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A Ghost Story for Easter – Sermon, April 24, 2022

Authored and delivered by Ms. Sarah Sieber

Gospel John 20: 19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

A Ghost Story for Easter

So, today we heard again the story of Doubting Thomas. A wise person I listened to this past week said that sometimes it isn’t as important to hear a familiar story again, as it is to hear something new in it. I hope I can do that for you.

I’ve often thought that the hardest job in the world is being a ghost.  I have no idea what the process is, but there must be some effort involved in manifesting in a way that can be seen or heard by living people.  Presumably you have something to say – “Get out of my house!”, or “I know where the treasure is,” or “I love you.” Whatever it is, it’s important to those people sitting there.  But – they don’t believe in you. Not – they don’t believe what you’re saying.  They don’t believe that you exist.  If you can rattle enough chains, or throw enough stuff around the room, maybe you can get them to realize that you’re really there.

Then you have to get them to believe what you said….

It’s a tall order.

So this morning we hear that after his death, at night, in a room with locked doors, Jesus appears to the disciples. At first, they don’t seem to notice him, until he shows them his wounds, and they suddenly see who it is.  The Gospels don’t tell us this, but they must have been a little shocked at seeing him there and realizing that it was really him.  Granted, they had kind of gotten used to weird things happening around Jesus – they had seen more than a couple of impossible things while spending time with him.  Maybe raising himself from the dead seemed like a thing he ought to be able to do.  We weren’t there; we’ll never know.

Now Thomas wasn’t there that night, either.  He heard all this the next day, and he probably thought they’d all had a little too much to drink the night before. Like maybe they were sitting around, feeling sad, getting a little drunk, telling stories of what they remembered most about Jesus, and then it seemed like he was still there.  Most, if not all of us, have had the experience of losing someone. The pain, and the wishing to see someone again is enough to bring us dreams of that person, or the seeming surety that we saw them across the crowded lobby, or in the car that just went by, or we wake thinking we’ve just heard their voice.  Surely the disciples wanted to see Jesus again.

And Thomas must have assumed that that was what had happened.  In their intense longing to have Jesus back, they must have had a shared hallucination of some kind.  It couldn’t really be Jesus.  And yet they pressed Thomas to believe that Jesus had been there, and had breathed on them, and sent them out to do the work he had been doing. Not only had he appeared, but he had given them, filled them with the Holy Spirit, and commissioned them to pick up where he left off.

“All right,” says Thomas, “I hear you. I hear what you think happened.  But I won’t believe it until I can see those wounds, the marks that prove that he died in exactly the way he did.”

They gather again a week later, and – guess what?  Jesus appears again.  And he knows what Thomas is thinking. That’s another one of those things that Jesus does; he always knows everything about people, who they are, where they’ve been, who they’ve been with, what they’ve done.  That’s been a proof of his identity before – remember the woman at the well?  He knew all about her several husbands. Jesus does this to people, and it helps them to believe.

So Jesus turns to Thomas and says “I know you want to see and touch my wounds to believe it’s me and not some con artist or magician trying to fool you. So here they are, hands, feet, side.  Some people don’t need this much proof, but you do, and so I’m here to give it to you.  Here’s your proof.”

And Thomas believes.  Now, mind you, he’s still talking, for all intents and purposes, to a ghost, or something like a ghost.  I’m not here to debate the merits of otherworldly beings.  I think to Thomas, Jesus was a ghost.  Thomas was allowing himself to experience something wonder-ful, something impossible, something unusual. We are all told to believe in the rational world, science, math, good government, solid economies, medicine…and if we veer off the three-dimensional path, there’s always psychology to tell us why we believe things that aren’t possible.  But let us remember, that not so many years ago, the very finest minds of the Western World knew, absolutely knew, that the Earth was flat. They executed people for saying that the earth was round, and that the sun was the center of our immediate universe.  Now we can fly up to space and see the round Earth for ourselves, and we know that what was absolutely certain then wasn’t true. The truth was bigger and most unusual.

I had an unusual thing happen to me years ago.  When I was 20, I went into the hospital for surgery, run-of-the-mill stuff, nothing terribly serious.  The surgery went well, and after a few days I was sent home.  Two days later I developed a pain in my side every time I took a breath.  The doctor was concerned and had me re-admitted to the hospital.

Going into the hospital I was afraid. I didn’t know what was happening and I was afraid of what would be done to me.  The medical staff had to put me through a series of tests, some of which were quite painful and frightening.  In between rounds I was lying in bed just focusing on breathing, which was getting harder.  All the testing was inconclusive, and none of the treatments they tried were working.  My room was next to the nurses’ station on the floor, and I’m sure they didn’t think I could hear their conversations, but I could.  I was slipping away, and the staff were worried, frustrated, and even angry that they had a recently-healthy 20-year-old that they were about to lose. 

At some point late one night I began to hear music off in the distance.  I thought somebody had a radio playing in another room down the hall.  It was a very big sound, like a symphony times 10.  It was beautiful and I wondered who was listening to it.  As I listened, I was suddenly filled with a great warmth and love for all of the staff who were working on me.  It was as though I wanted to take them in my arms and let them know that I knew how hard they were working, and how worried and frustrated they were.  I wanted to let them know that whatever happened was all right and that their work was good.  I drifted off to sleep loving them.  Later that night, my doctor, after reading the status reports on me, came into the hospital lab and reran a number of my tests for himself.  He found the problem – old-fashioned bacterial pneumonia, the same thing that killed George Washington.  What it needed was a big dose of penicillin, which got pumped into my IV in the wee hours of the morning.  When I woke up later, the pain in my side was much less and I was on my way to recovery.

I don’t know what that music was, or if the feeling of loving the staff had any effect on them.  I have thought at times that the whole episode was a fever dream, that there wasn’t anything “real” about it, and I’ve heard other people talk about strange experiences they’ve had during illnesses that they thought must just have been hallucinations.  But if I’m honest with myself, I know that something very unusual happened that night, and by a VERY circuitous route, it has led me here.  But that’s another story.

What I want to leave you with is an invitation to do two things:  I want you to carry on doubting.  It can save you from magicians and con men who do not have good intentions.  But I also want to invite you to wonder, and to keep your senses tuned for unusual circumstances.  As theologian Verna Dozier says in her book, The Dream of God, “The raw material of faith is not fact but experience.  It is not what your mind, by a series of rational steps, tells you is so.  Faith is what your experience, in a way you cannot explain to someone else’s satisfaction, gives you the courage to risk.”  So please remember, when something unusual is happening, it might just be a ghost calling you.