Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ghost stories (Sunday Reflections for April 22, 2012)

36b Jesus said, "Peace be with you."  37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.  38He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."  40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.  41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?"  42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.

The Reflections columns the past few weeks have dealt with the problem of reading the gospels’ Holy Week and Easter stories as historical events. This excerpt from today’s Gospel reading is yet another dimension of that problem: the risen Jesus as a resuscitated corpse.

The earliest New Testament writings are by Paul and, as I wrote earlier, his understanding of the “Easter experience” is that that the resurrected Jesus “appeared” to his disciples at various times, and ultimately to Paul himself. The use of the word “appear” here and elsewhere is the experience of a vision or a dream. For ancients, such experiences were very real but were also considered to be different than normal everyday living.

In Mark, the earliest gospel, there is no Easter appearance of Jesus. Instead, the women at the tomb are met by a “man dressed in white” who tells them Jesus has been raised, and that he can be seen by the disciples if they go back to Galilee. The women run from the tomb in fright.

In the Easter stories of Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus does appear in tangible form. These later gospels were written at least 50-70 years after the events they are recounting. We are all familiar with the notion that a story grows in its telling and that seems to be the case with the gospels. But rather than thinking of this as exaggeration or even lying, it’s more helpful to see each of them trying to address questions and problems in their various church communities.

In our story today from Luke, the resurrected Jesus has skin and bones which he invites the disciples to touch and feel. He even eats a snack. Taken literally this story raises almost comical problems and impossibilities. From a modern perspective it is absurd.

But Luke is not a modern person and is not writing for a modern audience. Luke tells us his concern: the risen Jesus was not a ghost. The appearance of ghosts, the spirits of dead people, was a commonly accepted phenomenon in the ancient world. Apparently this is how some were interpreting, and probably dismissing, the stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Jesus was seen after he died? No big deal; people see ghosts all the time. 

Luke feels the need to refute this interpretation and does so in the only way he can, by making the risen Jesus a physical reality. He was not just a ghost; he has been raised. For modern people, however, and I suspect even some people in his own day, Luke only digs the hole deeper. Now that Jesus has a body, what will happen to it? Where is it now? Our minds spin with new questions and problems.

Unless, of course, we understand this text for what it actually was: a story, very likely created by Luke himself. The problem for us is that we separate fact and fiction into hard categories without overlap: fact=true and fiction=untrue. In practice, however, the division has never been so clean, even today. 

Before modern times, history was almost always told through what we would now call “historical fiction.” Detailed factual history was simply impossible to write because the information was unavailable. The interest in telling about people or events of the past was how they could help living in the present. From the courtroom and the laboratory we have developed a laudable appreciation for demonstrable facts and data. Our modern world would be impossible without them. We make a mistake, however, in assuming ancients had those same standards or judging them by them. 

In today’s gospel, Luke is interpreting one story (the empty tomb) by telling another story (of a resuscitated corpse). What’s essential for us to appreciate them is realizing they are both stories. It is entirely possible that Mark created the first account of an empty tomb. Paul never mentions it and it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have known it if it existed, and that he wouldn’t have talked about it if he did know it. 

Having told the story of Jesus’ life and death, Mark wanted to conclude his gospel in a way that pointed to the future. The women, representing Jesus’ followers, are turned away from adoration of Jesus’ corpse and told instead to go to Galilee, which for Mark is the center of the new church’s life. “There you will see him.”

In the ancient world, stories took on a reality all their own. The gospel writers that followed Mark each interpreted his work in their own unique way. One result is that their subsequent Easter accounts differ significantly from each other in nearly all their details. This is a problem if we imagine them as accounts of historical events. It’s not a problem with we understand them as theological stories built on the foundation of earlier stories, guiding and inspiring faith.

So today we can hear a story of the risen Jesus eating a piece of fish, or cooking fish on the beach as in John, and smile. I suspect at least some ancient people did as well. The essential message of all these stories is that the Spirit of the crucified Jesus yet lives. The question is whether we have our own stories to tell of that Spirit alive today in our world, and in our lives.

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