by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts April 8, 2007
Copyright © 2007 by Mark D. Roberts
Scripture Reading: Luke 24:36-49
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36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!
Let us pray . . . .
I've always had a love/hate relationship with ghost stories. As a boy, a part of me wanted to hear about ghosts and monsters and the like just to prove how tough I was. Another part of me wanted to dive under the covers whenever somebody was about to tell a scary story.
You'll never know when wearing a scary sheet like that will come back to haunt you. Actually, I might have bad dreams about the duck suit too.
My friend Keith liked to tell ghost stories to scare me, until one night when he had an encounter with a real ghost. After filling his mind with ghostly terrors just before bed, Keith didn't sleep well. He tossed and turned all night, pulling his sheets and blankets out of place as he thrashed around in bed.
Very early in the morning Keith had a nightmare. He dreamt that a ghost was attacking him, holding him by the throat and choking him. In his dream, Keith grabbed the ghost's arms and tried to pull him away, but to no avail. The ghost was too strong. Soon the dreaming Keith began to feel like he was suffocating. It was a horrifying moment.
He suddenly woke up, only to see what appeared at first to be a ghost actually choking him. As he struggled to make sense of what was happening to him, Keith realized that one of his white bedsheets was wrapped around his neck. Like in his dream, Keith was trying to pull the "arms" of the sheets away. But, in so doing, he was actually choking himself more. The real body of the real Keith was being suffocated by his sheet! Somehow Keith's unconscious made up a dream to go along with reality. And, thankfully, he woke up before his "ghost" could finish its ghoulish task.
Well, as you can imagine, that was the end of ghost stories for Keith, at least for a long while. And, frankly, I didn't mind.
Reassurance from Physics
I only wish that a paper recently published on the Cornell University Library website had been around when I was a boy. Last August, Costas J. Efthimiou, a theoretical physicist at the University of Central Florida, and his colleague, Sohang Gandhi, a grad student at Cornell, published a paper entitled, "Ghosts, Vampires and Zombies: Cinema Fiction vs Physics Reality." These two scientists examined commonly held beliefs concerning such supernatural beings, arguing on the basis of rigorous methodology that they simply don't exist. Zombies, for example, aren't the undead who stalk the earth. Rather, they're just normal people who were poisoned with the "highly toxic substance called tetrodotoxin." This poison, which comes from the Pufferfish, can make somebody appear to be dead long enough for a quick burial. But, after a while, that person can wake up. Science has yet to determine why they stumble around with their arms pointed strangely forward.
Ghosts, the scientists argued in their paper, are physically impossible because the essential immateriality of their nature, that which allows them to pass through walls, precludes their being able to walk around at all. Walking requires forces explained by Newton's Laws of Motion. An immaterial being would not be able to exert the physical force required for walking, or even to stand upon a solid surface. The authors of the paper went so far as to wonder why ghosts need to "mimic human ambulation" anyway. "This is a very slow and awkward way of moving about in the scheme of things," they sagely observed. So, the bottom line: Be reassured! There are no ghosts, no vampires, and no zombies.
Did the Disciples See a Ghost?
As we read Luke 24, it's obvious the disciples of Jesus didn't have the benefit of scientific disproof of the supernatural. When Jesus Himself stood among them after His death, they "were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost" (v. 37). They knew enough to realize that dead bodies don't come back. And they knew enough about what had happened to Jesus two days earlier to know that He was really dead. So, seeing something that looked like Jesus, they could only conclude that it was a "ghost" or "spirit," as the Greek literally reads. Naturally, they were plenty spooked!
You just gotta love those disciples! Even after the resurrection, they still had the hardest time getting things right. Though they had heard that Jesus had risen from the dead, and though Jesus Himself had predicted this, when He appeared among them, they freaked out. Now I don't know about you, but this gives me lots of hope. It means that I don't have to be a paragon of faith to be a disciple of Jesus. It means I can have my doubts, my fears, and my confusions, and still be the kind of person Jesus accepts, no, the kind of person Jesus chooses, to be one of His disciples. If you're someone who struggles with faith, if you find yourself doubting and confused, you should be mightily encouraged by this story. You're just the sort of person Jesus wants on His team.
Moreover, stories like this one demonstrate the reliability of the New Testament Gospels. Just consider for a moment. The early church was built on the witness and authority of the first disciples of Jesus. You would think that the early Christians, realizing how foolish their founders looked in stories like this, might have cleaned things up a bit, and maybe added a few fictional tales showing the disciples as people of exemplary faith.
