As a child of the 80s, I am obliged to be a big fan of the Ghostbusters movies. I’m even getting excited that an all-female reboot is being discussed as a possible Ghostbusters 3, though the lack of Harold Ramis is tempering that a bit. For all my love for the Ghostbusters movies, I’ve never been real big on other forms of paranormal activity. I don’t like scary movies, Casper the Friendly Ghost has always felt hokey to me, and the rash of ghost spotting shows that are just people whispering in the dark that hit reality TV in the last 5 years or so leave a lot to be desired. Being a paranormal skeptic and one who subscribes to the Orthodox view of angels (that we don’t become one when we die), I’ve always found the response of Jesus’ disciples to his walking on water to be peculiar.
“But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.”
The Greek word provides perhaps the best transliteration in all of Scripture, phantasma, which means apparition or specter. N.T. (Tom) Wright has a short article on the various understanding of the afterlife in first century Greek and Jewish philosophy. In it, he suggests that ghostly visitations were an understood part of life in Greek culture. It makes sense then, that the disciples, living in a highly Hellenized Israel would have had it in their minds to even consider Jesus walking on the water as a ghost. It follows then, that their reaction, being terrified and crying out in fear, makes sense. Of course, even if they didn’t believe in ghosts, the night and the water would have been enough to have their nerves on the edge anyway.
As I ponder the reaction of the disciples, I can’t help but think of those times in my own life when despite my faith in God and his divine providence, I’ve been terrified. Certainly not of ghosts, mind you, but of any number of other silly things: exams, job interviews, asking my wife to marry me, moving to Foley, becoming a dad. It seems as though fear continues to be a part of normal life, even when we claim our faith in Christ. Perhaps that’s why “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” was a part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. We will find ourselves tempted to choose fear over faith. We don’t have to look very far to see evil at work in the world. We are rightly terrified from time to time, but then Jesus calls out, “Take courage!” or “Take heart!” or “Cheer up! I’m here, you need not be afraid.”