April 18, 2021
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.
—John Updike, “Seven Stanzas as Easter” (1960)
Sometimes poetry takes a few reads before it has its effect on us. Certainly, it does for me, but I’m hoping that even so you were able to get a sense of Updike’s gist. It strikes me as a pretty clear reiteration of Luke’s point in today’s gospel passage, which if you were with us last week, repeats some of what we heard from the Doubting Thomas story. “Look at my hands and my feet,” says Jesus. “See that it is I myself. Touch me and see…” he says to doubting and frightened disciples.
But, with Thomas the message is a bit different. It’s about how the risen Christ comes to us in our need, and it’s about Christ being there with us even when we don’t know how to see him. In Luke’s passage there’s another dynamic, one that seems almost a little goofy. The concern is that they are seeing a ghost, that therefore it’s not really Jesus before them. For Luke it’s about a physical resurrection. “A ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones,” says Jesus. “Look at me! Touch me!” he says. And, as if that’s not enough he asks for some fish, because everyone knows that ghosts don’t eat.
It’s not shocking that the early church would wrestle with the resurrection and what really happened. It’s not shocking that we would either, for that matter. I’ve read that Luke’s odd approach here may be in response to other early influencers who argued for a spiritualized resurrection and perhaps visions of a risen Jesus, but not anything as unbelievable as actual physical encounters with a living, embodied Jesus. For Luke, a living embodied Jesus is important because we are living, embodied people. If the risen Jesus returned as something other than human then in a way the resurrection doesn’t quite feel like it was an event that was so profoundly “for us.” (Good for Jesus, but what does it have to do with humans like us?)
I appreciate the way David Lose reflects on the passage. He writes, “This year, after a year of isolation, of interacting with people primarily (and some weeks exclusively) by phone and Zoom, after preaching to a camera for 54 Sundays in a row and recording untold numbers of Bible studies to share with people I never got to see, I think about Luke’s emphasis on the physical element of Jesus’ resurrection differently. There is something ineluctably and integrally physical about our existence and, Luke wants to stress, about the promise of resurrected existence as well. And so it’s really, really important for Luke, I think, to tell the story in a way that emphasizes that Jesus isn’t, well, a ghost and that the disciples didn’t merely have ecstatic visions but actually saw, touched, and interacted physically with their Lord.” He concludes, “God comes for real people, redeems real people, and promises to resurrect real – and so also physical – people.”
So, that’s part of the message. God is dealing with the real world, not some spiritualized version of it. God enters the muck of actual physical existence with all its complexities, limitations, and brokenness, not to escape it but to transform it, which I think is an important confession.
But I also don’t think that’s the entirety of it. I was praying about this passage and thinking about this morning, wondering why Luke cared so much to make the physicality of it all so essential, wondering if such a point would have any bearing on your lives, when I felt as directed and spoken to by God as I have in a long time. God pointed me to the “Living Jesus.” Not so much the actual living Jesus, but a book that I had picked up in consideration for a church read, and put back down when I thought it might a little too theological or boring for general appeal.
This particular author never bores me though. In fact, I find myself reading him quickly because I get so drawn in to what he’s writing, which is saying something because I’m usually a pretty slow reader. His premise (and I’m talking about Luke Timothy Johnson, by the way) is that Jesus is not simply a man of history or a God whose past actions did us the favor of a heavenly salvation when we die. His premise is the old, but important reminder that the Christian movement from the very beginning was based on the experience of real people encountering the real presence of the risen Jesus in ways that gave their lives new meaning, hope, and purpose. For the biblical Christians Jesus wasn’t a man whose moral teachings we were meant to follow; he was a living Savior who continued to share his life through the outpouring of his very Spirit. And, this is why the bodily resurrection is so important to Luke. It was the confession of the Christians that the resurrection of Jesus is most commonly and powerfully experienced as embodied in the actual, lived out lives of the faithful. In that sense the bodily resurrection of Jesus is ultimately about you and me, and for you and me. It says that resurrection is physical because the risen Christ is embodied in physical people who’s prayers, words, deeds, and witness reveal Christ’s life.
That’s why the saints matter, not as canonized Christians of lore, but as people through whom the living God is powerfully revealed, and as people from whose example we learn our own unique ways of embodying Christ. Johnson writes, “we learn from such saints the multiple ways in which the mind of Christ can be embodied in the world. We learn that it can find embodiment in contemplatives and mystics as well as in martyrs. We discover that it can be found in a life of engagement with the world and the structures of society, both in the corridors of power and in the alleyways of raw human need. And in each individual expression of sanctity in which the mind of Christ is embodied through the freedom of another person, we ‘learn Jesus,’ discovering new dimensions and possibilities of life with the one we now call Lord.”
Johnson then names his mother, Bernice, as one of the saints in his life. “She spent herself for her children in selfless devotion and thus taught them Jesus; she opened her home for the church of God and for the unlovely and unacceptable and thus taught her children Jesus; she made no discrimination in her friendships and thus taught her children Jesus; she shared what little she possessed with those who had less and thus taught her children Jesus; she suffered every sort of loss with utter confidence in the living God and thus taught her children Jesus.”
Like Johnson, we all have saints in our lives who have taught us Jesus, making his presence a physical reality, and I want to encourage you all to devote some prayer time this week to naming them, not simply out of appreciation, but out of sense that in certain ways a living God has been manifested for you in their lives. What of God have they revealed to you? Take some time and name it, own it, and embrace it not just as another’s kindness, but as the touch of grace from a living savior enfleshed in them. Then, when you’ve piled up all the examples and expressions of that grace you’ll have a platform upon which to look upon your own life, imagining how by the grace of God that very God is made known to others through you.
Last week, if you remember, I said that what “Doubting Thomas” discovered was that in the end he didn’t need answers; he needed God. This is true for all of us, and it seems especially true as we look upon the world around us today. To me it really is a remarkable thought that God has decided that the world will have that need met through you and through me.
 LTJ, “Living Jesus,” page 50.
 ibid, 51.