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.
The poem is called “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” by John Updike. He is not often thought of as a man of faith, but I have come across few better treatments of the Resurrection than this poem and his short story “Pigeon Feathers.” In both, Updike insists on the sheer materiality of the resurrection: the stone rolled away was not just a stone in a story, but the same tombstone that will one day rest over our own heads. Jesus does not just live on in our memories and hearts, and he is not just a symbol of spring and new life: he lives in the same flesh that hung upon the cross, in a body like ours. Updike would agree with that great line from Flannery O’Connor: if it’s a symbol, then to hell with it. “If he rose at all, it was as his body,” and if he did not then “the Church will fall.”
Updike insists so strongly on this point, I think, because he knows that it is only a resurrection of the body that can make a difference to embodied creatures like us, creatures who know that they are dust and that to dust they shall return. You’ve probably heard the old Woody Allen line: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” Death, you see, puts an end to hopes, plans, dreams, futures, relationships, loves. We are sometimes told to make our peace with death, to become adjusted to it, but the Christian faith holds out for no such worldly wisdom. Death, St. Paul says, is “the last enemy to be destroyed,” and “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile… if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Our Gospel is a gospel of life, and life is no metaphor.
The disciples in Galilee had just undergone the cruel and humiliating death of their friend, and along with it the death of all of the hopes and plans he had given them. Here was a man who they thought was the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to longsuffering Israel; here was a man who spoke with power about God and told stories that turned everything they thought they knew upside down; here was a man who had chosen the twelve of them to renew the twelve tribes of Israel and to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to all nations; but there was a dead man on the cross whom one of their own number had betrayed, whom they had abandoned in his hour of need, whom Peter, their spirited leader, had denied.
They must have been a sorry bunch. From what John tells us, it seems like many of them had gone their separate ways. Their rabbi was dead, so why bother to hold things together anymore? Peter and a few others went back home, to Galilee, and went back to life as usual, or at least tried. “I’m going fishing,” Peter said, and why not? They followed him. A man’s still gotta eat, after all. And maybe out here, Peter thought, we can forget, we can move on. People might say, “Oh, that’s Peter, he’s the one who up and left his job and followed around that Jesus fellow who thought he was the Messiah. Well, you know how that ended up.” Well, thought Peter, let them talk. There had been a day when he’d told anyone who would listen that he’d be the first in line to defend Jesus, even to die if it came down to it, but he’d showed his true colors when the rubber hit the road. No, he wasn’t worth the memory of that good man. There’d been a day when he thought he’d found something so good, so beautiful and wonderful that it turned the whole world upside down, but what did he know. He knew fishing, at least. May as well get back to the real world.
It was Paul, not Peter, who said “if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” but I imagine Peter and the disciples were thinking along those lines out there all night in the boat. “That night they caught nothing,” John tells us. And there would be many more nights like it, until Jesus was no more than a long-ago memory that they tried not to think about.
I don’t know about you, but I’m with Updike and O’Connor: I can’t make very much sense of a Gospel that isn’t based entirely upon what happens next. After Jesus died, the disciples split up and went home. He didn’t rise again in their memories. In their memories, he was dead, and they’d let him die without putting up a fight. Peter’s dejection and guilt rings true to me. What else could follow from death on a cross? Jesus would be remembered as no more than one of the many pretended Messiahs and anti-Roman rabble-rousers, all of them failures and footnotes to history.
But that is not what happened. Instead, what happened was lives transformed, galvanized, set aflame with by what lies behind the simple yet wild words we say every Sunday: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Peter and the disciples leave their boats and become fishers of men, just as Jesus had promised when he first met them on Galilee’s shores. Saul leaves off breathing threats and murder against the disciples to become the apostle Paul, risking his life and traveling the world to proclaim the strange good news of a crucified and risen Lord.
Something happened to these people, and John tells us it happened just after daybreak after a long night of fishing. He writes the story like he was there, as if it had been burned into his memory. There was a man on the shore, telling them to try casting the net on the other side of the boat. Of course, this was absurd; a bit of a cruel joke, perhaps—Jesus himself had told them to do this back when he was around. For some reason, they gave it a try. Up came the nets with an absolutely ridiculous number of fish—they all stood around and counted later, there were 156—and immediately, John knew. It was the Lord. Peter was in his birthday suit, John would never let Peter forget that detail, and he couldn’t even wait for them to row to shore—it was just like Peter, he threw something on and jumped in the lake.
There was the man they knew, the one they had followed and loved. He’d made a fire. He cooked them breakfast and ate with them. Here was no ghost, no symbol, no metaphor, but a man who was hungry and knew how to build a campfire and filet a fish. John doesn’t tell us if they said anything to each other over breakfast, but I imagine they didn’t. I imagine it all took some time to sink in. They had been up all night. They had just seen him buried not three days before. Could this be? Yes, there he was, sitting over by Nathan eating a sandwich—but, could it be? Could something this good really be true?
There was that, and then there was more. Maybe he was really back, but could they bear it? They remembered what he’d said to them, on the night before he died: “Could you not even stay awake with me one hour?” And, “Before the cock crows, Peter, you will deny me three times.” He’d trusted them. But one of their own had betrayed him. They weren’t worth this good man. How could they look him in the eye? What could they possibly say?
Jesus was the one who spoke up. Three times, once for each time he had denied him, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Peter answered. Jesus didn’t say, “So why did you abandon me? Why did you deny even knowing who I was? Weren’t you the one bragging about how you’d die for me?” No. That’s probably the kind of thing that you or I might say if we felt abandoned or betrayed. But that’s not what Jesus said.
Gently, Jesus reminded Peter of the past he was trying to run away from. He spoke truth, but not to hurt. He spoke truth to heal. Jesus came back to Peter as he was, not as Peter should have been. Jesus gave Peter back his past, as something he didn’t have to be ashamed of anymore. And Jesus gave back Peter his future, gave him back all of the hopes and plans and loves that he thought had died on the cross, and sent him out on the mission he’d been called for all along. In that moment of truth and grace, Jesus gave Peter back his life again, and Peter’s life was never the same.
It’s the best evidence we have for the resurrection, in the end—people like Peter and Paul, people whose vision and lives have been transformed, people who have seen with their eyes and touched with their hands the depth of their own sin and need, and the even greater depth of the grace and love of God in Christ. It’s people who don’t need to run from the truth about their lives, who show mercy to others because Christ has shown mercy to them. It’s people who don’t have to hide from themselves the truth that they will die, because they know that Christ has defeated death. It’s people who bear witness to a love so deep you cannot end it, and a life so strong you cannot kill it. Peter and Paul and the disciples that morning knew the depth of Easter joy: that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is with this good news that we are sent out into the world rejoicing. He is risen. Alleluia.