"A New Body: Ghost Ships"
The First United Presbyterian Church of Loveland
“A New Body: Ghost Ships”
Rev. Amy Morgan
April 18, 2021
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you."
37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
38 He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
39 Look 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."
40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?"
42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled."
45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
48 You are witnesses of these things.
Imagine it’s a dark and foggy night on the Northumberland Shore. Off in the distance, a three-masted ship appears, engulfed in flames. It’s moving at impossible speeds and in a moment, it’s gone.
That was the burning ghost ship of the Northumberland Strait, perhaps the most famous ghost ship in Canada.
Tales of ghost ships are found all over the world, from the Flying Dutchman of Capetown to the SS Valencia that sank off the coast of Vancouver Island. Some stories, like the Valencia’s, are linked to a specific vessel, while others, like the Dutchman, are a compilation of shipwreck stories that have grown into folklore.
But ghost ships, like all ghost stories, do share some things in common.
They all involve a tragedy. The ship, and the humans aboard it, are lost to the sea. There is death, fear and grief. The ghostly apparition typically replays that tragedy. In the case of the ghost ship of the Northumberland Strait, the ship bursts into flames. The SS Valencia appears to be sinking, again and again, the passengers clinging to the railings.
But as frightening and shocking as these apparitions may be, they are entirely ineffectual. They cannot be touched, as a group of sailors discovered in 1900, as they raced to the aid of the Northumberland ghost ship, only to see it vanish as they approached. Ghost ships do no harm, but nor do they do any good. They don’t deliver their cargo or transport passengers. They may elicit fear or alarm or wonder, but they don’t do what a ship is meant to do. They are reflections of the past, with no real bearing on the present or future.
Now, imagine it’s a dark and foggy night in first-century Jerusalem. A group of friends have been baffled by tales of the re-appearance of a friend who had been killed. As they are discussing these stories, the man himself, Jesus, suddenly appears in the room.
It seems logical, in a way, to leap to the conclusion that Jesus is a ghost. The dead are dead, after all. Just as a sunken ship doesn’t suddenly, physically rise out of the ocean and continue along its charted course, dead people do not walk out of their graves to say, “Peace be with you” and continue their earthly mission.
But Jesus is not like a ghost ship. He is not replaying the tragedy of his death. He doesn’t appear to them hanging on a cross. The wounds he displays are signs of his triumph over death, not the tragedy of his death. Jesus can be touched, and he can affect the world around him. He can eat and speak and open minds. He is no reflection of the past, but is instead transforming the present and impacting the future with his real, living presence.
Now, imagine it’s a dark and foggy year in 21st-century America. The Body of Christ materializes in every city and town, sometimes as a ghostly apparition, sometimes in highly tangible forms. Social scientists and national pollsters have declared the death of this body again and again. And so it seems logical, in a way, for people to conclude that where the Body of Christ shows up, it is merely the ghost ship of a church.
Perhaps you have seen a ghost ship church yourself. Ghost ship churches are more of a reflection of the past than a tangible hope for the future. I’m not talking about historic buildings or out-of-date hymnals or clergy robes based on the academic garb of the 16th century. Plenty of churches in modern buildings with high-tech production equipment and cool pastors in Hawaiian shirts are just as likely to be ghost ship churches. Because they replay what they perceive as the tragic loss of power and privilege, pining for the days when the church sailed the open ocean freely, commanding the wind and the waves of culture and politics, until it was upended by postmodernism and seismic shifts in society. Other ghost ship churches are phantoms of past schisms and conflicts, an ineffectual collection of policies, procedures, and practices constructed from previous problems. Still other ghost ship churches are clinging for dear life to the railings of doctrines, leadership models, and strategies that have been sinking the ship of the church for decades.
Ghost ship churches may fool onlookers for a while. They might look like a real, living church, but once approached, they disappear, like vapor. Churches are constantly trying to attract new members, especially young new members. But in ghost ship churches, if the ad campaigns, Vacation Bible School, or other programs might actually manage to draw people to them, after the initial welcome and excitement, the vitality dissipates. The life-giving, transformational, tangible hope people sought was an illusion bedecked in home-made cookies and Jesus sticker books.
