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!”
Yes – the old ones are the best!
Ghost or real. That’s the question facing the disciples – and us – in our gospel reading today!
It’s been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster ride for the followers of Jesus on that first Easter Day. Throughout the day they are in turn startled, terrified, frightened, joyful, disbelieving, puzzled, wondering! Try and imagine what must have been going through their minds as they deal in turn with the death of Jesus, his burial, their fear of the authorities, and then various in their number turning up and saying: He’s not dead at all – he’s alive again.
Well, the disciples don’t know what to think, as Saint Luke shows us in today’s gospel reading. And it’s helpful, when dealing with today’s reading, to know what has just come before it. In the bit of Luke’s gospel just before today’s reading Luke tells us how two followers of Jesus have been fleeing from Jerusalem, on the day of the resurrection, on the road to Emmaus. They meet another traveller who explains to them how the Scriptures – the books of Moses and the prophets – all speak about the Messiah.
And then, when he shares supper with them, he breaks the bread and the two followers realise it is Jesus who has been talking and sharing with them. And then Jesus vanishes from their sight, having revealed himself to them in the breaking of the Word and the breaking of the bread. They race back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven – Jesus is alive. And in turn they are told: It’s true The Lord is risen indeed! He has appeared to Simon.
And then, suddenly, Jesus is standing there with them. And there are echoes of last week’s reading from John, for the first thing Jesus says to them is: Peace be with you!
It’s not surprising that 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. How would you have reacted, had you been there? I think we’d all have been with the disciples on that one! A ghost – how could it be anything else?
But Jesus is at pains to point out that his appearance was not a ghostly one. And Luke is at pains to make it clear to his readers that Jesus was most definitely alive and was a physical being, just in case like the initial reaction of the disciples his readers’ reaction was also to say: No, he can’t be – it must have been a ghost.
And so Luke tells us how Jesus invited the disciples to touch him. You can’t touch a ghost of course, 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. He tells the disciples to touch him. But the disciples of course, were still terrified. Who can blame them? So Jesus, 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 that Jesus did 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 just appeared in the room among them. Normal human beings in this life and in this dimension just unexpectedly materialise – one moment he wasn’t there, and then he was. 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 two on the Emmaus road who had dashed back to the disciples full of joy. 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 to the disciples 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 somehow he was 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-Easter Jesus was 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 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.
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. He was not a ghost, some kind of apparition – he was real and solid and touchable. Yes – he was different, and yet it was him. Glorified, incorruptible – but real. The most likely conclusion – the only conclusion in my view – is that the tomb was empty and Jesus was risen and as real as you and me, though with a post-resurrection body.
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 and never quite got it right, now knew. They understood in a completely different way at a completely different level. They knew in the centre of their being that Jesus was Lord.
And it’s exactly the same today. When they meet with the risen Christ, 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 that Jesus is Lord. And like the disciples, that new kind of knowing in the centre of being changes everything.
For like the disciples we have to take that step of admitting that the risen Christ is real – not a ghost, not a figment of our imagination, not some kind of spiritual being who is away off somewhere in heaven. He is real, in the here and now.
People used to talk about “inviting Jesus into 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 thought of themselves as Christians 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 Jesus becomes a reality in your life. That moment when you don’t just know about Jesus but you actually know him. That moment when you know that Jesus is real!
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 risen 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 real and living Saviour who lives in your heart today and who is with you for ever.