Not a Ghost! [Sermon]

There are a lot of high-profile criminal and civil trials lately.

If you have a radio, television, computer, or smart phone, you have probably heard of these.

In a trial, the jury will receive instructions on how to arrive at a verdict. They’re told what evidence they can consider, and possibly which evidence was excluded, and what the requirements are for various charges. Then the jury has to come to a decision.

Let’s go to God in prayer.
God of wisdom, may the words that I speak, and the ways they are received by each of our hearts and minds, help us to continue to grow into the people, and the church, that you have dreamed us to be.

Amen.

Ghosts!

Halloween is over six months away.

If we were to just read today’s scripture alone, we might think that the disciples thought what they were seeing was the ghost of Jesus:
his disembodied spirit after death.

But this isn’t the only time the disciples mistake Jesus for a ghost.
In Matthew 14 and Mark 6, the disciples see Jesus walking on the sea and mistake him for a ghost.

As far as they knew, Jesus hadn’t died. Why would they think he was a ghost?

Here’s a fun thing about scripture: What we read in English in 2024 is not what was written in Greek or Hebrew two thousand or more years ago.

When we read the word “ghost” in Matthew, Mark, or Luke,
this is likely a reference to invisible spirits in the world.

There was a belief that the invisible spirit world surrounded us. And at times these spirits could become visible to us.

So when a being appears where one is not expected, someone who believes in invisible spirits could infer that the being could be one of these invisible spirits becoming visible.

Those invisible spirit beings were translated into Latin and then English and the word chosen was ghost.

When we think of the word ghost today, we think usually think of the spirits of the dead, as in the ghost of Marley in A Christmas Carol, or Patrick Swayze’s Sam in Ghost, or the dead people Haley Joel Osment’s Cole sees in The Sixth Sense,

So in these stories where the disciples think they see a ghost, they are searching for a way to make sense of something that defies explanation.

There’s someone walking on the sea? It must be a spirit, because people can’t do that. There’s someone here who wasn’t a moment ago? It must be a spirit, because people can’t do that.

Then Jesus has to prove he’s a real person, and really Jesus, and not just an apparition from a spirit.

So why are these in the Bible? Why did the early church decide these stories needed to be in the Bible? One of the things people do to decide what happened is to decide what did not.

Scientists do this to rule out other things that could affect the outcome: so-called confounding variables.
Doctors do this when they rule out other possible causes of symptoms
in what is called differential diagnosis.

And in law, it is often necessary to exclude other possible explanations to determine who is at fault.

So if one is in a culture that believes in an invisible spirit world that can cause apparitions, those apparitions must be ruled out to help people believe it what did happen.

It’s evidence.

But over the centuries, people have a tendency to change the emphases of teachings. What was once teaching – or doctrine – necessary to help exclude something people might believe later becomes orthodoxy – or right teaching – which is considered truth and still later becomes dogma – or authoritative, incontrovertible truth, sometimes with the force of law.

And that gets stuff backwards.

The scientists are not required to prove all of the confounding variables, just exclude them to make sure they’re not affecting the outcome.

The doctors are not required to prove all of the other diagnoses are valid diagnoses, just exclude them so that they can’t be the cause of the symptoms.

And the jury is not required to judge all the evidence is true,
just that the evidence points to a specific decision. Some years ago the United Church of Christ had a discussion forum on the internet. It was open to all people, not just UCC members. Think of it like a Facebook group that was open to the public.

There was one person from a church outside the UCC who used to say “Every word of the Bible is literally true. If any of it is not true, you can’t trust any of it, and then you have nothing to base your salvation on.”

I don’t know whether he came up with this himself, or someone else taught it to him, but I had some problems with it.

First, if you’re going to throw out the whole Bible, not only do you have nothing to base your salvation on, but you have no basis for needing salvation.

Problem solved.

But more importantly to me is the idea that if any of it is not factually accurate, that we cannot learn anything from any of it.

In the church I attended as a child, it would be scandal for me to say this: The Bible is not here to be believed: it is here to help us believe.

The Bible is 66 books by many different authors.
They are testimonies presented to us so that we may believe:

Not that we believe every testimony, but that what those testimonies point toward may be believed.

The Bible is not Jesus.

The Bible is not God.

The Bible is not written by Jesus or by God.

The Bible is testimony by people who bear witness to their experience of the divine.

So my challenge to us this week is to look at scripture in a different light:
not uncritically reading it as the absolute truth
but as witness testimonies pointing us to the truth.

Those are my jury instructions for this week.

Amen.


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