Ghost ship churches are unable to impact the world around them, other than to perhaps cause fear, alarm, or wonder. Those who see ghost ship churches from afar might find them frightening – a place of implicit condemnation or explicit judgement. Others might be alarmed at the teachings or practices of the church – the homophobia or hypocrisy, the embrace of nationalism or apathy toward racism and injustice. And most who catch sight of a ghost ship church wonder why anyone would be caught dead on board.
Some ghost churches are connected to a particular congregation, while others are a compilation of stories about multiple churches that have developed into a general sense in our society that churches are a phantom of the past with no future. They are unapproachable, ineffectual, and frankly terrifying. And that, perhaps, is one of the reasons why less than half of the people in our country belong to a church anymore.
It’s clear – from polls and studies, statistics and general observation - that the church that once seemed to be vital and thriving has been declining. And it’s probable that one result of this pandemic will be the acceleration of that decline. Perhaps it is even true that the church as we knew it is, in fact, dead.
But that may be the best news.
Because the church was never meant to be a ghost ship. The church is, always has been, and always will be, the resurrected Body of Christ in the world. And just as Christ died and was resurrected in a new body, so the church must sometimes die to be resurrected in a new body.
At the end of the story we read today, Jesus commissions his disciples to be witnesses of the resurrection and the transformation that comes with it. He opens their minds to the life-altering truth of God’s redemptive plan for the whole creation. And then he makes them witnesses.
Now, the Greek word for “witness,” marturion, is the word from which the English term martyr derives. It implies a legal testimony that may cost you your life. The Book of Acts and early church history is filled with stories of these first witnesses. Tertulliuan, one of the fathers of the early church, wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
And while those witnesses await their bodily resurrection, their ghosts are not haunting our churches. Whether or not you know the stories of Stephen and Perpetua, Cyprian and Polycarp, their witness, their martyrdoms, fueled the growth of the early church and inspired Christian conversions for centuries. These witnesses trusted that because of the resurrection of Jesus, they would not become ghosts in their deaths. The stories of their deaths are told as triumphs, not tragedies. Their lives and deaths had real-world impacts, influencing individual lives and the future of the church. They died so that the Body of Christ, the church, could be a resurrected body.
The witnesses of the past, whether or not they were killed for their testimony, have built the church over the past two millennia. And today, the church can learn from them how to be a resurrected church.
Resurrected churches have gone through suffering and death. But they don’t see their scars as tragedies to replay but triumphs to build from. They don’t reflect the hopes and concerns of the past. They open minds and hearts in the present and offer hope and transformation for the future. They have a tangible impact on the world around them. They can be seen and heard. They can be in a community and create community. They continue to witness to the risen Christ, to the love of God at work in the world.
And this witness means that resurrected churches will keep dying and rising again.
Church, after this pandemic, we will not be the same. And that is good news. Because we do not want to be a ghost ship church. We want to live and rejoice in the new body God is creating in us and for us. We want to be a resurrection church.
This means some things will die. We will have to stop clinging to the railings of a sinking ship and quit trying to salvage the things that are sinking us.
And we will have to fight the perception that we are a ghost ship church. We will have to be intentional about showing up in the midst of our community, at unexpected times and places perhaps. We will have to let people get close to us – not just physically. We’ll need to invite them to explore us and ask questions and wonder, to poke and prod our vulnerabilities. We’ll need to sit down and eat with them, show them that we are not a specter of the past but a living, vital body, hungry for community and able to open minds to the love, justice, and peace of Jesus Christ. We will need to be witnesses, even to our own peril. We will need to create witnesses.
In 146 years, First United Presbyterian Church has died and risen again and again. Through population growth and previous pandemics, through economic booms and busts, through cultural and theological conflicts, through mergers and schisms. This is a church that knows how to die and knows, at its very core, that it is resurrected. And with each resurrection, our new body grows to look more and more like the body of Christ himself. It grows more compassionate, more just, more peaceful, more honest, more alive.
So friends, whatever growing pains may come in the months and years ahead, let’s not allow ourselves to be mistaken for a ghost ship church. Let’s live into this resurrected body, alive and effective, and not afraid to be witnesses to the resurrected Christ and his power to transform our lives, our church, and the whole creation.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.