Readings: Luke 24:36-48; Acts 1:1-8
Did you ever hear any ghost stories in your childhood?
There were family tales of haunted houses, campfire stories, and even on our Sunday School picnics in the Methodist church, we would catch a train to this park for a day trip, and up the hill under the trees was this lonely grave – and there were ghost stories there too. My parents told of places where they saw ghosts. Usually someone had died unnaturally or prematurely in the places which were said to be haunted. And as kids in the mid 60s we were a tad terrified of the radio program that ran for 45 episodes called “The Creaking Door”. When you look at the titles of those stories, too many ghosts and scary things. Even Ghost busters only had 10 scary seconds in the theme tune, and the rest was quite cheerful. It was labelled as a supernatural comedy though. Our kids used to read “goosebump” stories, and loved terrifying movies as they grew up.
I’ve never seen ghosts. I’ve had a sense of the presence of evil, but never seen incorporeal spooky figures like Casper and his friends. Oh I did see dead people once but that was a side effect of medication after surgery. My only witness of a “ghost” ghost was in a play – watching Hamlet somewhere along the line. But in the real world, it is scary when dead people show up.
And so it’s not surprising that this appearance of Jesus in Luke 24, like the ones in John, got them spooked. They would have heard the women’s accounts (remember how they called them rubbish – nonsense – leiros is the word.” The two on the Emmaus road had come back with the news of their encounter. So it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise. Yeah right comes to mind.
Jesus materializes, and they’re not ready for it. Startled and frightened is an understatement in v24. (Old Afrikaans is nice – geweldig geskrik – or the Message “scared half to death”)
Fear is a reasonable human response.
You would have heard my cemetery stories – getting lost in Auckland once when at a meeting and my driver turning into a cemetery in the dark.
Or the old one of a guy who took a short cut through a cemetery and fell into a newly dug grave. He had to wait for sunrise, as you couldn’t really leap out of the thing. The next guy who fell in did leap out again when he heard a voice saying “good evening” in the darkness of the grave. That may be where the saying comes from “in for the high jump.”
The account by Luke goes like this:
Luk 24:36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Luk 24:37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. Luk 24:38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?” (literally hearts). Perhaps he’d forgotten the bit about him being dead and buried.
Like Mary and Thomas last week, Jesus meets them where they are and gives them the opportunity to touch and see. Asking for something to eat settled the matter.
He quickly moves to the key issue. The fish finished, the teaching starts.
Like Cleopas and Mary on the Emmaus road he gives them this picture in broad strokes of the Messianic story going back to Moses, the prophets and the Psalms. Luke continues:
Luk 24:45 Then he opened their minds (νοῦς) to understand the Scriptures, Luk 24:46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, Luk 24:47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
He ends his classroom time with the simple “You are witnesses of these things.” (Luk 24:48)
Tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection – and get people to respond. Why? It’s all done for them to deal with their sins and mess. So with the resurrection story comes the missionary task: “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
In his second book, the Acts of the Apostles, the same job is outlined: Act 1:4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. Act 1:5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”Act 1:6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Act 1:7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. Act 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Not only does Jesus turn everything on its head in terms of death, resurrection, the place of the body (in the context of a dominant Platonic culture that focused on the spirit or spiritual as the important, diminishing the body), he turns their world upside down.
Up to now they went to Jerusalem for their festivals. To the temple. It’s a centripetal motion.
At is death the curtain of the temple is torn in two, as heaven breaks through again – God’s people after this take God’s presence with them into the whole world.
To all nations. And from the centre outwards, rather than the other way around. A centrifugal movement.
The truth is, the modern church, whether our kind with its historical roots and story, or the modern no name brand versions, is still doing the centripetal thing – getting people to move towards a place where it all happens. In stead of a Temple it’s a center of entertainment often. We still worry about how to get people in here.
The movement is outward looking. It was that which he opens their minds to: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, Luk 24:47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Luk 24:48 You are witnesses of these things.
In our Acts reading it goes like this: Act 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
They weren’t expected to do this from a position of weakness and fear. They would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…”
Our motto as a church is always to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have. Not because of a government policy, or a vaccination against a pandemic, or the movement to save the planet or whales or dolphins.
Hope comes out of resurrection. And the resurrection of Jesus is the story with a great ending. It’s the victory dealing with the mess of our past and the guarantee of the success of our future.
Resurrection is at the centre.
In fact, it was a requirement of the first apostleship – being a witness to the resurrection. So when Judas is replaced in Acts 1:22 Luke explains “For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” They elect Matthias.
In Acts we will find that they always focused on the resurrection. Peter’s sermons in Acts,2,3,4 and 5 culminate in the story of the resurrection. As an example, in Acts 5 Peter declares:
Act 5:30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. Act 5:31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. Act 5:32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.
I love the account in Acts 17 when Paul is in Athens. I’m always excited about Athens – you may have noticed. Act_17:18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
It’s the heart of everything. The spirit of God who raised Jesus to life transforms us and empowers us to tell the story and live it out.
- We’re still in the coming- in mode – agonizing over who we can invite to church.
- We’re actually people who GO. And people on the GO.
- We go out of here every week back into the mission field.
In my last parish back in our old country, I put a sign up above the door which you could see as you left the building: “You are now entering the mission field”. When we went back a couple of years ago, it had been replaced with a more permanent one than my laminated bit of paper.
And we have all we need to share the story. And we need to know the story well too. Our job while we’re in this building is to get to know the story well.
It’s our job. Being witnesses. Together and separately – every day until we are not able to get out there anymore.
Then we can do it on the phone, on-line, by email. We can still pray for those who need the love of Jesus to help them see the point of life.
We are to be witnesses as long as we have breath.
- And will they end up here on a Sunday? Maybe not. Probably not if we don’t include them in our ordinary lives.
- And if they come along, they probably wont stay if we’re still cliquey and don’t open our lives and homes to them.
- And they’ll never get anywhere unless we are witnesses. Someone has to tell the story. There’s a whole generation who don’t have a clue what it’s about.
We’re probably better at sharing ghost stories or the latest gossip or bad news than the story of Messiah Jesus who overcame death and the grave.
And will ultimately transform everything.
And we’ll never be effective witnesses without the power of the Holy Spirit enabling us. And if it was anything that transformed them from lock-down in their upper room to going all over the world for Jesus and risking and often giving up their lives, it was the Holy Spirit’s power transforming their fear to faith. Their powerlessness to passion. Amen.