But, instead, throughout the New Testament Gospels you find stories that show how often the disciples got it all wrong. These accounts never would have been invented by the early Christians. The presence of such embarrassing stories in the Gospels reveals the extent to which both the Gospel writers and the early church cared profoundly about the truth of what really happened with Jesus. They made sure the Gospels conveyed that truth accurately, warts and all. (I've got to stop myself here, however, because I could go on for a long time about the reliability of the Gospels. In fact, in two months my next book will be published. It's called, Can We Trust the Gospels? As you can imagine, my answer is "yes." And I'll supply 195 pages worth of reasons why. But, now, back to our story in Luke.)
The Response of Jesus
Noticing that His disciples were terrified by His appearance, Jesus said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?" (v. 38).
Jesus didn't wait for a reply to His question. Rather than rebuking His disciples for their lack of faith, He kindly offered proof of His materiality: "Look at me," He said, "and touch me. I'm not a ghost. You don't have to be afraid." Then, to reiterate the point, Jesus asked for something to eat, and they gave Him "a piece of broiled fish" (v. 42). Not sushi, but broiled fish. (Actually the Greek can mean "baked fish" as well.) Jesus ate this fish straightaway, proving once and for all that He wasn't a ghost.
And not a zombie, either, by the way, some barely alive creature returned from near death. In the 1960s, Hugh Schoenfield published a wildly-popular book called The Passover Plot. In this book he argued that Jesus wasn't actually raised from the dead. In fact, Schoenfield claimed, Jesus didn't really die at all. He just swooned. Then, after He was put into the cool, quiet tomb filled with pungent spices, Jesus somehow revived. Not quiet a zombie, but pretty close.
Just about nobody believes Schoenfield's swoon theory these days for lots of reasons. If you suppose for a moment that Jesus didn't die and that He survived the crucifixion, don't you think the disciples would have responded just a bit differently to Jesus's appearance? If you've seen the Passion of the Christ, you have some idea of how horrible Jesus would have looked soon after His crucifixion. And if you haven't seen the movie, your imagination can fill in the blanks. Would the disciples have mistaken the revived Jesus for a ghost? I doubt it. Moreover, would they have believed that the revived Jesus was the Messiah, the Savior of Israel and the world? Would His mangled, bruised, corpse-like body have suggested to anybody that God had triumphed over death itself in Jesus? This requires more faith than the resurrection!
What the disciples saw that day as Jesus stood before them turned them from a frightened, hopeless, confused bunch of defeatists into an action force that transformed the world. They didn't go out and start proclaiming the victory of God in Christ because they had lots of religious sentiment left over from their time with Jesus. And they didn't think of the resurrection as a nice myth about good overcoming evil. No, they believed that Jesus had actually risen from the dead, that His body was no longer in the tomb, and that His resurrection was the proof that His death meant salvation for the world. The disciples were willing to die for these convictions, and, in fact, most of them did.
Implications of the Resurrection
But it was not simply the experience of the risen Christ that sent the disciples on their mission to change the world. Jesus helped them in a number of ways.
First, according to Luke 24, He explained to them how His death and resurrection fulfilled the Old Testament. He wasn't talking about a few specific prophecies, but rather the whole sweep of Old Testament Scripture (v. 44). The grand story of God's redemption of humankind from the grip of sin ran from His call to Abraham and Sarah, through His rescue of the Israelites from Egypt, through establishing His covenant with them, and to His sending prophets to call for justice and to announce the promise of His kingdom. The entire Old Testament narrative pointed to the coming of an Anointed One who would redeem both Israel and ultimately the whole world. This Messiah would inaugurate the kingdom of God and fulfill the role of the Suffering Servant of God in Isaiah, the one who "was wounded for our transgressions" and who gave "his life an offering for sin" (Isaiah 53: 5, 10). So, as the risen Jesus used the Old Testament to illumine His mission, for the first time His disciples fully grasped who He was and what He had come to do. They were finally able to tell the world about Jesus.
Jesus explained that His disciples were to proclaim "repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations" (v. 47). To empower them for this mission, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, the very power of God (v. 49). Before I wrap up this sermon I want to unpack further the notions of repentance, forgiveness.
We don't use the word "repent" very much anymore. When we do, we might associate it with religious fanatics carrying around placards proclaiming, "Repent! The end is near!" Or we might think of repentance mostly as a matter of feeling bad about our actions.
The Biblical notion of repentance is quite different from these. The Hebrew idea emphasizes a turning from one thing to another, from evil to good, from self to God. Repentance is a lifestyle U-turn. The Greek notion of repentance highlights the change of inner life that goes with this dramatic alteration in behavior. Repentance involves a profound transformation of your thinking and feeling, of your will and passion.
