The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


'Let us not mock God with metaphor'

'Miracle' isn't a big enough category to understand Christ's resurrection

Leave it to John Updike to teach us something true about flesh — and the limits of his craft. In Seven Stanzas at Easter, he nearly leaves writing altogether to mount the pulpit and declare Jesus Christ's victory over death.

He need only lose a conditional here and there ("if he rose at all"), make a subjunctive or two indicative and he'd have a sermon that delivers Christ's resurrection to the ones who need it most — the dead.

The only shame here lies not with limited poets but with timid preachers who, by commission or omission, preach against the Resurrection. So it's left to a poet to end our farce: "Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy ... making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages ...."

An old German saying goes: "[A thing] happened so long ago it isn't even true any more." Apparently that's how we regard the Resurrection. We call it a "symbol" that stands for another truth or a story with a moral. Sometimes we say we don't know what happened on the third day, but it certainly inspired certain Jews — what Updike calls "sidestepping, transcendence."

But sharing such a spirit is not the Holy Spirit. That was Updike's fear — a spirit abstracted from the flesh makes spirit a mere idea.

But sin is just that, looking past God's gift for some pious wish.

People finally reject the Resurrection because they're looking past it for something else. Yet the church rises frequently in worship to confess the opposite: "I believe in the Resurrection of the flesh." The Spirit is no idea, but rather the person who brings us Jesus Christ — hinged thumbs, amino acids and all.

Flesh over flesh

Only in this way can the Spirit fight against the old world flesh that seeks to circumvent the Resurrection by refusing the cross on which Jesus Christ hung pierced and dead, not merely paused. It's our flesh that opposes Christ's flesh, which the Spirit ends since "flesh kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 3). Only flesh can overcome our flesh. Only death can overcome death. This way of preaching is the true Christian idiom, not mocking God with metaphors.

So Updike's "if he rose at all it was as His body" is right, but it needs more. It's not just "as" his body, as if he had other ways to rise. He can't disincarnate or triumph over death without his body — that is what Jesus' death and resurrection means for him and his Father.

This death and Resurrection was what God was all about from the beginning through to the end. What we get in Jesus' death and resurrection is real — whole God. Just like you and me, Jesus Christ is his body, and there is no getting around that. His death is "once for all" ( Hebrews 9:26), and his resurrection is a victory over death for himself as firstfruits. But we also come to receive this gift whenever the word of promise is proclaimed and heard.

Now we can begin to see why the Resurrection is denied so often. Don't we think that because we have "science" it's harder for us to believe in things like resurrections? Resurrection always has been doubted. Reasonable people balk before the abundant evidence of bodies scattered far and wide, reduced to dust and ashes. How can this stuff rise? Inability to trust our own resurrection is then laid on Jesus Christ. Was his body stolen? Lost? Or does an empty tomb require us to supply our own explanation?

The sheer particularity of Christ's bodily resurrection begins to weigh so heavily it crushes and kills whoever places hope there. Updike knows the stone that was rolled away is not papier-mâché, but the "vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will eclipse for each of us the wide light of day." That rock kills before it makes alive.

Our ‘God problem’

Ultimately, the real reason it's hard to believe in the Resurrection is theological. It's a "God problem" — when you're surprised to discover you have a God and aren't one yourself! Now if the Father actually raised the Son, then Jesus must really have died. And if he died it was at our own hands. What did we do when God sent his only begotten Son? We killed him. What did the Father do with a dead Son? He raised him. And so we have a potent double whammy: We did the crucifixion and had absolutely nothing to do with the Resurrection. With the one we are tragically active, and the other pathetically passive.

We don't trust Christ's resurrection because we don't want to die. Our fear of death isn't simply one of existing but of God's wrath in that death. We would rather live in a world of signs, metaphors and images dancing on the walls than see the way things really are. Despite the power of science and its undeniably great addition to our lives, worshiping at the temple of medicine will only get you another decade or two. It doesn't solve our God problem. For this reason "miracle" just isn't a big enough category to understand Christ's resurrection.

It's not just a surprising event in the old world that temporarily breaks laws of nature. The Resurrection is something that for the first time since Adam and Eve fully deserves the name "new." And if God can do something new in Christ, then it spells the end of my old sinful self that hungers to secure itself apart from him so my death and resurrection appear unnecessary.

God’s belief in us

It is finally not an issue of whether we can bring ourselves to believe Christ's resurrection despite scientific evidence, but whether the One who was raised from the dead believes in us. To do that it must be God himself — loving, alive and holding the future in his hand. There must actually be a God who can love the unlovable, who did die and rise, who will raise us from the dead with a word, or we are dead in our sins.

Thus, we understand the Resurrection only when we have the cross — that is, death. Here science and history must have their say. It's none other than the very Jesus and his cells, thumbs and toes who is raised — the very same. But it's also true that this Resurrection isn't turning back the clock to have a second go at things.

The Resurrection doesn't put us back in a pre-cross time. The murder of God has taken place, not as an idea but as inviolable history. So with Updike, "Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, for our own convenience ...."

But in that sense the cell's dissolution and our sin did not simply reverse at the Resurrection, and all of Updike's "re's" will have to be overcome. In the Resurrection the cross does not disappear, nor does the film run backward. There is a new time, a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) — not a different Jesus Christ and not a going back.

The Spirit uses this unerasable cross and Christ's vindication by the Father despite our murder as a promise to raise sinners from death. When that happens we are crushed by remonstrance, killed as old, baptized into his death, and only thus made new, raised in faith itself. Then the "unthinkable hour" of calling God a liar is past, and the new hour begun in which the sinner has Christ's righteousness as a gift, the slave of death is free.

To see the Resurrection we wait under the cross, in our sins. Yet we hold it already in faith. Because Christians bear this unthinkable hour every day, they are most to be pitied if the Resurrection isn't true — "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have died" (1 Corinthians 15:20). For this reason Christ's resurrection from the dead is for us justification through faith alone. But to say this means we can't mock God with metaphor, and so we preach him crucified and raised, and not another. This is our certain hope.

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
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 will 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.

Telephone Poles and Other Poems © 1961 by John Updike. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc.


Jay Sprout

Jay Sprout

Posted at 7:35 am (U.S. Eastern) 4/23/2009

Which is it:  "sidestepping, transcendence" or "sidestepping transcendence"? In the text of the commentary you have the comma. In the reprint of the poem there is no comma. I've seen it reprinted both ways. But the comma makes a big difference; and, as I read it, the line, with the comma, makes no sense.

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