Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Palm Springs, California
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Acts: 3:13-15;17-19 Psalm 4:2;7-10 1 John 2:1-5 Luke 14:35-48
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
       We usually associate ghosts with Halloween. But believe it or not, sometimes Halloween and Easter get mixed up, like in today’s gospel, when the disciples thought they had seen a ghost when the risen Lord appeared to them. Today’s gospel is somewhat like the story of Thomas we heard last Sunday, where the disciples were scared of further persecution by the Jewish authorities. Here, however, they’re scared in a different way. That thought they’d seen a ghost! After all, Jesus had died, so the idea of someone coming back to life after death was a bit disconcerting to them.
       But the actual word in the Greek text is not that for Ghost, but “pneuma”, or “spirit,” which is used hundreds of times in the New Testament to refer to the Holy Spirit and is the same word used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which is the version the very early church used, in relation to the Spirit of God that moved on the waters at the beginning of creation. So no, the disciples did not see the kind of ghosts we usually associate with Halloween. What they encountered was Jesus in spiritual form, the spiritual body of Jesus. But that was not all they encountered.
       What today’s gospel does is invite us to expand our perception of reality. We live in a physical, rational world, of concrete objects we can touch, see, hear, taste or smell. That’s called our sensory perception, and for many people, that is the world, that is reality. It is a world with no spiritual depth, the world in which those who don’t believe in God live, and as I said last week, we pray for those people rather than judge them, as they don’t know what they’re missing.
       What the disciples saw was Jesus in His resurrected, spiritual Body. What they saw invites us to go beyond our senses. The disciples encountered the resurrected Jesus on a new plane of reality that pointed beyond the so-called “situation on the ground.” But the disciples, as we all are when we experience a sudden and unexpected new situation, were scared. Their feelings were understandable: dead people are supposed to stay dead. So the first thing Jesus said to reassure them was to say, Peace be with you,” to calm their anxieties. However, was it really only just a spirit that the disciples saw?  If we are to take the scripture literally, Jesus was actually there in the flesh, not just in spirit.  He told them he had flesh and bones, showed them his crucifixion wounds, and ate fish, as if to say, “Look at me, I’m not really dead.” This particular passage in Luke is often used to make the case for an actual, physical resurrection of Jesus. But there is another way to look at it.  That is, that the spirit of Jesus itself has a physical reality all its own, and that Jesus is still a physical reality in our lives, and that his wounds show us that he continues to empathize with our sufferings.
    Today’s Gospel begins in the midst of a longer narrative recounting the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. What had happened was the Simon Peter and an unnamed disciple were walking along a road to Emmaus, a village about seven miles from Jerusalem when on the way the encountered Jesus. At first, they didn’t recognize Him as He interpreted scripture to them, and only when he broke bread in their midst did He reveal Himself to them…and then inexplicably disappeared. So awed by this experience were Peter and the unnamed disciple that they had to go tell the others about it. For many years, Beeper and I journeyed long distances to Church every weekend.  Like the disciples in the story, Beeper and I love to talk about our journeys, particularly our stories about our church experiences, our experiences of Jesus, revealed to us in the celebration of the Mass, in the breaking of bread.
      That is exactly what Jesus invites us to do here, to talk to other people about our faith. The usual name for that is “evangelism”, and that’s kind of an uncomfortable word for those of us who come from a Catholic or Anglican background – we haven’t traditionally done that sort of thing. But the command of Jesus in this Gospel is that we do exactly that. That’s what Peter the Apostle was doing in the first lesson, giving a speech to get people to believe in Jesus.  Peter was showing he knew and loved Jesus by keeping the command that Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel: to preach the Risen Christ. Jesus tells us to do that to everyone, to the whole world, not just the people we like, or the people just around the corner. The good news of Jesus is good news for everyone. Just as the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century facilitated a new narrative of the faith, so too the Internet today is fueling new ways of expressing faith and doing church. I’m hoping that our future here at Saint Cecelia will include live streaming Mass on the Internet. But nothing replaces personal encounters like the ones between Jesus and His disciples. Jesus did not have a church building.  He was an itinerant preacher who took himself to where the people were.  That’s exactly what we need to do here at Saint Cecilia to grow our community.  We have to go where the people are, and to that end, one day we will have a booth at Village Fest in Palm Springs to give communion, to baptize, to hear confessions, to do spiritual healing through the sacrament of unction by anointing with oil. Our faith is not just about ideas and concepts. No, our faith is flesh and blood. It is tangible action, a doing of the Gospel.

     So why do we do this? What is our objective, beyond getting people to church? To preach the risen Christ means to preach a new way of life, just as the risen Body of Jesus is a new form of reality, in not only what we say, but what we do. Today’s Gospel mentions two pretty good ideas: forgiveness and repentance.  Much of the time when we hear about forgiveness in church, we are asking a punitive, judgmental God to spare us from eternal damnation. But that’s not the way God is for Christians. We believe in a God who loves us, cares for us, and accepts us as we are, with all faults. We believe in a God who relieves our distress, who hears us when we call, and deals with us mercifully. If that’s what God is really like, forgiveness should really be second nature for Christians; after all, Jesus said that we should forgive those who sin seventy-times seven, and in the prayer that he taught us, we pray that God forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Unfortunately, however, this is a tall order in a society that legitimates one person punishing another. Parents punish, employers punish, the courts punish. But that’s counterproductive. It doesn’t change behavior. It just makes people hostile and damages relationships. The punishment mentality is a manifestation of ignorance about human behavior, the same kind of ignorance that motivated the mob demanding the crucifixion of Jesus. What if we tried forgiveness instead of punishment? It wouldn’t make a perfect world, but it might make a better one. Remember, Jesus on the cross did not call for punishing or retaliation against those who crucified Him; he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
     Repentance is closely related to forgiveness. In the old days, one had to repent to be forgiven. Repentance, by that definition, meant saying you’re sorry for whatever you might have done wrong. But that’s not the only meaning of the word. It also means to turn, to return to God. Repentance is also about change, getting into a new frame of mind, a change in direction, not only for your own life, but for the world around us. It is a conscious decision to move beyond one’s present mindset. It is a turning away from a life of rebellion, inertia or perversity, and a turning to God in Christ with faith, and turning towards a life where we are overwhelmed by compassion, where everyone is brother and sister to me, a new existence where we give of ourselves without calculating the cost, to let the image and likeness of God reign within us. In this context, repentance is not a single act, but  an ongoing responsiveness to the will of God, a continuous experience made possible through the gift of grace.

      Our Risen Lord, taking on a new form of life in His resurrected body, wounds and all, invites us to take on a new form of life in the ways we live with each other.  So why don’t we do that?  We are human like the disciples, scared of something that’s new to us, that we haven’t seen.  But also like the disciples, Jesus is with us. Jesus cares for us. Jesus loves us. He is our advocate. He is on our side. Yes, Jesus asks us to obey His commandments, but what are those commandments? They are simple. Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor has yourself, as recounted in the synoptic gospels, and in John’s gospel, love one another as I have loved you. That’s the kind of thing we should be preaching and doing when we leave here. AMEN.