Thursday, April 01, 2021

Let Us Walk Through the Door (or “What's John Updike Got To Do with Easter?”)

The following post is a part of an Easter sermon I presented 8 years ago. It was a sermon which dealt with a seemingly unlikely trio of subjects: bad news from the culture wars, the biblical descriptions of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and a poem from none other than John Updike. I hope you’ll find this excerpt from that sermon of value.

…Christ is risen. And because Christ is risen, all who believe in Him will arise also. Death could not hold Him. And death will not hold us either...

I’m afraid that in many, many Protestant church buildings around the country this morning, there are Easter services going on that do not reflect the miraculous event which is at the holiday’s core – that is, the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Decades of naturalism and liberalism have had their effect. And in many churches where sermons once rang with praise for the glorious reality of Christ’s physical resurrection, there are now clergymen (and women) who are actually embarrassed by the event. Indeed, the sermons they will preach will hem and haw around the resurrection, offering only benign poetry and allegorical applications.

One remarkable protest of this revisionist history and the soft-headed religion that now dominates the liberal Protestant churches of America comes from what might seem to be an unlikely critic, the late John Updike. Updike is one of the 20th Century’s most famous novelists and poets, a writer more widely read and talked about than anyone since Hemingway.

Updike’s work reflects many of the themes of the post-Christian era. He is, for instance, rather preoccupied by the subject of sex. Yet his novels are also full of religious themes. Updike read Kierkegaard and Tillich and Niebuhr and, though he was not comfortable with evangelical theology, what bothered him even more was the milquetoast religion of liberal Protestantism.

I'm going to read one of Updike’s poems to you now. It’s a poem that exposes the lack of intellectual honesty, the lack of courage, and the lack of practical faith of those liberals who want an Easter without the hard fact of miracle, without what Updike calls the “monstrous” fact of Christ's physical resurrection. The poem is entitled, “Seven Stanzas At Easter.”

“Seven Stanzas At Easter” by John Updike

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-mâché,

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 miracle was real, Updike warns. The physical resurrection of Jesus actually happened. And those who deny it should act honestly and just clear out of the religious game altogether. Because Christianity must include the cross, the atoning death, and the physical resurrection. Otherwise, it’s less than worthless. It’s a mean joke. And a joke, he sternly warns, that will eventually crush the doubters who pass it along.

In this, John Updike echoes the apostle Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 15. Here are highlights of that presentation as they pertain to this matter. Wrote Paul, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain…and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins…If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”

But, of course, Jesus DID rise from the grave. And for those who trust in the sacrifice He made for us, the Innocent One dying to pay the penalties of the guilty, they too will rise from the grave.

Later in that chapter Paul continues, “But when this perishable [body] will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal [body] will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord."

Christ is risen. And that makes all the difference for heaven and earth…and hell too.

Furthermore, it’s a difference that is not merely historical or eschatological; it makes a huge difference for men and women living in the maelstrom of the present day. While North Korea rattles the sabers, while the sounds of gunshots echo through our inner city neighborhoods, while all of creation groans under the weight of such bizarre sins as child-murder, sexual perversion, and the brazen discarding of divine revelation -- the resurrection of Jesus gives to His adopted children the sure hope of their own resurrection and the power to overcome today’s temptations and trials.

Oh yes, the raising of Jesus has very active help for us today. It gives us perspective, comfort, strength, and joy. And, in time, it will give us all the treasures of heaven.

John Updike’s criticism of the insipid nature of liberal theology is spot on. And a few million Americans and Europeans have, over the last two generations, left the mainline Protestant denominations because they agreed with him. The liberal religionists have little to offer the mind and nothing whatsoever to soothe the soul. And, whether or not Updike himself ever “walked through the door”(as he put it) and fully grasped the implications of the open tomb, “Seven Stanzas At Easter” stands brilliantly true and is a compelling illustration of the apostle Paul's exhortation of 1 Corinthians 15.

So let’s you and I heed the advice well. Let us not mock God by treating Easter as only a sweet holiday -- one that speaks of bunnies and spring, decorated eggs and new outfits.  Let us not choose the allegory, the metaphor, and the sidestepping which foolishly trades in the true miracle of Easter for the papier-mâché scene created by the “faded credulity of earlier ages.”

Rather, let us walk through the door of that open tomb, appreciating the universe-shattering event that Christ's resurrection was, receiving into our spirits the powerful effects it has for our service in His kingdom right now, and looking forward to the full realization of His victory when all things will be reconciled to God.