This is my homily from the community Holy Week service in Dublin. I include it here on this blog in light of posting the Updike poem earlier in the week. Enjoy!
“A Question of Faith”
“Seven Stanzas at Easter” by John Updike; John 20:24–28
John Updike begins his poem, “Make no mistake: if He rose at all / it was as His body” and, with that short phrase, one of our greatest writers dives into perhaps the central debate of Christian theology. Since the Apostle Thomas, people have wondered, “What is the meaning of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ?” We’ll come back to Thomas in a moment . . .
But for now, I note that Updike is familiar with some of our modern answers to the question of the resurrection. It is sometimes argued that the ancient beliefs of the Church need to be updated for this current generation; that we need to make our complicated doctrines more accessible. And so preachers search for a metaphor, an image, or sermon illustration to put the meaning of Easter in plain words. Perhaps you have heard sermons that compare Christ’s resurrection to the changing of seasons: what Updike refers to as “the flowers / each soft Spring recurrent.” Or, maybe the resurrection is rationalized as a purely spiritual experience, an enlightenment of the mind: again Updike – “His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the eleven apostles.” However noble or virtuous the intent, we pastors get into trouble by trying to explain the unexplainable.
In a short story called “Pigeon Feathers,” Updike has a young teenage boy ask his pastor about the meaning of the resurrection. The pastor responds that, just as Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as the greatest president and emancipator of the slaves continues after his death, so too Jesus’ reputation follows him as well. This pastor claims that it is our goodness that lives on after we die. At first blush, you might agree with this basic claim; but is that the resurrection?
In our poem, Updike forcibly rejects this idea and the notion that we can somehow rationalize the mystery: “Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping transcendence / making of the event a parable.” If we make the resurrection a parable, a metaphor, or anything comparable to our everyday world, we commit idolatry by putting God into a box of our own making. As Updike writes, we make God “for our own convenience / our own sense of beauty.” This God of our own making is not worthy of worship; it is like a paper-mache rock. There must be something more . . .
In the Gospel of John, Thomas states the conditions necessary for him to believe; he must see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and touch his side where the spear pierced him. Implicit in this understanding is that Jesus had a bodily resurrection. He was not a mere spirit or soul. And neither was his resurrection a matter of the cycle of life, such as the changing of winter into spring. This event breaks the cycle of life! More specifically, it represents the in-breaking of God into the world in a completely new way. Now that is a God worthy of worship!
I know that he’s known as the “doubter,” but let’s give Thomas some credit. He was not satisfied with easy answers; in fact, he didn’t ask for an explanation at all. He didn’t crave knowledge; he wanted a supernatural experience. And notice the result: Thomas gives as heartfelt a confession of faith as found anywhere in John’s Gospel, “My Lord and my God!”
Updike once claimed that the trouble with the modern church is that we have accepted an “easy humanism” instead of an “otherworldly stand.” We are too quick to explain away the mystery, too eager to present the Easter faith as a rationale explanation; and we do this both for our convenience and at the peril of the Church. Instead of inviting people to experience the transcendent power of the Almighty, we over-simplify and dumb-down the sacred mystery. No wonder, then, that more and more people are leaving the church, instead of exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”
For today, I want to leave you with the image in John’s Gospel concerning locked doors. The disciples were hidden inside because of their fear; too often, we hide behind barriers of our own making that we call “explanations” or “logic” or “reason.” I want to suggest that, underneath these feelings, there is a kind of fear: the fear of the unknown, the fear of letting go of our need for answers and trusting God. There is a fear to the idea that we are called to walk by faith, not by sight. It is like moving forward by walking backwards; we don’t know what is ahead . . .
Yet Updike tells us, plainly and clearly, “Let us walk through the door.” If you have doubts, like Thomas, fine: God will come to you. Walk through the door! The point is not to explain the bodily resurrection or understand the empty tomb; our goal should not be to comprehend the mysteries of God. We don’t know how Jesus walked through the locked doors! But that should not prevent us from crying out, “My Lord and my God!” Walk through the door!
We’ll conclude our service with a hymn that speaks to this idea very well. John Bell, a member of a Presbyterian monastic community in Scotland, has written this text called “The Summons.” As you sing this hymn, I want you to notice that the first four verses all raise questions, as opposed to giving answers. The question is not do you understand, but are you willing to follow? That is a question of walking by faith, not sight. Let us stand and worship the One who is unimaginably great.
Rev. Andrew Taylor-Troutman
New Dublin Presbyterian Church
Dublin Ministerial Association, midday service
March 28th, 2013