My life is haunted.
I went to Israel last week to travel the lands where Jesus lived and walked. You could say in a way that I was chasing the ghost of a man whose words and actions changed the world. Jesus of Nazareth is a figure in history that is deeply personal to me…indeed, his ghost has haunted me all my life, whispering to me in my dreams and in dark places, in rooms at night with closet doors slightly open, in the deepest darkness and the still quiet places with no other souls near. He seems to know my thoughts and fears, my dreams and ambitions, and always he creeps into my thoughts, ghostlike, and calls to me in the night.
There was an eeriness about being in Israel … every place we went, whether it was Capernaum (where Jesus lived for two years), Nazareth (his hometown), Tabgha (where he fed the 5000 people with a few loaves and some fish), or Caesaria Philippi (where he revealed his identity to his disciples), I felt strangely familiar with places I’d never been before. The stories I’ve read since a kid even up until now seemed only distant fairy tales, but to put flesh on them… to see the places where they happened, to imagine Jesus standing near the place where I am standing, looking at the same hills, seeing the same sunrise, touching the same stones, makes something in me come alive that before was never fully alive.
And everywhere we went, the ghosts of the past spoke. On the temple mount, between two mosques, I could hear Peter and the disciples preaching to the crowds about the resurrection of Jesus. In the Upper Room, a building that is now a memorial to three different world religions, I could hear the small group of followers talking over a meal, and singing a hymn before leaving for the Mt. of Olives. In the Garden of Gethsemane, I could hear Jesus agonizing before God in prayer… “Father, let this cup pass from me, yet not my will, but yours be done.” On Mt. Carmel, I could hear Elijah calling out “how long will you waver between two opinions!” and taunting the prophets of Baal as they slashed themselves with swords, calling on their god who never answered. On the boat on the sea of Galilee, I could hear Jesus telling Peter to let down his net one last time after a long night of no catch. At Caesaria Phillipi, I could hear Peter making the declaration of his lifetime: “you are the Messiah, the Christ of God.” In the empty tomb, I could hear the mysterious voice of the angel to two bewildered women “behold, he is not here, for he is risen.”
In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Golgotha probably used to be, surrounded by golden shrines and ornamented decorations, I could hear Jesus say “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” as Roman soldiers crucified him.
The early disciples of Jesus faced a major crisis, one that his Church that has survived throughout the centuries still faces today: the crisis that Jesus is gone. He’s no longer physically here to teach us, to guide us, to lead us. What are we to do, now that our leader is gone?
Then they remembered his words when he appeared to them after rising from the dead: “I will be with you always, even to the very end of the age.” What do you mean you’ll be with us? “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
To be a witness means to testify to that which we have seen. But all the people had seen was a man hanging on a cross…
And then, a few days later while the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem praying, the Ghost of Jesus showed up. Things started happening. Freaky things, like straight from a scary movie. People started speaking in other languages. Fire filled the air. A thousand people committed their lives to the Way of Jesus, a few days after he was crucified.
The Ghost, the Spirit, is still here today… leading, whispering, guiding, calling to all who will listen…