7 May 2000
Removing the Ghosts
The joy of the Sundays after Easter is that they give you all the best readings! That wonderful passage from John's first letter, and the equally lovely passage in Luke's gospel.
We know these passages so well, and love them so dearly, it is often difficult to think of anything to say about them that you haven't heard a million times already. But perhaps repeating the old familiar truths is no bad thing, either!
Let's see what we can make of these readings this morning.
2. The Gospel Reading
First of all, then, our Gospel reading, from Luke's Gospel. You will remember, of course, that it is still Easter Day. Cleopas and his companion, who might well have been his wife, have gone home to Emmaus, and Jesus has gone with them, and they recognised him in the breaking of the bread. So they ran back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples all about it - seven long miles, they must have been exhausted. And while they are telling the eleven disciples all about it, suddenly, there is Jesus again.
This time they're convinced he must be a ghost - has he, too, run all the way back from Emmaus? But he shows them that he is solid flesh and bone - go on, touch me! I'm as real as you are! And he even eats some grilled fish just to prove he's real. Ghosts, after all, don't eat.
And then, according to Luke, he explains it all to them from the Scriptures, just as he'd explained it all to Cleopas and his wife, and they understood. Although how much they retained isn't clear, as Luke doesn't show them actually preaching "that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" until after the Holy Spirit has come upon them.
It's a funny sort of time of year, these weeks after Easter. We are reminded of the risen Jesus, who is in some ways most peculiar. He has not yet ascended into glory, and has not yet poured out his Holy Spirit, so he is still limited to being in one place at once, but he doesn't seem limited by distance. He is indubitably real - he encourages people to touch him, he eats, he laughs - well, I assume he laughs. Yet he doesn't seem to spend most of his time on the earth, and he does seem able to appear wherever he's wanted. You remember Thomas, for instance, who hadn't been there the first time Jesus appeared, saying "Well, I don't believe a word of it! I need to see him for myself, touch the marks of his wounds for myself!" And a week later, poor Thomas, what a ghastly week that must have been, a week later Jesus appears and says, "Here you are, Thomas, get on with it!"
Yet we know that these appearances of Jesus were only temporary. Paul implies in his letter to the Corinthians that there were more of them than the gospel-writers tell us, and that's all right, since they don't pretend to be anything other than selective in what they do tell us about Jesus. Eventually there was some kind of final appearance and they knew, I'm not quite sure how, that he was finally raised to glory. And then a few days later came the Holy Spirit, who enabled them to go out and preach the gospel and who has indwelt those of us who bear the name Christian ever since.
It's quite extraordinary, isn't it. We have the evidence of the Gospels that Jesus' resurrection body was as physical and real as the body they were used to. It was His body, plus. Yet because we know that it is the spiritual part of us that goes to heaven, and because we have been told that there is "no marriage nor giving in marriage" in heaven, we are inclined - at least, I'm inclined, you're probably more sensible - to think that we will be all ghostly! Which is a bit rude when St Paul drops heavy hints about what our resurrection bodies will be like: "What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body."
The snag is, the term "Spiritual body" makes me think of ghosts and white sheets and so on, yet I ought really to know better, given what we know of Jesus' spiritual body!
3. John's Letter
But in many ways that's beside the point. As St John tells us in that part of his letter that formed our first reading this morning: "what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." And in many ways that's all we need to know at this stage, since what actually matters now is how we are living our lives today.
One of the things Jesus said was that he came that we may have life, and have it abundantly! Sometimes our Christian lives seem a sorry thing indeed, pinched and parched and more hedged about with "Thou shalt nots" than full of abundance! Yet I don't think the author of this letter, who was probably the same person who wrote the Gospel of John, knew anything about pinched and parched lives. Look at that first verse, one of my favourite verses in the whole Bible: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are."
What love the Father has given us! We can stand tall in our knowledge of this love, in our status as children of God. But there were some folk who were taking advantage of that, and doing things that they ought not, so John goes on to remind us that since we are God's children, we do our best to remain pure and free from sin. Again, I don't think this is a negative, namby-pamby sort of thing, a matter of "Thou shalt not" and living a very restrictive life. For me, it's far more about growing into holiness, into wholeness. Yes, we will probably refrain from doing certain things, and we may well do others that our friends don't do, but it's more about an attitude of heart. We will want to be pure, to be whole, to be holy. The writer recognises that we're going to sin: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." And again: "But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."
So we know that if and when we sin, it's not the end of the world. We can be forgiven. Indeed, there's good reason to believe that we have already been forgiven, and all we need to do is to acknowledge our need of forgiveness to receive that forgiveness.
But all the same, we aren't going to be undisciplined about it. "he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him." In other words, if we persist in saying "it doesn't matter what we do; we will be forgiven", we haven't really understood what it was all about. Yes, of course, we will be forgiven - but we will damage ourselves, and damage our walk with Jesus. It's not about "being good"; it's most certainly not about being saved - after all, we are saved by what Jesus did for us on the Cross, not by whether or not we sin. It's about being able to walk with Jesus, day after day, week after week, year after year. Or, if that's too much, moment by moment, second by second. We are being transformed, we are told, into his likeness. And the oddest thing is, that doesn't mean we are all becoming clones of one another; it means we are becoming more truly ourselves.
I don't know if what I have been saying makes any sense to you. Perhaps you are wiser than me - you probably are. You probably don't find yourself thinking in terms of ghosts and spiritual bodies being insubstantial, and the spiritual life being rather a negative, wishy-washy affair! But maybe you do. I know I'm inclined to, unless I stop and think about it, and then I realise how silly I am being. We know from Luke's account - and from the other Gospel stories - that Jesus' resurrection body was as real and substantial as our bodies are. And we have every reason to believe that when and if we get our resurrection bodies, they will be just like his. And we know that living a life free from sin doesn't imply a negative life of "being good" and doing nothing that is fun - in fact, rather the reverse. It is far more about allowing ourselves to be transformed into God's kind of person, becoming more and more like Jesus and, in the process, becoming more and more truly ourselves, the people we were designed to be, the people God created us to be. The people, in fact, that we can be!
So as we worship the risen Christ this Eastertide, let's, as part of that worship, make another step on the path of allowing ourselves to be transformed. Let's ask God to remind us again of what it can be like. Let us pray.
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