3rd Sunday of Easter – 2021
Old Testament - Psalm 4:1-8
New Testament - Luke 24:36b-48
INTRODUCTION: In 2008, the Travel Channel started airing a show called Ghost Adventures.
The creator of the show Zak Bagins, along with a small entourage of friends, visits assorted spooky places scattered around the world which are believed to be haunted. After recounting the history of a particular location, interviewing people familiar with the site, and taking a tour, Bagins and his crew then spend an entire night locked inside.
Armed with cameras and other tools they say allow them to detect spirits and ghosts, they spend the night roaming about a given location hoping to catch visual and/or auditory recordings of phantoms.
Later, after the night is over, they then run through their recordings looking for ghosts they might have captured on audio or video.
When Jonah was younger, I remember he was enthralled by the show for a bit of time. Perched in front of the TV, he would watch the show transfixed by the possibility that the scratchy noises on audio recordings and the grey, whispery spots floating across grainy camera shots were actually ghosts.
Given the show has been running for 20 years now, and that it has spawned several spin-offs, it seems to have struck a chord with other people as well. Apparently, there are a whole lot of people who also like to watch shows about ghosts and spirits.
ONE: Of course, the idea that ghosts exist is hardly new, right? Nope. Turns out we humans have long thought ghosts are out there somewhere.
Those of you familiar with the Book of 1st Samuel, for example, might recall Saul’s desire to communicate with a dead Samuel. Enlisting the aid of a medium, Saul has Samuel brought back from Sheol in order to confer with him. And after the medium brings Samuel back, the news he shares with Saul is not good. “God is going to give you into the hands of Philistines and your kingdom to David,” the ghostly figure of Samuel tells Saul.
And then, of course, there are Jesus’ disciples on the heels of his resurrection. Gathered back in that room where they held the last supper just days earlier, Jesus suddenly appears before the disciples. And understandably so, they are terrified and startled, since they are sure they are staring at a ghost.
But notice, please, Jesus is more than just a ghost. While he seems to have ghostly qualities, he can, after all, appear out of nowhere and then just as quickly disappear, Jesus is more than just a spirit.
Inviting the disciples to touch and feel his wounds, Jesus, in an odd scene, even asks for a bite to eat. “Hey, I am pretty hungry. You all got anything to eat?” And with that, Jesus proceeds to chomp on a bit of broiled fish.
So the risen Jesus is more than just a vapory spirit. He also has a physical quality, as well. While he doesn’t have the same body he had before his crucifixion, Jesus still has one. He hasn’t been simply resuscitated, as numerous scholars like to point out. He has been resurrected - and there is a difference between the two.
TWO: Now, personally, I have always liked Luke’s insistence on Jesus’ physical presence in his various resurrection accounts.
For Luke, I think, is trying to remind us that the new life found in Jesus is never just some future existence that awaits us when we die. It is also always a present reality that is available to us even now.
While the promise is that not even death has the final word when it comes to God, and that there is still more on the other side of the grave, Luke likes to also remind us that new life is always before us - right now - every single day.
The seminary professor Will Willimon likes to tell of an encounter he had with a man who regularly attended chapel services at Duke Divinity School. When asked to share a little bit about himself over lunch one day, the man proceeded to tell his own version of the Prodigal Son story.
Rebellious and angry as a youth, the student was eventually put in a mental health facility by his desperate parents. Breaking out of the facility, he landed in Chicago where he lived on the streets.
Robbing a man one night, the student went on a spending spree with the man’s credit cards until the authorities finally caught up with him and put him in jail. But while in prison, this old man took the student under his wing. Every night the old man would read from the Bible. He read like a 5th grader - stumbling over words, mispronouncing others, it was agony.
But then on one of those agonizing nights, the old man read those stories from Luke’s Gospel about that Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son, and it was like a light finally went off for the young man. And so when he finally got out of prison, he went back to school and got his GED.
