It was my great privilege to preach on Easter morning for the congregation at Rockefeller Chapel yesterday. It’s been a number of years since I actually preached on Easter — and it’s the best and worst pastoral task: it’s the greatest story ever told! How do you expound on the greatest story ever told? We had the Gospel from Mark, and this reading from Frederick Buechner.
So what do I believe actually happened that morning on the third day after he died?
I can tell you this: that what I believe happened and what in faith and with great joy I proclaim, is that he somehow got up, with life in him again, and the glory upon him. And I speak very plainly here, very unfancifully. He got up. He said, “Don’t be afraid.” Rich man, poor man, child; sick man, dying; man who cannot believe, scared sick man, lost one. Young one with your life ahead of you.
“Don’t be afraid.”
Then, I preached this:
In 1960, the Clifton Lutheran Church of Marblehead, Mass, held a Religious Arts Festival. The recipient of a $ 100 prize and the title of best in show went to a young Harvard graduate, John Updike, who had been worshipping with the community. His award winning entry was Seven Stanzas for Easter, which was subsequently published in 1963.
In the intervening 55 years, the poem has become much beloved, oft quoted from pulpits, but also frequently challenged. Here are the seven stanzas:
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 / Eleven apostles; / 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.
It’s a poem, not a theological treatise, but there’s a claim here. There’s a claim that this story Christians tell on Easter is more than just a beloved myth, is more than a metaphor or our version of a fertility ritual or a celebration of Spring.
There’s a claim that this resurrection was a true thing. A real thing. That three women – or maybe Mary alone, if we’re reading John, or maybe Mary and Peter and Simon – went to the tomb and instead of finding the body of their dead teacher ripe for anointing and burial, found him gone. Instead they encountered an angelic messenger, no mere psychedelic or mystical vision, but a presence that alerted them all, together, that Jesus had been raised, and was gone.
This claim is – well, strange. All the Gospels tell the story a little differently, and were first recorded years after the first day of resurrection: surely this alone compromises the event’s historicity. Then there’s the fact that most of us don’t really believe in miracles – not really, unless we mean the “everyday miracles;” like the fact that eight months ago I did not have another life form living inside me, and now I have someone – someone female, with a heart and lungs and all that – there with me, waiting to be born. But even though that reality is, frankly, nuts; it’s something we can explain, and repeat. There are ways of studying the process; we know the mechanisms. We’re a rational people, after all, which inhabits a scientific age. Heck, many of you gathered here are scientists.
How can we believe in a resurrection?
Some Christian thinkers criticize Updike’s approach; suggest that by insisting on the materiality of the resurrection – of the cell’s return to life, of the angel’s woven linen robe – he draws a line in the sand for belief that too many cannot bring themselves to cross. Does it matter if a man really returned to life? If he didn’t, would the church really fall?
As in any discipline, there are critiques of the critics. If the resurrection was meant to be read as allegory or metaphor, the Gospel writers had the literary tools at their disposal to craft their accounts that way. Though the demythologization of the Bible by theologians began in earnest in the late nineteenth century, voices from the earliest church fathers through the medieval female mystics studied and experienced the text on multiple levels… and yet they still insisted on the reality and power of the resurrection of Jesus on that Easter morning. It is true that in previous ages, people often were more credulous, their worldviews allowed the possibility that events might transpire that were beyond their understanding or capacity to explain.
Professor Lucy Pick, a medievalist on the faculty of our Divinity School, recently published a historical novel called Pilgrimage, a project she took on as a scholar, but also as a reader of historical fiction who often grows frustrated with the ways other novels would describe a centuries old setting and give all of their protagonists twenty-first century worldviews and sensibilities. Pick’s heroine witnesses divine healings, and accepts them as they are, probing their meaning, but not the fact of them.
Perhaps we can learn something in our skeptical time from our ancestors: all you have to do is listen to one week of Science Friday on NPR to hear something real, something true, that defies belief. Of course, much of what we learn is surprising and fun, but rarely does it call us to reorient ourselves to reality, to change our lives.
The women on the road to the tomb that Sunday morning long ago were not anticipating a resurrection. They are, in fact, concerned with practical details: who will move the large stone that seals the tomb? On arriving, they find it is already gone, and, to their great alarm, Jesus is, too. Instead, an angel, “vivid with hair.” One commentator on this text suggests that our very real angel speaks as an office admin: Jesus is not here to meet you; he’s gone on to the next thing. He is very busy, but you can find him if you hurry.
Mark’s Gospel is the earliest, and its resurrection tale is the shortest, and most abrupt. It does not exactly inspire confidence. The women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Even those who had lived through the days of miracle and wonder that characterized Jesus’s ministry, even among those who had been told to watch and wait for and expect the resurrection, there is disbelief and fear. Amazement and terror. Because this event could not be believed.
Each year, regardless of which Gospel account the lectionary has gifted us, I ask myself if I believe this whole thing. And I tend to land with Frederick Buechner, from whose work Evelyn read earlier: I believe he got up. I believe something happened. Something wholly new, something beyond belief: something that moved these women first to terror and amazement and then into a whole new life.
When I am feeling the need to justify this conviction – how I, a mostly rational, alum of this fine institution, can believe this crazy thing – I will say that the evidence is in the legacy. Fallen martyrs simply do not inspire a movement like the one which emerged from those proclaiming Jesus as the Risen Christ. The movement always falls apart; something happened that empowered these people to preach the Gospel, to change the world.
But my conviction, if I am honest, does not rest in the likelihood of something having happened, in the desire for a first cause of a movement. It’s not the desire to seem reasonable that makes me cry whenever we sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” I believe in this resurrection because I need it to be true.
The Christian claim at Easter is not that something unbelievable happened and we are obligated to believe in it because of duty or unexamined trust in the veracity of the Bible. The Christian claim is that Jesus was resurrected, announcing victory over sin and death. The grave could not hold him, such was the power of God’s love and life manifest in him. Death is not the end of the story. The sin and violence so readily apparent in the society that executed Jesus on Friday does not have ultimate power. Its power never was, but we see and know that it is broken this bright morning.
Christ is alive!
The world is yet a terrifying place. It is not reasonable, it is not fair. A beloved parishioner of a beloved friend may well die in the next week from an infection following a routine procedure, because her doctor didn’t believe her that something felt wrong, and now it is threatening to overtake her. Terrorists from Somalia killed 147 college students in a horrifying massacre in neighboring Kenya. Our new governor has already begun cutting funding for programs that keep the most vulnerable of our Illinois neighbors alive, while giving raises to those in his administration. I read last week that we are nearing the moment when the damage we have done to our environment will reach a tipping point; it will soon be irreversible. I am bringing another baby into this world. This is the news this week, but every week it is the same. We all have things that bring us to the brink of despair, that terrify us. Death – physical, spiritual, environmental, metaphorical – is here, and it is powerful.
But the Holy Week story that Christians have told through the ages is that even the depths of sin and death can be overcome… and, indeed, have been. Jesus has gone to the cross, and now he has been raised. That death has no victory. Not on the outskirts of Jerusalem long ago, and not today.
He got up.
I don’t know how. But I know that it means I need not be afraid. And I know it means I have work to do. I can no longer shrug my shoulders in resignation reading the news. With the women, terrified, amazed, we are told to go. To tell others. To begin to do the work of spreading resurrection – not an inexplicable miracle, but the power of life and love that overcomes even death – to all we meet, throughout the world. There is work to do. Our aching, broken world, our violent, unjust societies demand our passionate commitment to their healing. Our children need a vision of how things ought to be. But the hardest work is already done. The victory is won.
Don’t be afraid. He is Risen! He is Risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.