Sunday, April 19th, 2015 – the Third Sunday of Easter
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: I Samuel 28:3-19, Luke 24:36b-48
Hymns: “God of Wonders”, “To God Be the Glory”, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”, “Sweet Hour of Prayer”, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, “These Thousand Hills”, “He Lives!”
That Awkward Moment When Your Closest Friends Think You’re a Ghost
On April 15th, 2012, a man by the name of Lesane Parish Crooks appeared on stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival near Indio, California. The Coachella Festival has, since its establishment in 1999, become a widely respected showcase for both highly experienced and popular musical acts and brand new faces looking to break into show business. The appearance of Mr. Crooks, however, marked something of a first for Coachella – it was the first time that a dead man had ever performed at the festival.
You see, Lesane Crooks is better known to the world as rap artist Tupac Shakur, or simply Tupac. He died on September 13th, 1996, in Las Vegas, Nevada, after having been shot six days before. So for him to appear onstage fifteen and a half years later was somewhat of a shock. Of course, people quickly realized that it was actually just a digital hologram of him, manipulated to cause him to appear to be singing previously recorded tracks. The novelty of the appearance of dead people in the holographic medium spread quickly, with its “jumping the shark” moment perhaps being the holographic appearance of dead fictional celebrity pony Li’l Sebastian on the season 6 finale of the TV show Parks and Recreation.
But Tupac isn’t the only dead celebrity who has appeared to the people in the last few years. As a matter of fact, another one appeared to a massive worldwide audience in a far more convincing fashion just within the last couple weeks. I’m speaking, of course, of the star of the seventh Fast & Furious movie, Paul Walker.
Paul Walker died in a car accident in November of 2013 when the Porsche he was riding in crashed into a tree and caught fire. At that point, he had filmed about two-thirds of his scenes for Furious 7, but had not quite completed the role. Ordinarily, when that happens to an actor, the script is re-written to remove the part or the part is re-cast, but Walker’s character, Brian O’Conner, had been an integral part of the franchise since the first movie opened in the summer of 2001, and could not be easily written out or re-cast. And so, using the magic of digital trickery, along with utilizing Walker’s two near-doppelganger younger brothers, the director and producers of the film completed it, with Walker’s character completely intact.
So in the span of just a few years, we’ve had a dead rap artist appear on stage and perform two songs with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, and we’ve had a dead actor help drive – pun intended – a blockbuster film to one of the biggest global openings in cinema history. Given the technology we have today, entertainment industry professionals have said that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine a few years down the road seeing a remake of, say, Casablanca… starring Humphrey Bogart and and Ingrid Bergman… or, at least, digital doppelgangers of them.
Which leads to the question – we can’t we let dead people be dead? Why can’t they be left alone? Why do we have to keep dragging them up?
Y’know, today’s Old Testament reading doesn’t make too many appearances in church, and perhaps with good reason – it’s the only ghost story in the Bible. I mean, I suppose you could potentially interpret it as King Saul seeing Samuel kind of in the same way that Luke Skywalker saw Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi. But the way I Samuel 28 tells it, the only similarity between those two stories is that they took place at locations named Endor.
Indeed, when King Saul went to see the witch at Endor, it was because he wanted her to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel from the grave. You have to appreciate the irony here – Saul had previously outlawed all witches and mediums in Israel, stating that witchcraft was an abomination to the Lord. Those who refused to stop practicing it were executed. And yet, here he is, going to see one in the hopes of speaking to Samuel.
Now, if this account is to be believed, and it isn’t something that the author of I Samuel stuck in there to mess with generations of Biblical scholars, then the witch at Endor was indeed successful at summoning Samuel – and he was none too pleased about it. The first words out of his mouth are, “Why have you summoned me, Saul?” He then proceeds to tell Saul that the Lord has turned his back on him, the Philistines are going to sack Jerusalem, and Saul is going to die gruesomely in battle.
Honestly, it sounds like a pretty good ghost story to me.