Then he went to Michigan State where he made straight As before transferring to Duke to finish his schooling. The man then concludes his story with Willimon this way: “Here’s my point. You’re a preacher, right?...We’ve got Easter coming up. Can’t be easy to preach the Resurrection at a place like Duke. I am your proof Easter is true.”
THREE: You see, it can be hard for us to appreciate just how revolutionary Jesus’ earliest followers considered his resurrection to be.
These days we tend to primarily associate Jesus’ resurrection with getting to live forever. And while it is certainly the case that death has been overcome by Jesus, his resurrection is also much, much more than that. Because for that initial band of Jesus’ beleaguered followers, his resurrection was also the beginning of a whole new world.
Yep, as far as Jesus’ followers were concerned, the very kingdom of God that he had spent all his time talking about during his ministry had actually been inaugurated with his resurrection. A reset button, so to speak, had been pushed on the world allowing God’s promised kingdom to finally be started.
Were there still lingering signs of the old world with all its failings and troubles and trials? Yep. But amidst all those old lingering signs, there were also signs of God’s new and unfolding world - that world of goodwill and love and charity and kindness for all.
And what’s more, Jesus’ followers actually saw themselves as representatives, messengers, of that new world begun in Jesus Christ. And so they, appropriately, sought to live new lives - they sought to give expression to God’s kingdom by actually embodying its values in their lives.
If what the Book of Acts tells us is true, they were generous, charitable, forbearing, hospitable, loving, and forgiving in a world where such behaviors were hard to come by. They were, as Jesus charged them to be in our reading for today, witnesses.
No wonder a whole lot of scholars think the spread of Christianity was directly related to the way Jesus’ earliest followers actually lived. Apparently, people who had dealings with Jesus’ followers couldn't help but be smitten by their lives.
FOUR: And so here’s the thing...as scary and as overwhelming as it sounds, all these years later people should feel the same way about our lives, right?
Yep. Even now we too should be living representatives of God’s kingdom started in Jesus Christ. So much so, that people might also be smitten by our lives as well.
Now, are there going to be days when we won’t be very good representatives of God’s kingdom? Of course. We are, after all, human. But those days when we stumble and fall as Christ’s followers are simply another expression of our faith.
For we all live by grace, right? Every single minute of every single day...nothing but grace. So even in our brokenness, if we are honest and open, we can be witnesses to God’s kingdom.
For even people striving to live as representatives of God’s kingdom need forgiveness. Why, I would even suggest we need forgiveness more than most! After all, living for God’s kingdom is surely the hardest thing any of us will ever seek to do.
There’s a story about a church that was discussing the need to start a new evangelism program. So the minister started conducting an informal survey of the congregation. Anytime the chance presented itself, she would ask members, “So why do you come to this church?”
Some people said it was because they enjoyed the fellowship. Others because the music was top notch. And still others said because they found the worship services meaningful.
But one day the minister asked a church member named Mary why she came to church. And Mary replied this way, “I keep coming back, have done so for twenty years, because, of all the places in my life, it is this place that I experience most vividly the presence of Christ. I have hardly ever come here without feeling, at some point in the service, or conversations before or after, that Jesus is here. That's why I want to be here.”
Kind of funny, isn’t it? In a time when churches in this nation spend an untold amount of money trying to figure out how to bring in new members, the answer is actually as old as the faith itself. We just need to be living, breathing witnesses - witnesses to that new world begun in Jesus Christ.
CONCLUSION: So we Presbyterians tend to get a little nervous when we hear the word evangelism, don’t we?
Understandably so, we associate such a word with fiery soapbox preachers, religious tracts, and scare tactics about burning in hell forever.
So maybe it’s good to be reminded evangelism can also be done in other ways. Yep. Turns out, we too can actually be evangelists, right?
And here’s the funny thing - we don’t have to say a single word. Instead, we just need to be living examples of God’s new kingdom - that kingdom of grace and charity, and forgiveness, and love.
So get outta here, will ya? Get outta of this place to be witnesses to God’s kingdom. And who knows, maybe along the way, you’ll find some people are so smitten with your generous and giving life, they’ll want to become witnesses for God’s kingdom just like you.
To the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.