Easter III, 18 Apr 21
Casper was a friendly ghost, you may recall. You can imagine, perhaps, that it is not easy being a friendly ghost because everyone assumes you are scary and nasty and will run away at the first opportunity.
Jesus seems to be in a similar position in the Gospel we’ve just heard: the disciples are noticeably agitated because they think He is a ghost. We’re still reading these Sunday Gospels in real time as it were, what we’ve just heard happened just a week or two after our Lord’s Resurrection. Jesus has has to show them He is not a ghost. A ghost isn’t really a proper entity in our understanding of the world, but if it were to be anything, it is a soul that has not found rest. This cannot be said of the Risen Lord nor indeed of any of those who die in Christ. In the Scriptures it can be seen in the story our Lord tells of the rich man Dives (Luke 16:19-31). Saul is condemned, remember, for trying to speak to the dead (I Samuel 28:3-25).
So, how can Jesus prove He is not a ghost? Answer: He show’s them His flesh and bones. Unlike Casper the friendly Ghost, there is no sense here of our Lord being translucent. He eats some fish to show them He is no ghost. It’s worth us stopping here and realising it’s not quite as logical as it sounds. By showing them His flesh and blood, and by eating alongside them, Jesus could end up making the disciples think He hadn’t died at all and was still alive in the same way He was before. But rather, this eating of fish is to point them to the fact that the life He lives is a life that will never end: the Good News of Jesus Christ is that communion is offered to those who believe in the new sacramental world which believers are to inhabit.
It’s important for us to remember this is written by St Luke and that the event immediately before our Gospel today is the Supper at Emmaus, where the two disciples, Cleopas and the unnamed one (can we conjecture whether it might be St Luke himself?) where these two disciples receive the revelation of who our Lord is through the breaking of the bread, not bread they break themselves I hasten to add, but bread that is broken for them by the Lord. Again, it points us to the sacramental world that believers must inhabit as we do by gathering for Mass as often as possible but at least every Sunday and on other holy days.
The fish harkens back to the feeding miracles that have been narrated earlier in the Gospels. Was it not with five loaves and two fish that thousands of people were fed by the Lord and enough crumbs gathered up so as to fill twelve basket fulls, twelve being the number of the church, the number of the tribes of Israel, the number of the apostles.
What I’ve said so far, I hope, illustrates that there are some important bits of knowledge for us to have when we read the Bible. Notice that our Lord explains to them after He has eaten with the disciples that He is the fulfilling to the Old Testament and He imparts to them a gift, the gift of “understanding the scriptures,” i.e. the Old Testament, of course, because the New had not been written by this point. The Spirit of understanding is one repeatedly needed by us as we hear the word of God proclaimed in Church and read it privately at home.
What then do we need remember about how we read the Bible?
First, there are some things worth learning by heart. Do you know the names of the four evangelists and which order the Gospels come in? (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). We heard from Luke’s Gospel today: do you know the name of the second book he wrote in the New Testament (the Acts of the Apostles, from which we heard as our first reading). Do you know some of the symbolism of the numbers of the Bible? Seven meaning complete. Anything with a “half” meaning incomplete. Twelve is the number of God’s people. This isn’t because the Bible is written in some sort of code but it is a recognition that the Bible is a complex collection of books to be read alongside a life of discipleship and worship, not as a substitute for community living.
Second, do you know who wrote what you’re reading? Now, ultimately God is the author of Sacred Scripture but God chooses to use individuals in his divine plan. In the case practically of all the Old Testament we don’t know who wrote the books, indeed they were formed over centuries. But for most of the New Testament we do know who wrote them: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the Gospels; Luke also wrote Acts; John also wrote the three letters that bear his name (including our second reading today) and he received the revelation that is recorded in the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse. This individuals will have brought their individual priorities and concerns to their writings so it is worth finding out more about them. That’s one of the reasons it’s good to celebrate their feast days because we can ask for their prayers and discover more of the character of these, our friends in Heaven. Their feast days are advertised on the Mass Sheet so we know when they’re coming up.
Third, I preached on Lent IV about typology (you can look it up on our website if you’ve forgotten!) and this is another tool in our disposal as we seek to understand the Scriptures. It reminds us there are themes that emerge and associations that are important because these are the stuff of relationships. When Jesus takes fish with those disciples, when we hear that with the ears of faith something should click in us that says “Ah, yes fish, feeding of the 5,000. Eucharistic miracle.” Families have these shared associations. My mother and I can quote from the Fawlty Towers series at each other for ever because we watched them while I was growing up. We are to have that same relationship with those who wrote the Scriptures: we know what they’re talking about.
In the example of the fish, this is why it became a symbol for Christians: it had featured prominently in the life of our Lord. But more than that, the Greek word for fish is Icthus, which became an acrostic (meaning the letters become a first letter of a word and form a phrase) which communicated “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.” It was used by the first Christians to indicate where they could meet in safety because it was dangerous to do what we do today and we take it for granted. Tertullian, one of the early church, writers also observed that we as Christian are little fish, swimming in the water of our baptism.
Fourthly, we read the Bible with an understanding of what’s grandly called the sensus fidelium, in other words the consensus of the faith of the whole church. This Spirit of Jesus, poured in to those who wish to understand the Scriptures, is not a spirit of self-sufficiency or a Spirit who priorities some people over others. He is a Spirit who unites the believers in fellowship: “There is one Body and one Spirit,” Paul proclaims to the Ephesians, “one Lord, one faith, one Baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). God speaks to us through the Scriptures intimately and personally but never to us isolated from the whole church. Where we think the Spirit is speaking to us and it leads us to abandon the Church then it is only evil that is at work within us.
For this reason, the Church has always believed that the best way for people to read the Scriptures is together. Therefore, the Church has a lectionary which sets out which bits of the Bible are to be read at public worship. You can get book copies of this - the Sunday and the Weekday Missal, and apps like Universalis. This ensures a breadth and avoids just hearing the same old passages again. It also ensures continuity. You might need to attend another Church because you’re on holiday or a midweek Mass when you’re at work in the city rather than here but the Scripture readings will be the same. At Sunday Masses, there’s a three year cycle on the ordinary Sundays of the year, when the clergy are in green vestments. But for seasons like Easter, the readings are the same every year. Once we return to Ordinary Time at the beginning of June, we will hear primarily from the Gospel of Mark.
Throughout Eastertide during the weekday and the Sunday Masses we hear from Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the New Testament. It’s the book that narrates the gift of Pentecost; how the Holy Spirit transforms the disciples into effective missionaries and how He calls Paul to ditch the persecution of the church and to embrace the fellowship of faith. The Resurrection is witnessed to by individuals offering their lives to the Lord.
I hope all this reminds us that the Church takes seriously our shared engagement with the Scriptures and equips us through the services we attend by immersing us in the Word of God. It might be helpful to write down things you learn about the Bible to help you remember them. You could keep a journal of passages that have been particularly powerful for you, or things you have learnt about the Bible. May God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit of unity, fill our hearts and minds as we engage with the living and risen Lord today. Amen.