Read Luke 24:36b-48
Have you ever seen a ghost?
At our house, the front door does not always close all the way, and the latch doesn’t catch, so that when it’s windy, as it often is here in Kansas, the door blows open. When that happens, we say, “Our ghost is here.” But if someone suddenly appeared while the door was still shut and locked, we’d be freaking out!
That’s what’s happening in our reading from Luke for today. The disciples thought that they were seeing a ghost. This is happening on the evening of the same day that Jesus was resurrected, the day we celebrated on Easter two weeks ago. The disciples knew that Jesus had died on a cross a few days before, some of them have seen the empty tomb, but they still don’t really understand. They were huddled together in a locked room grieving Jesus’ death, and suddenly here he is among them, saying, “Peace be with you.”
Is it surprising that they were startled and frightened and thinking they were seeing a ghost?
Jesus asks them, “Why are you frightened? Why are your hearts filled with doubt?”
There’s that word “doubt” again. And guess what? It’s yet another Greek word for doubt.
Last week we talked about Thomas, the disciple who doubted what the other disciples told him about seeing the resurrected Jesus. Thomas said he wouldn’t believe until he saw and touched Jesus wounds from being nailed to the cross. We talked last week about two different Greek words for doubt:
- distazo, which means to waver between two opinions, and
- apisteo, which means unbelief. In today’s reading, Luke uses a third word. He uses
- dialogismos, dee-al-og-is-mos which means to be deliberating or questioning. (having an argument with yourself)
The disciples’ minds are full of questions.
How can this be Jesus? Can this really be Jesus? But he was dead. How can he be alive? Is this a ghost? Are we dreaming? Is this real?
It IS real! And to prove that he is really alive, Jesus shows them the wounds in his hands and feet from where he was nailed to the cross, saying, “Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do.”
The disciples stood there in disbelief – here’s that Greek word we learned about last week apisteo. They’re in disbelief because it’s too amazing to believe, but they are also filled with joy and wonder. Their inner dialog continues.
Oh my gosh, this just might really be Jesus! How can he be alive? Holy cow, this really is Jesus! It’s utterly amazing!
To further demonstrate that he is not a ghost, that he really is alive, and that he is fully present in his resurrected body, Jesus asks them for something to eat.
A few weeks ago we asked the question, “What would Jesus do?” Today we might ask the question, “What would Jesus eat?” What do you think?
Fish! Broiled fish. According to some sources, specifically tilapia, although I think that sounds a little fishy. I’m not a fin of tilapia.
There is a church that on the day they read this passage from Luke about Jesus eating fish would have their usual sacrament of communion with fish. As people came forward to receive the bread and juice, they also received a piece of fish. We eat the bread and drink the cup to remember Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. They also ate the fish to remember that Jesus was raised from the dead and he is alive.
Because he lives, we have the Holy Spirit living in us.
We are alive because he lives in us.
Sometimes, though, I think we need help to remember that Jesus is alive. The reason we have empty crosses is to remind us that Jesus is not still on the cross. Jesus was raised from the dead. He is alive and living in us.
The fish can also help us to remember that our faith is not in a man who died but in a Savior who was raised from the dead. God is not dead. Jesus is alive and he ate fish as the disciples watched.
During this pandemic there has been a lot of discussion about whether the disruption of normal activity in churches would cause already struggling churches to die, or even that this pandemic would prove that church is already dead. Some have said that we’ve been extra tired because we’re making ourselves busy trying to prove through our busyness that we’re not dead.
But instead of busyness, we demonstrate life like Jesus demonstrated life. He did something real. He ate fish. We do something real whenever we connect with real life needs:
- when we acknowledge someone’s pain and pray for them,
- when we acknowledge someone’s hunger and give them food,
- when we take the time to talk about our disagreements and listen to one another.
In this pandemic year being connected to one another has been more challenging. Being real for one another has felt disembodied or disassociated since we could not be in the same space with people. So we had to be creative about connecting in other ways: phone calls, video calls, sending texts, email, cards and letters.
And we have had to trust that our connection attempts have impact even if we aren’t there to see it. When I was incapacitated because of my back, I received so many cards! You didn’t get to see me open them, and you had to trust that they would have impact, and they did. I felt loved and cared for. This is the life of Jesus being made real.
Using fish as a symbol for Jesus is not a new thing. In fact it’s a very old tradition that comes from using the Greek word for “fish” as a backronym. Have you heard of this? It’s like an acronym, but with the letter “b” at the beginning.
“An acronym is a word formed by the initial letters of other words, such as SCUBA – Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus… A backronym is where the word comes first, and the initial letters are made to fit the word.”
The Greek word for fish icthus ἰχθύς existed before it was used as an acronym for Jesus.
- Iota (i), Iēsoûs (Ἰησοῦς), “Jesus“
- Chi (ch), Khrīstós (Χρῑστός), “Christ“
- Theta (th), Theoû (Θεοῦ), “of God”, the genitive singular of Θεóς, Theós, “God”
- Upsilon (y or u), (h)uiós (Yἱός), “Son”
- Sigma (s), sōtḗr (Σωτήρ), “Savior”
This translates into English as ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior’.
Early Christians were being persecuted and killed, so they had to keep their faith hidden, so they used this symbol to let other Christians know that it was safe to talk about Jesus with them. They would draw a fish symbol in the dirt. It was a sign of acceptance, a signal that they could be themselves without fear of attack or recrimination.
Today we still use this symbol. Many people have fish symbol tattoos.
The fish is a sign that we are witnesses of the repentance and forgiveness that Jesus mentions towards the end of today’s gospel reading. Repentance and forgiveness are words we toss around a lot and so they can lose their value and meaning for us if we’re not careful. They are vitally important. They are the work of the Holy Spirit reviving us and renewing us.