Realistically, it’s a ghost story that those of Jesus’ apostles who were Jewish by heritage had probably heard. I don’t know if they had a first century Israelite equivalent to the Boy Scouts, but there’s always going to be that mischievous teenager who likes to scare younger kids by telling them ghost stories. And why not do that with a ghost story involving the very first king of Israel, and his horrible demise that was prophesied by the ghost of the great prophet Samuel? “Look out – there’s a Philistine behind you!”
So we’ve got these apostles. Grew up with this story. They’ve all been locked up together for days. They probably haven’t slept too much since the crucifixion. They’ve had this wild story handed to them by the women who went to the tomb, telling them that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead. Given the nature of their situation at that moment, there were probably some well-fortified beverages present wherever they were. When you put all those elements into one highly pressurized environment and give it a good shake, I have no doubt that whichever one of the apostles saw Jesus just suddenly pop into the room first either a) thought he was hallucinating, b) thought he was dying, or c) thought that a ghost had just appeared.
The fact that the other apostles saw Jesus in short order obviously put the lie to the idea that the first one was hallucinating or dying, but somehow they all thought that, rather than seeing their teacher in the flesh, the one who Peter had proclaimed to be the Messiah, the one who they had seen work numerous miracles, the one who they had actually observed walk across the Sea of Galilee, instead of believing that they were actually seeing him, this suddenly and unfortunately became for Jesus one heck of an awkward moment, with his closest friends thinking he was a ghost.
Oh ye of little faith, you disbelieving generation.
Now, before we get too holier-than-thou on the apostles, I’d like us to take a moment and put ourselves in the same situation, but in our twenty-first century context. Let’s think about what would happen if we saw Jesus show up, especially in light of the things I mentioned earlier. If we can make Tupac Shakur show up on stage at Coachella more than fifteen years after his death, and if we can see a movie where a third of Paul Walker’s scenes were filmed after his death, is it too much of a stretch to think that somebody could make a reasonable facsimile of Jesus appear to us? We’d be even less likely than the apostles to believe it was actually him!
And Jesus realized this then, and he would realize it now. So he showed the apostles that it was actually him. He showed them the open wounds in his hands, his feet, his side. That wasn’t enough for them. So you know what he did next? He ate some fish. That’s right, when his bloody wounds weren’t enough to convince the apostles that it was actually him, Jesus said, “Okay, that’s alright, I’ll just have some lunch.”
That did it for ‘em. And hey, I’m pretty sure it would do it for us too – hologram Tupac and CGI Paul Walker sure can’t do that.
But the point of Jesus appearing to the apostles in that manner wasn’t to prove to them that he could still eat food, it was to prove to them that he was actually there. It was to demonstrate the power of the resurrection to make a new creation out of something that had been dead. It was to demonstrate that God has the ability to take something that we think is unusable, unrenewable, and make it into something with new breath and new life.
Above all else, that’s the point I want all of you to take away from this message today. There’s a reason why, immediately after appearing to the apostles in this way, Jesus commissioned them in the same way he did at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, in the Great Commission. They had just seen evidence of God’s renewing power of resurrection through this new creation of the body of Jesus Christ, and he wanted them to take that good news that they had just seen with their own eyes and share it with the world.
That commission carries down to us today. We have seen the power of resurrection with our own eyes. Did we see Jesus pop into a room with us? No, we did not, but we have seen things far more powerful than a hologram of a dead rapper. We have seen people who were thought to be irredeemable turn away from their sin and walk the path of love and mercy that Jesus laid out for us. We have seen people who were emotionally dead, spiritually dead, dead in every way but physically, become new creations through the healing power of the love, the grace, the mercy that God has freely given through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We will all die some day, each one of us. Some day, the miraculous interconnected machines and systems that make up each of our unique human bodies will cease to function, and on that day, our physical bodies will die. And who knows, maybe some of us will some day be immortalized through the power of holograms or whatever far-off technological wonders will exist in the decades and centuries to come.
But in the here and now, we decide whether we want to live. And living is good, so let Jesus appear to you in the quiet of your soul and the stillness of your being. He’s not a ghost, and neither are you, and so you have the power and the calling to share the good news of the resurrection with all the world around you. Through God’s grace and mercy, you, and I, and each one of us, are a new creation.