This is a sermon preached at Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church at their evening service on April 19, the third Sunday of Easter. The lectionary reading is here.
Since the beginning of Lent, Saint Matthews has been telling the story of God’s Five Act Play: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus–now during Easter, New Creation and New Community. During this Easter Season, as a part of that story, a few of us members have been invited to preach in order to describe our understanding of how God’s Great Story plays out through our own stories.
So, a little bit about me:
My name is Maggie Nancarrow, and I am recently relocated back to Minnesota after three years in seminary in Chicago. I am a member of the evening congregation, because I happen to work as Youth and Communications director at a Methodist church nearby. But, I was born and raised in the Episcopal Church, and I grew up to develop quite a love affair with the smell of incense, a well-crafted Eucharistic prayer, and a good theological struggle with scripture.
And, this particular scripture lesson really resonates with me. This is because my faith has been shaped by more than just a love-affair with the Episcopal church, but also, like the disciples here, a paralyzing fear of ghosts.
In college, I had the travel bug pretty bad. I wanted to study abroad in a place that was truly and thoroughly different from the place where I had grown up. I was a history buff, and I had just discovered that there were these wealthy West African kingdoms, with warrior queen mothers, who had challenged the European colonialists. I decided to spend a semester in Ghana, a West African country with a rich history of both ancient kingdoms and a troubled relationship with Europeans.
Because of this rich history, Ghana has a strong tourist industry, and two of the most visited sites are a pair of European castles that were deeply involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade: Elmina and Cape Coast.
I visited both castles, and there I thought I saw ghosts.
I’m not talking about actual phantasms, like the type of things that ghost hunters chase on the discovery channel. I’m talking about something harder to pin down, harder to catch, and harder to describe. I’m talking about the ghosts of history, apparitions of the past that haunt us, and infect the people that we are.
We all have ghosts like this, and sometimes we come face to face with them, in places where the memories are strong.
In those castles I encountered too many ghosts to count or to retell here today. But there is one thing that was especially relevant to my relationship to the church.
At Elmina, they took us into the dungeon, and the tour guide told us about the thousands, maybe millions of women who were kept there to be bought and sold.
However, I can’t remember anything that he said to us then, because in that moment, all I could focus on was the stink of it.
Two hundred years after the trade finished, it still stank, and with that smell I felt as though I breathed in a ghost, as though the breaths I took possessed my body with some sort of ghastly apparition of the way in which humanity—and I in association—had failed God and each other.
Now, in these castles there were always also churches. And those churches were above the dungeons, because—structurally—that was the most logical place to put them.
Our tour guides reminded us that so-called Christians regularly worshiped the God of Love with slaves beneath their feet.
Elmina was built by the Portuguese, and that church was Catholic. It was easy for me not to think about that, merely because these days it seems “okay” to blame the Catholics or the Fundamentalists for every kind of Christian abuse.
But Cape Coast was an English castle. When they took us into the church at Cape Coast, it suddenly and painfully occurred to me that this church was Anglican. My church with the bells and smells, and well-crafted Eucharistic prayers.
My Episcopal church, the church that had taught me everything I know about the loving God who raises the dead and loves the sinner. That church had worshiped here in this horrific place.
We are a people who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who’s resurrection brings about the kingdom of God on Earth—the one who tells us how to love and gives us the power to create new community in his name. But, in this moment, it seemed as though we were all powerless. It seemed as if human cruelty and empire had simply just won.
Terrified, I returned to the United States feeling haunted by a faith made of Ghosts. I thought of the risen Christ and I saw only a ghost, a ghost that reminded me of all the ways that we had so drastically failed our God and failed each other.
In this story from the Gospel of Luke, the disciples remain locked in the upper room. They are frightened of the authorities, defeated, sad, and perhaps, bordering on insane—since a few of them have reported that they have seen Jesus.
These followers of Jesus also believed that he was the Messiah, they also believed that he would bring about the kingdom of God in glory and triumph. Instead, he was tortured and killed next to common criminals and enemies of the state—the Roman empire had won against their Messiah. They had not only been powerless to stop it, but actively ran away from the event.
I imagine that in that upper room, quietly huddled together in miserable anxiety, they are running through all the ways that they had failed their God.
And then they think they see a ghost.
I wonder how many of them thought that they deserved to be haunted. Was this God’s retribution against them, their punishment for their inability to stop the crucifixion, their abandonment of Jesus at the cross, their denial of him?
Here is a terrifying apparition of the past, a phantasm that resembles Jesus, but only projects their collective failure onto them.
But, in this story, Jesus is not a ghost.
What he does next is not a haunting or a guilt-ridden torment. What Jesus does next is to reassure them. “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Then, he shows them the wounds on his hands and feet.
Jesus is no ghost here.
He is no phantasm, no apparition of the past. Yes, be bears the wounds of the crucifixion—yes, he looks different than the way he looked before his ordeal.
Time has not been turned back, nor this damage forgotten, but he is not a projection of that pain sent to cripple the disciples with guilt, but instead a promise of restorative new life in a real, resurrected body.
The Fifth Act of God’s Five Act play is an invitation to new life in a new community, a community of the people of resurrection. Knowing what we know about what humans are capable of doing to each other, seeing the ghosts that we see, how can we trust that God really is at work in us? When we see only ghosts, what reassures us that the resurrection is real?
We are not lucky enough to have Jesus right in front of us, showing us his wounds and allowing us to touch and feel his resurrected body.
But, what Jesus does next in Luke’s gospel is to point to scripture, God’s Great Story. Jesus retells the disciples his story, and names them as witnesses to the story of his work.
And this is what can reassure us, today.
What we have in this new world order is the power of story, and this we can trust. Jesus gives his the disciples the power to reinterpret their stories, to make new meaning out of old scripture. He invites his disciples to enter in to a relationship with their scriptures, with God’s story, and there, in our engagement with stories, God’s power of resurrection is revealed to us.
Today, both Elmina and Cape Coast castles are museums
owned and operated by the independent nation of Ghana. Both castles have art galleries in their walls, places where the people of Ghana now tell their stories with their own voices. These castles are places where people from all over the world come to hear the story of the wounds that we have inflicted on one another, and these stories are heard and become the marks of crucifixion that propel us into working for new community.
Here in our congregation, and in congregations across the United States, members in community share their stories of both pain and healing in this vast sea that is the search for racial reconciliation.
Just after this service, we will celebrate the opening of our community art show, a place where so many members of our community have come together to display works that tell their
Jesus shows his disciples his wounds, he sits in community with them, and he teaches them how to hear stories.
This is what the new community is truly about. When we truly meet one another and hear one another’s stories, and find within one another the expression of God’s great story, then we live into that new community.
Then, we can be free of the paralyzing fear of ghosts, and we can put our trust in the resurrection.