Repentance means to turn around, to change our minds, to turn away from doing or thinking something and find a new way, a more healthy way, a life-giving way. Repentance means to be sorry for having said or thought or done something or ignored something, and turning to God for help to keep from doing or saying or thinking it again.
We are on a journey of repentance together as we grow into our commitment to be a Matthew 25 church. For example, we’ve been learning about the ways we consciously or unconsciously continue racist ideas and systems. We learn so that we can turn away from those and help to change them.
In our reading today, Jesus helps the disciples to do something similar with their understanding of the scriptures. He reminds them that when he was with them before, he had told them “that everything written about [him] in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then Luke says Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45). We don’t know which scriptures he used on that day, but there are allusions to Jesus and prophecies about him throughout the Old Testament. We read one of them this morning in Psalm 16:
9 No wonder my heart is glad, and I rejoice.
My body rests in safety.
10 For you will not leave my soul among the dead
or allow your holy one to rot in the grave.
11 You will show me the way of life,
granting me the joy of your presence
and the pleasures of living with you forever.
Jesus is God’s Holy One who did not rot in the grave, but was raised from the dead and is alive. Through faith in Jesus, our minds are opened by the work of the Holy Spirit to understand this new way of life, the joy of God’s presence, and the new hope of opportunities and possibilities of our ongoing and eternal life with Jesus.
Whenever we see or eat a fish, may it remind us of this new life that we have because Jesus is alive. And may it remind us, as Jesus tells us at the end of today’s gospel reading, that we “are witnesses of all these things” (v48).
Notice that it’s not a command to go be witnesses, or a prediction that we will be witnesses. It’s a statement of fact. You are witnesses. The disciples saw the resurrected Jesus. Not a ghost, but a living body with wounds from the crucifixion and the ability to eat fish.
We are witnesses to the realness of the resurrection, too.
We’re here today renewing our witness, hearing the words of Jesus in the Bible, experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit opening our minds and touching our hearts.
How have we seen our lives change? How have we seen other people change?
I know that I have changed. Years ago I realized I had a “gift” for saying whatever popped into my mind, and that often meant saying the perfect thing to make someone get angry or cry. For example, on the patio after church one day, I went up to a friend whose husband had just asked her for a divorce, and I asked her, “Are you going to change your name?” Not the right question. She burst into tears and ran off.
At first I had no remorse for that, but then I began to feel bad about it and I wanted to change, but I didn’t know how yet, so I avoided talking to people who I knew were going through tough things.
This was still troubling me when I was in the process of becoming a pastor, and this avoidance caused me to have to retake one of the ordination exams. The situation being presented in the exam was that someone wanted to be baptized on the anniversary of their mother’s death. In my response, I wrote a beautiful and perfectly correct explanation of the theology and meaning of baptism. But I got it wrong, because I said absolutely nothing to acknowledge the person’s grief or the meaning of the date that they were choosing. And it turns out the whole point of the exercise was to be pastoral.
Then when I was in CPE, clinical pastoral education, as a chaplain intern at a hospital, my job was to talk with people about what they were going through in the hospital and to pray with them, and this very often brought people to tears. I was concerned that I was making people cry and asked one of the supervisors about it. He said, “You don’t have that much power. That’s the Holy Spirit working.” Sometimes the way we see that Jesus is alive is through our tears and the tears of others.
We are witnesses.
Another way we see that Jesus is alive is that we grow. The disciples grow. In our reading today they are frightened and confused, but we know from reading the book of Acts that they don’t stay that way. They grow into evangelists and church planters and healers and ambassadors of reconciliation. We too grow, often without even realizing it.
We see this happening to the young Jedi Rey in the most recent Star Wars movies. She begins to realize that there is something more to what’s happening, but at first it’s just a vague feeling. Over the course of the two movies she gradually learns how to connect with the force, much like we grow into our ability to connect with God and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit. Rey’s mentor, Luke Skywalker, doesn’t think he’s up for the task of teaching Rey, but Jedi Master Yoda encourages Luke saying, “Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”
We sometimes say that our mission is to go and make disciples of Jesus, because that is what Jesus tells us to do in Matthew 28. But maybe before we can make disciples, we need to grow into our understanding of ourselves as witnesses, so that we can be witnesses who make witnesses.
- Whenever anyone sees Jesus in us because we are willing to admit our weaknesses and failures and ask for forgiveness, we are demonstrating the life of Jesus in us and we are being witnesses who create witnesses.
- Similarly, we are demonstrating the life of Jesus in us whenever we are being forgiving or generous or loving or standing for justice or helping someone, or even just acknowledging their situation and listening to them.
Whenever we do these things, we are being witnesses who make witnesses, who then also make witnesses.
Psalm 40 celebrates this Holy Spirit work of renewal and life and growth in us:
He has given me a new song to sing,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see what he has done and be amazed.
They will put their trust in the Lord.
Let’s take fish from this place today.
May fish and forgiveness continue to remind us that we are witnesses to the living Christ.
And let’s be witnesses making witnesses as we continue to learn and grow as the people of Christ.
 Karoline Lewis at https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/we-are-witnesses
 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), as quoted in “10 Films That Would Win If the Oscars Had Awards for Empathy, Resilience, and Forgiveness” by Amy L. Eva & Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas & Jeremy Adam Smith & Jesse Antin & Jill Suttie & Maryam Abdullah in Yes Magazine at https://www.yesmagazine.org/health-happiness/2018/03/02/10-films-that-would-win-if-the-oscars-had-awards-for-empathy-resilience-and-forgiveness