The good news of Jesus leads us to repentance in both Hebrew and Greek senses. Becoming a Christian doesn't mean you get to add a little religion on to your otherwise ordinary life. And it's not simply a ticket to heaven when you die. No, on the contrary, when you accept Jesus as your Savior and Lord, you are embarking on the adventure of true repentance, a profound change of thinking and living. Jesus will help you turn from doubt to faith, from emptiness to significance, from despair to hope, from selfishness to servanthood.
Along with repentance comes what Jesus calls "forgiveness of sins" (24:47). The word translated here as "forgiveness" has the sense of sending something away, banishment, if you will. God takes the guilt that accrues when we do wrong and, through Christ, expels it from us forever. Thus, when God forgives us, He doesn’t' say, "Oh, that's okay. It's no big deal." Nor does His forgiveness mean, "I understand why you did what you did, so I'm not mad anymore." Forgiveness acknowledges that wrong has been done, and that it's truly wrong. But the wronged party will not let the injury break relationship. He abolishes the guilt associated with sin.
When God forgives us, therefore, that which has kept us apart from Him is sent into exile so we may be brought home to Him. We are invited to know God intimately, to live in relationship with the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through Jesus, we are united with God both now and forever. We know that nothing in all creation can separate us from God's love (Roman 8:31-39).
If you'll pardon the simplicity, I'd say that repentance offers the promise of a new way of being that includes new living and new thinking. Forgiveness offers the promise of intimacy with God both in this life and in the life to come. These wonderful realities, Jesus says, are not to be hoarded. Christians are to share with others the new life in Christ and their relationship with God.
All of this is not just wishful thinking. It's not some religious pipe dream because of the resurrection of Jesus. A ghost story wouldn't have transformed the disciples who transformed the world. A zombie Jesus wouldn’t be persuasive either. Rather, the resurrection shows that Jesus's victory over sin and death can be ours when we put our trust in Him, when we acknowledge Him as Savior and Lord. Then we are reconciled to God, who forgives us, transforms us, and enlists us to pass on to others what He has done through Christ. This isn't a fairy tale or a ghost story. It's the straightforward truth of Easter.
Rising from a Ghostly Life
My friends, do you ever feel like a ghost? I don't mean literally, of course. But does it ever seem like you're not fully alive? Or maybe you've got so much to do that half the time you feel like a zombie, walking around half dead. Or maybe some "vampire" of fear is sucking the life out of you, leaving you listless and depressed.
Many of us, though we're literally alive, are spiritual and emotional zombies. This is pretty much how one passage in the New Testament describes us in our life without Christ. Ephesians 2 says we are "dead through our trespasses and sins" (v. 1). This isn't happy news, of course, but it's something many of us feel deep inside. We know we're not fully alive. We're not experiencing life as God intended it to be. We need help, big time.
And this is exactly what God supplies through Christ. Ephesians 2 adds:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved–and raised us up with him. . . ." (vv. 4-6a).
Did you catch that? The resurrection of Jesus isn't just something that happened a long time ago in history. It is something in which you and I can participate now in spirit. Because Jesus really rose from the dead, God can make us alive with Him. All of this comes from God's great love for us, from His grace given in Christ.
How do you enter into the new life of Christ? By receiving the good news in faith. By acknowledging Jesus as the Savior and the Lord. And by personally putting your trust in Him as your Savior and committing your life to Him as your Lord. Thus begins the new life that comes from repentance, a life lived in relationship with God because of His forgiveness.
So, today, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. The risen Lord was not a ghost, or a zombie, or a myth, or a nice idea, but the fully human and fully divine Jesus who defeated sin and death. Because of His resurrection, He offers new life to You and to me.
Don't accept the ghostly life of this world. Don't keep stumbling around as if you were some sort of zombie. Don't let the pressures and empty promises of this world suck the life out of you. Let today be your resurrection from death to life as you put your trust in Jesus.
If you've done this before, you may want to renew your relationship with Christ today by recommitting yourself to Him. I've been a Christian for over four decades, and I am regularly challenged to give more of myself to Jesus, to trust Him more completely, to let Him turn around my life more thoroughly, and to enjoy more profoundly the intimacy I have with God through Christ. So if you're already a Christian, let me urge you to give yourself once again to Jesus.
If you've never taken this step of personal faith, I can think of no better time to do it than right now. You don't have to have all the answers. None of us has all the answers, let me assure you. You don't have to have Jesus all figured out. This is the work of lifetime. All you need to do is to acknowledge Jesus as the Savior and the Lord. Then put your trust in Him as Your Savior, and give Your life to Him as Your Lord. In a moment I'll lead you in a prayer that will help you take this crucial step of faith.
No matter where you are in your relationship with Jesus today, He offers You new life today, meaningful life, abundant life, eternal life. Let your celebration of the resurrection of Jesus be, for you, a day of resurrection as well!
Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!