I am ready to tell you my secret ….I see dead people. These are the famous words of Cole Seer, played by Hayley Joel Osment, in the film the Sixth Sense to his child psychologist, Dr Malcolm Crowe, played by Bruce Willis. It’s the story of a deeply troubled young boy who is disturbed because, as it turns out, he is seeing ghosts. It also emerges that the Bruce Willis' character is himself dead and this is another ghost that the young boy is seeing although Willis doesn’t realise he is himself dead. It's only in the last stages of the film that the penny drops for the viewer that this is the case, although the sharp eyed observer may have seen it earlier on!
It’s reckoned to have had 35th largest takings in history of any film and ranks highly amongst the greatest of all ghost stories.
Down through the centuries the ghost story has been a constant element in most cultures. We have ghost villains Dracula, Frankenstein and so on. We have our fears played on, dark rooms, things that lie behind cupboard doors, unexplained loud noises, dead bodies coming to life. Things that we are barely able to open our eyes to see.
Strange as it is to our ears that is exactly what the early Christians believe about the resurrection. Luke 24: 37 says these very words: they were startled and frightened because they thought they were seeing a ghost. It is clear too that these are Thomas’s thoughts in today’s Gospel, hence his insistence on touching the wounds of Jesus, putting his hand in his hands and feet and touching his side, ghosts don't have a body. Hence his unwillingness to believe unless he sees things with his own eyes. Hence also the reason why Jesus will eat later on with the apostles on the sea shore at Galilee to indicate that he is not a ghost, ghosts don't have to eat.
It seems clear that the apostles and early Christians were anxious to tell people of their own time that the Easter story is not a ghost story. However, the truth is that this is what they thought it was, at least at first. It’s clear listening to the accounts in the Gospel that this is on everyone’s minds including the apostles: where they seeing a ghost which their culture had stories about and which every culture has stories about? Was the story of Easter to be understood as another ghost story? Was the body of Jesus that that they saw simply to be understood as a ghostly figure from another world, a visitation from beyond?
The stories of the resurrection of Jesus from the Gospel reject this. He eats and drinks with them, ghosts don’t eat and drink. He is clearly recognisable to them as the same person with the wounds of his suffering on the cross evident to them, ghosts sometimes are terrifying strangers who come to do harm, he has not. But there was something strange, mysterious, there was something more about this risen body, that Jesus possessed something that made them not recognise him, there was something more to him. Something that made Mary not recognise him and she thought him to be the gardener, something that made the apostles hesitate before they bow down before him, something that veiled the eyes of the friends on the road to Emmaus to this stranger in their midst. Something whereby he was the same and yet different. Somehow he was the same Jesus and yet more. What comes from the stories in the Gospel when they meet this person whom they know and yet in a sense don’t know is not fear but they are overwhelmed, that they are struck dumb, they are speechless at what they see.
In a ghost story there is something ethereal about the body, but not here. This body is recognisable as Jesus, tangible, but there is something more that they cannot put their finger on and they find it difficult to put into words. The accounts wish to tell us but they seem unable or unwilling to do so. The accounts leave us with a confusing story which leaves more questions than it gives answers to: there is an empty tomb that was once closed and full. They leave us with mysterious sightings of the same Jesus that they know, they leave us with the conviction that he is alive and that everything that he does is confirmed by the resurrection. But they leave us a sense that you can either believe it or not. If you choose to believe then for you too a new life opens up.
The Gospels for all their weakness, for all the confusing details, for all their differing theologies are disarmingly honest. When the women come back and tell them what they have saw they call it idle talk. At first when they see for themselves they tell us that they thought they were seeing a ghost. Thomas, one of their own, he doesn’t believe them when they tell him the story and when he is absent and doesn’t see it, he won’t be made to look a fool. The Gospels are disarmingly honest.
What are we to make of it all? Peter goes into the tomb and looks around and sees nothing except the clothes rolled up. The other disciple won’t even go in. Both wonder and puzzle over it. It is as if they represent all of humanity peering into this tomb….. whether to believe or not. What does the empty tomb mean? What is it that we can believe about it all? Is it a ghost story from the past meant to console or frighten? Is it the greatest fraud of all as the religious authorities say; Matthew 27: 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse …. Or is it the greatest truth of all, by which the whole world spins, by which everything makes sense. Is it nothing of importance or is it God’s judgment on the world, is it his final word, is it the thing that saves everything? Is it his action through which we will not perish and be saved?