john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Jesus: a ghost on the waters?

    Bratton Clovelly, Germansweek,

    Matthew 14.22-33

    [Bracketed sections for Bratton Clovelly, celebrating its Patronal Festival]
    When the disciples saw Jesus walking towards them on the lake, they were terrified, saying, 'It is a ghost!'
    Children ask the most fascinating - and sometimes most challenging - questions. Once, on a primary school visit to a church of mine I made a brave - or was it daft? - invitation to the youngsters to ask me anything at all about the church; and one girl said to me, 'Has this church got a ghost?'

    It was an interesting question, which perhaps said something significant about her idea of what churches are, a question which we might consider worth grappling with today [on our patronal festival] as we think about how to make the church 'real' and attractive to the coming generations: 'Has this church got a ghost?'

    But what did that girl mean by a 'ghost'?

    Was she thinking about church as a scary place, a very old building surrounded by jagged old gravestones, the sort of place where scary ghosts are often to be found in popular fiction or in the stories which are passed around the schoolyard from generation to generation. Like the one in a children's book which I picked up the other day in a National Trust shop, 'Spooky Devon: spine-chilling myths and legends from the place you call home', in which the corridors of Exeter Cathedral are haunted by a nun appearing and disappearing through walls, and a choirboy who died at the age of fourteen in 1864 befriends a present-day chorister. [1]

    Maybe my young friend thought the church might have a ghost because I had given her and her classmates a guided tour of a building whose walls were rich with carefully-carved stones, each commemorating someone who had a connection with the place, who had spent much time there, and whose presence might perhaps still be felt by people with those particular sensibilities. These might be friendly ghosts - of benefactors, of beloved clerics, for instance. But still, ghosts.

    [Here at Bratton we keenly feel the presence of those who have gone before us in these walls, in these seventeenth century wall paintings which appear to be seeping back through into the present day, bringing to mind our predecessors who worshipped here all those centuries ago, their interests and concerns appearing before us in text and barely recognisable figures. 'Be not forgetful to entertain strangers,' says one text on the South Wall from Hebrews 13:2, 'for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.' Ah - angels: comforting spiritual presences, in many ways like - but not identical to - ghosts.]

    'Has this church got a ghost?' Trying to find a positive answer to this child's searching question we might perhaps consider the experience we sometimes have of sitting in our pew and gazing at another pew, now empty, where we recall the person who used to sit there regularly, a special presence in the church's life, in our life, now passed over to a greater glory, but somehow also still here among us. Stretching the ghost metaphor a little, perhaps, but trying to introduce the idea of churches being places where positive spirits are nurtured and grown, celebrated, and remembered.

    I think my answer to the child's question involved a ramble around these themes, and culminated in what was probably a rather too abstract description of the Holy Ghost - of God, whose good, kind, loving presence is only known to us spiritually, who we can feel close to in church as we pray to him, whose voice can speak to us through the bible stories we listen to and the way they are explained to us, who can reveal himself to us as we sing his praises and receive his blessing. This church does have a ghost - or better off calling it a spirit - it's God's Holy Spirit and he isn't scary, he's our friend.

    But we can't escape the truth that sometimes we do find God and the things he does, scary.
    When the disciples saw Jesus walking towards them on the lake, they were terrified, saying, 'It is a ghost!'
    We can understand the disciples' fear at that moment; putting ourselves in their position we could understand how they thought they were seeing a ghost, something otherworldly, inexplicable. This was one of those epiphanies for the disciples, a seminal moment opening up their understanding that this charismatic man who they had given their lives to, was something more than a mere man: a physical being just like them but one who transcended nature, who wasn't bound by the rules which defined the rest of them.

    Jesus walking on the water appeared to his friends to be a ghost, because only ghosts, otherworldly presences, things real but not quite real, can do things like that. So they thought. But Jesus was real enough to them, as they recognised him as soon as he spoke to them, using words which he'd often said to them, to help them through the scary situations he got them involved in: 'Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.'

    If Jesus is a ghost he's a friendly ghost, comforting, reassuring, casting fear aside. But he's not a ghost. He's a man, like the men in the boat witnessing these events. Jesus is man enough to provoke his friend Peter to join him on the water, stretching Peter's faith beyond where it had ever previously gone, Jesus is man enough to extend his hand to catch Peter when his fears overcame his faith and he began to sink.

    Matthew's story of Jesus on the water makes Jesus out to be a man like Noah - a man who went up to the top of the mountain to be close to his God, a man obedient in devotion and trusting in faith; a man unharmed by the stormwaters, who, as they rose, rose above them, sustained by the spirit of a God who looks after those who trust in him. If Jesus is a ghost he's the ghost of Noah, returning to celebrate God's faithfulness in salvation for those who choose to walk with him. But Jesus isn't a ghost: he's a man, a man like Noah for whom the stormwaters of life and death have no fear, for his faith is stronger than all that threatens to drown him.

    I recognised that the little girl who asked me that question in church that time probably believed in ghosts, she sensed that there's more around us than what we can usually see or easily explain. And she seemed open to the idea that we needn't necessarily be scared by that; because the unusual or difficult to explain can be reassuring and comforting - depending what it is, and how we receive it.

    I like to think that little girl was potentially a bit of a Peter: one prepared to embrace her ghosts, to investigate the unknown, to step out into previously uncharted waters, one who with some words of encouragement and a helping hand when needed, would learn to grow in faith and trust in a God who is sometimes ghostly strange, but who likes us and who is in many ways just like us, in the body of Jesus, the man at prayer on the mountainside.

    Preachers of this story sometimes focus on Jesus saying to Peter, 'You of little faith, why did you doubt?' to underline Peter's lack of faith as he sank into the water. I prefer to see this as Jesus prompting Peter to put his doubts aside and to move on to further, future, acts of faith where he would grow in understanding and trust in God and become a great disciple of Christ. After all, Jesus had encouraged Peter to join him on the water, and when Peter began to struggle Jesus didn't let him sink. He would do this over and over again in the years which followed, as Peter, through trial and error and trying again, grew in faith and discipleship.

    At one end of the story-line of Peter's life of faith is his unsteady wobble on the waters of the lake that day, but at the other end of his story-line Peter is the rock on whom Jesus builds his church, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, a pioneer of faith, a man like Noah for whom the stormwaters of life and death have no fear, for his faith is stronger, whose faith inspires others to faith too.

    So, [on our patronal festival] we ask again, 'Does this church have a ghost?' Well, if it does, let it be the Holy Ghost who has inspired people here to greater and deeper acts of faith for so many, many years before. And if it does, may that Holy Ghost help us to inspire others, for generations to come, to take their first steps in stumbling faith, to see Jesus as a friendly, gracious, loving presence, and to learn to take his hand and follow him into hopeful, fulfilled and inspirational lives of faith.

    [1] Helen Greathead, Spooky Devon: spine-chilling myths and legends from the place you call home.