The summer before I began high school I couldn’t sleep. Every night as I got in bed and closed my eyes I was haunted by a date that loomed weeks ahead on the calendar. Instead of counting sheep I would count down the days until I would have to come face to face with this awful fear that visited me nightly, like a ghost of my cursed future self. Four weeks, three weeks, two weeks, seven days, six, five, four, three, two…tomorrow would be the day of my very first sports physical! I can honestly still feel the anxiety that haunted me then as I think about it now. I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and if I wanted to play sports in high school I had to go to the doctor and get a physical for the very first time. My mom told me that she had signed me up for something called a “group physical” at the pediatrician’s office. I really had no idea what this would be like and involve, so I foolishly asked my older brothers, and of course they were happy to tell me that it was nothing to worry about; the physical simply involved standing in a room full of kids you know from school, kids you’re already super anxious to impress, and you stand there together in a compromised position. Now of course this isn’t what actually happened, but my brothers had succeeded in absolutely terrifying my newly teenaged and self-conscious self, and the prospect of this public event truly haunted me until the fateful day came and went without catastrophe.
I’ve never seen a ghost, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard one lurking in the attic and to be perfectly honest, I don’t have a strong conviction one way or another about whether I even believe in ghosts or not. But one thing I know to be true, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that we’re all haunted by something. We can all relate in some way to my childhood self, unable to sleep because of something you’ve done, or will soon have to do, as the mere thought of it floats around in your mind and drags its ghostly chains across your increasingly anxious chest.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus’ disciples dismiss him and his resurrected presence with them by calling him a ghost. Just after he has defeated death and risen from the grave, Jesus visits his mourning friends with remarkable and simple words of peace. And yet, they are unable to recognize him.
Similar to the scene in which Jesus walks on water, and the disciples dismiss the figure of Christ standing on water before them as a ghost, as something that isn’t exactly real, today the disciples once again reject what they see as an impossibility; “this is just a ghost, he isn’t really here, Jesus is dead, he isn’t really doing this…” But the disciples aren’t casually denying this. They’re sad that they’ve lost their friend, they’re terrified that the man they were beginning to believe was their messiah has now died. They were terrified of the storm at sea when Jesus walked out to them on water, they’re scared now. There is nothing peaceful about their state of being.
There is a reason Jesus is mistaken for a ghost, for something frightening and possibly dark rather than a unicorn or even an angel, something positive and happy and hopeful. I think that Jesus is mistaken for a ghost, for something scary, because it’s in the midst of our suffering, in our darkest of days and when all that we hold dear seems to have been forsaken, it’s then that Jesus and his grace appears most profoundly and powerfully in our lives. The blood of Christ, the mercy of God our father, the forgiveness and absolution of the sins that truly haunt us, this grace is most needed, and thankfully is freely given, when we are in need, when we are afraid and when we feel most alone in our failures and heartaches. It’s ghostly times like these when Jesus seems to show up.
You may not believe in ghosts, or like me you may not be sure what you believe, but you can’t deny that between our ears and deep down in our chests, we all live with a lot of scary ghosts. We’re haunted by the one that got away, or the way things ended with him or with that job. We’re haunted by the image of what our life will look like if we don’t get that promotion, if we don’t buy that house or ever find someone to love us.
Think of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and the way he portrays Scrooge’s journey with not one, but three ghosts: the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. These ghosts of our failures and mistakes have us surrounded from all angles—past, present and future.
On two separate occasions I’ve recently heard someone use the phrase, “the ghosts of Covid”, suggesting that they will linger and be visiting us for decades: the mental health, economic and educational loses and wounds that we’ve suffered over these long and lonely months will be wounds that we carry with us for a long time, and they’ll come and go in frightening forms. But of course we’re here today to be reminded that these ghosts are not our only visitor when life gets hard.
Flannery O’Connor famously called our region of this country and the world the “Christ-Haunted South”. I love her use of the word haunted, because by using it she’s not only gesturing back to some supposed era when the authority of Christ seemed to be more commonly recognized, but it also refers to the present haunting of Christ, and as she shows throughout her work, Christ’s presence is far more real and powerful than any ghost we may come across.
And this is ultimately the point of this passage from Luke, and it’s certainly the point of my brief sermon today. Jesus reveals himself to the disciples, he shows them that it is truly him that is with them, he presents his wounds, he even picks up a piece of broiled fish and comically eats it—something no ghost, or any kind of haunting fear or anxiety could ever do. Jesus is more real, and his grace is more powerfully present than any ghost, than any fear, than any thing in this world. Jesus is more real than all your worries, his mercy is more present than all of the failures that haunt you, and his grace is more powerful than the ghosts of your past and the stress of your future. He will deliver us from the bondage of sin and death, because he has died for our sins, and he has defeated death. Jesus is with us. His peace is real. He is real.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, I will fear no sin, no shame, no death, no ghost: for thou art with me.