in your life. That moment when you don’t just know about Jesus but you actually know him. And once that happens, it changes everything. Once you know at the centre of your being that Jesus is real and it’s possible to communicate with him and actually hear him, life is utterly transformed. There’s a deep, inner happiness, the peace which passes understanding. There’s a very real source of strength and power. And life becomes eternal life, experienced here and now. Because life is no longer finite, ended by death. Death is no longer to be feared, because you know that, as we say in Church Army, one day you are going to Glory.
That’s what’s on offer to Easter people, to those who meet with the resurrected Lord. And compared with that, the actual mechanics of resurrection suddenly become much less important, for you find out for yourself that the risen Christ is no ghost but a living Saviour who lives in your heart today and who is with you for ever.