They thought they were seeing a ghost. That’s what Luke tells us in our gospel for today. Jesus was standing right in front of his disciples and the only thing that made any sense to them was that they were seeing a ghost.
Ghosts they could believe in. In fact, just about everyone in the ancient world believed in ghosts – disembodied spirits that haunted the living. But in each of the post-Easter resurrection experiences the gospels specifically tell us that Jesus was definitely not a ghost. Sure he seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Yes, he could enter rooms without going through doors. But he was not a ghost. No, the writers of the gospels want us to know that the resurrected Christ was flesh and bones. That’s what resurrection means. It isn’t just life after death, it is physical life after death.
In our lesson from Luke this morning, the disciples are together talking about the events of Easter morning and their encounter with the risen Jesus. As they are talking, Jesus is suddenly there with them. Understandably they are surprised and frightened, but Jesus tells them “Peace be with you.” “Why are you frightened,” he asks them, “and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 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.” After showing them his hands and his feet with the nail wounds from the cross still fully visible, he then asks them, “Have you anything here to eat?” The disciples give him a piece of broiled fish and Jesus eats it.
Luke wants us to know that when Jesus rose from the dead it wasn’t his soul that was living on. He wasn’t transparent, apparitional, or otherworldly. Yes he was different, but he was still the flesh and blood man they had known and loved. The difference was that he was now the first man to have died, passed through death, and bodily risen from the dead. He was the “first fruits” of God’s plan for all of humanity, indeed for all of creation. The new Adam, as Paul calls him. The resurrected Christ was alive, never to die again. The corruptible had put on incorruption the mortal had become immortal.
St. John in his first epistle says it beautifully. “See what love the Father has given us . . . we are God’s children now . . . when he (Christ) is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” You and I friends have been promised that we are heirs of the same fate that Jesus made real. We are the children of God, and as such we too will one day rise from the dead – not as shapeless spirits but with resurrected bodies just as Christ was. That is the Christian promise. That is what it means when we talk about our hope for a life after death.
You see Christianity is the most incarnational of all the world’s great religions. We place eternal hope in the physical. Not only do we proclaim that God became human and walked among us touching and being touched, but we also believe that when eternal life comes, when God’s Kingdom is fully revealed, we won’t be spirits sitting in the clouds playing harps, but resurrected versions of our current selves – physical bodies who can touch and be touched. I realize this can be a lot to wrap your head around when so much of popular culture portrays the afterlife as some version of spirits in the sky. But bodily resurrection from the dead is indeed the great Christian hope and the great Christian promise.
All of this belief in the lasting nature of the physical has wide ranging implications for all of us who seek to follow Jesus now, on this side of the grave. It means that being present with one another and for one another counts for a lot. In fact, in spite of our emphasis on belief, what matters most is not what we believe, but whether or not we strive to physically live like Christ in the world.
There is a great story about Mahatma Gandhi who, as a young man, studied in London. After learning about Christianity, and after reading the Sermon on the Mount, he decided that Christianity was the most complete religion in the world. It was only later, when he lived with a Christian family in East India, that he changed his mind. In that household he discovered that the word rarely became flesh — that the teaching of Jesus rarely turned into the hands and feet of Jesus.1
It isn’t what we believe that matters most. It’s important, but belief is only a small piece of the puzzle. If we take the good news of Easter seriously, then it is how we live that matters most. If we really believe that Jesus physically rose from the grave, and if we place our hope in the promise that one day we will too, then we have the calling to live like Christ not only after death but right now as well. Just as God was incarnate in Jesus, so we are supposed to incarnate Christ in how we love and care for those around us.
In the celebration of the Eucharist we believe that when we share in the bread and the wine we literally take the body and blood of Jesus into ourselves. Once again it is the physical we proclaim. And this physical feasting on our savior only matters of it drives us out of our comfort zones to feed and care for others. The bread of the risen Christ on the altar must lead us to share the bread of the earth with the hungry. We receive his body in order to go forth to be his body in the world.2
In essence, we can say that Jesus did not command the whole world to go to church. Jesus commanded his church to go to the whole world. Amen.
1. Susan R. Andrews, “Holy Heartburn,” article in the Christian Century, April 7, l999; p.385.
2. Donald S. Armentrout.