+ I’ve shared this part of the priestly vocation with you before. But, during Confirmation this past year, I also shared it with our students. As our confirmation class starts to wind down, I’ve discovered, as the students and I have reviewed all we’ve learned throughout this year, one of the things that has entertained them most was the stories of me being called in to deal with people’s houses that may be haunted.
The story you probably have heard is this one: When I was a new priest and was asked for the first time to come in to a person’s house and deal with what seemed to be paranormal activities, I honestly didn’t know what to do.
I was a fairly fresh priest, to be clear. I thought I knew all the answers. I’d already been through the wringer a few times. But, I was a bit unprepared for this.
I was serving at Gethsemane Cathedral here in Fargo at the time and Bishop John Thornton, retired Bishop of Idaho was serving as sabbatical pastor. I loved—and still love—Bishop Thornton. He’s one of my pastoral heroes. I learned so much about being an effective priest from Bishop Thornton in the short time I knew him and served with him.
Well, on this particular situation, I went in and told him I was asked to deal with this ghost situation.
I said to him, “Bishop, what should I do? I don’t know if I really believe in ghosts.”
The Bishop leaned back in his chair and with a twinkle in his eyes, said, very nicely, “Jamie, who cares what you believe?”
I was shocked by this. That wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear.
But he very quickly added. “It doesn’t matter what you believe, Jamie. If these people think they have a ghost, go in and bless their house. If they need you to be an exorcist, be an exorcist. If they need you to be a ghostbuster, be a ghostbuster. Whatever they need you to be, be that for them. For that period of time you’re with them, believe whatever they believe. If they believe they have a ghost, while you’re in their house, believe they have a ghost. Bless their house. Drive out whatever they think they have. And then once you get back in your car and drive home, if you still don’t believe, then don’t. The key is this: be what they need you to be.”
It was the best answer I could’ve ever received.
So, I went. I blessed their house. And sure enough, whatever the issue was, it never made itself known again.
Bishop Thornton’s advice was by far the best advice I ever heard. It simply blew me away. It has also been advice that I have been able to apply to many other situations in my pastoral career. And I can tell you, I have been asked, again and again to go in and deal with such issues.
I still don’t know what I believe for certain about ghosts. But, as Bishop Thornton made clear, it really doesn’t matter what I believe on this issue.
But there’s no getting around the issue of ghosts. In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus’ followers experiencing something they believe to be a ghost. But the experience they have is also much more incredible than any experience with a ghost. It much more life-altering.
The Jesus who stand before them—the Jesus they know had been tortured and murdered, the Jesus who breathed his last and actually died—now stands before them. But this Jesus is no ghost. He is flesh and blood. They can touch him. They can feel the wounds of his death. They can hold him. And he can eat actual food with them. The Jesus who appears to them, who actually lives with them, is someone they no doubt cannot even begin to understand. If they thought what he said and did before the crucifixion was amazing and mind-boggling, now it is even more incredible.
This Jesus we encounter in today’s Gospel is just as incredible to us. And perhaps maybe even more so. For the people of Jesus’ day, they could actually wrap accept the fact that things happened beyond their understanding. For us, we tend to rationalize away anything we don’t understand. And the idea of someone who has died suddenly appearing before us—in the flesh, with wounds—and eat with us—is more than incredible. It seems impossible. And as we hear it, we do find ourselves beginning to rationalize it away.
But rationalize as we might, the fact remains: Christ is still present to us in the flesh. We, the Church, those who have collectively come together to follow Jesus, to live the Christian life, to live out what Jesus taught us—we are the physical body of Jesus in this world still. We, with our wounds, with the signs of our past pains, with all that we bring with us, are the embodiment of Jesus in this world. We are the ones who, like Jesus, bring a living and loving God to people who need a living and loving God. We are called to embody God’s love, to embody God’s compassion, to embody—to make part of our bodies—a God who truly accepts and loves all people. That is what it means to be Jesus in this world.
We are not called to be ghosts. We are not called to be vague Christians, who sort of float around and make echoing ghostly statements about our faith to people hoping they will somehow “accept Jesus.” We are called to be living, loving human beings embodying a living, loving God, serving living humans beings who, like us, are broken and in pain.
Just as Jesus shared what was given to him, so are we to share what is given to us. We who have known the love and acceptance of our God are called to, in turn, share this love and acceptance to others. And when we do, we are the body of him who we follow. We can’t do the ministry we do if we are just ghosts. We are not going to help anyone is we are wraiths and specters of God in this world.
The God we embody and carry with us is not some ephemeral thing. The God we serve is real. And when we go out and serve others as Jesus, we make God physical. We make God real. We make God’s love real. And that makes all the difference. That changes things.
So, let us carry out this mission together. Let us be the body of Jesus in the world. And as the Body of Jesus, let us be the conduits through which we bring God to those who need God. Let us sit down and eat with those with whom we serve and those we serve. Let us never be ghosts.
“…a ghost,” Jesus says to us, “does not have flesh and bones…”
But we do. And we are called to use out flesh and bones to serve others. Let us never be vague Christians who float about transparently. But let us be physical Christians, showing our wounds to those who are wounded.
And as the body of Jesus in this world, we can do what Bishop Thornton reminded me to do when I was a new priest: we can be whatever we are called to be in a particular situation. We, as the physical Body of Jesus, can adapt and mold ourselves to those situations in which we can make God present in those areas in which God needs to be present.
If we do, we are doing what Jesus calls us to do. If we do so we will find that we are not frightened and that whatever doubts will arise in our hearts really, in the long run, won’t matter. Rather, by our presence, by love, by our acceptance, we will do what Jesus did. We will drive away, once and for all, every one of those ghosts of fright and doubt.