Why Matter Matters

SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 4:32-35

Psalm 133

1 John 1:1—2:2

John 20:19-31

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, with joy we celebrate the day of our Lord’s resurrection. By the grace of Christ among us, enable us to show the power of the resurrection in all that we say and do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” John 20:25.

Faith seems to be inextricably linked to sensory perception. Thus, the Apostle John’s insistence that the “word of life” he proclaims is one that can be “heard,” “seen” and “touched.” I John 1:1-2. Thomas insists upon seeing and touching the wounds of the resurrected Christ. John 20:25. Mary clings to Jesus for dear life. John 20:17. Even those of us protestants who are most averse to icon kissing, cross adoration and incense burning still maintain that “faith comes from what is heard.” In my own Lutheran tradition, we take seriously the admonition of Psalm 34:8, “taste and see that the Lord is good” by our insistence that the bread and wine of the Eucharist does not merely symbolize or memorialize, but truly “is” the Body and Blood of Christ. So we cannot be too hard on Thomas for expressing that same insistence on sensory perception in Sunday’s gospel. He is really seeking no more than what the rest of the disciples had already experienced and what all disciples seek, namely, to know the fullness of the resurrection.

It is significant, and worth recalling as we enter into this season of Easter, that the church’s hope is not grounded in the immortality of the soul, that is, the belief that some ethereal part of us goes on living after the body has been declared clinically dead. Our hope is grounded not in the power of the soul or any other part of us to survive death, but in God’s power and promise to raise the dead. We confess in our Creeds belief in the resurrection of the body. I don’t pretend to understand all that this entails, but at a minimum, it means that when the dead are raised, they are raised with bodies that can see and be seen, speak and be heard, eat and drink. Human life without bodies, if such a thing is even possible, is no longer human.

Is all of this simply abstract argument of interest only to ivory tower thinkers, but of no bread and butter consequence? I don’t think so. Bread and butter are directly at the center of it all. The gospel is inescapably materialistic. John’s gospel begins with the bold assertion that the “Word became flesh,” which is to say that God has a body. It is a mistake, therefore, to think of the Incarnation as a distinct moment in time. It is equally erroneous to view the Incarnation as a temporary state, as though the Word became flesh for the short duration of Jesus’ life and then went back to God’s natural “immaterial” state. We should think of the Word becaming flesh in much the same way as we think about the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. It is a sort of “becoming” that has neither beginning nor end. Incarnation is an essential aspect of who God is.

The upshot of all this? Quite simply that matter matters. The stuff of the new creation is the same as the stuff of the old. The resurrected Christ is a material body. He is a body that can be touched. A body that carries the wounds of the cross. A body that gets hungry and eats a piece of fish. The resurrected body of Jesus is no ghost, nor is it made out of some new supernatural material. It is the same body that was Jesus from the day of his birth. How it is that the resurrected Jesus is able to appear, disappear and manages to get into locked rooms without breaking down the door is quite beyond explanation. But the point is, there is complete continuity between the body of Christ crucified and the resurrected Christ. As author and poet John Updike puts it, “Make no mistake: if He rose at all/it was as His body…”

This strong incarnational faith expressed in our Creeds and in the New Testament is sometimes undermined by theology and piety tending to denigrate the material world. A hymn we used to sing in the church of my childhood declares:

The Lutheran Hymnal, (c. 1941, Concordia Publishing House) Hymn#660

I’m but a stranger here,

Heaven is my home;

Earth is but a desert drear,

Heaven is my home.

That sentiment is not altogether false. Jesus does warn his disciples that the world will misunderstand, persecute and even threaten their lives. John 15:18-25. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that the saints of all ages “have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” Hebrews 13:14. But for all the brokenness of the human family, the world is God’s creation, the cosmos for which God sent the only beloved Son. It is quite simply blasphemous to refer to this planet with all of its spectacular beauty, diversity and splendor as a “desert drear.” It is rank heresy to suggest that salvation consists in being raptured or otherwise taken out of this world to a “better” place. The earth is the object of God’s love, the stage of God’s redemptive drama and the raw material for the new creation where God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. God will never abandon this planet and neither should we. 

For all of these reasons, matter matters. It matters that our worship be filled with music, graphic arts, dramatic action, the smell of burning wax and the faint scent of wine. It matters that the church be on the side of all who are advocating for the healing and protection of the earth’s threatened ecosystems and endangered species. It matters that the church be on the side of all those deemed “least” in the view of the rest of the human family. It matters that disciples of Jesus practice concretely the unity of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church over against populist and nationalist movements that would divide the human family along lines of nation, race, class, tribe or tongue. Matter matters because the Word became-and remains-flesh.

Here is the poem by John Updike to which I referred above.

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-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.

Source: Updike, John, Collected Poems, (c. 1993 by John Updike, pub. by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.). John Updike (1932-2009) was a prolific American author and poet. He grew up in Shillington, Pennsylvania. His early poems and fiction are grounded in the gritty industrial and cultural environment of the rust belt. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the American Book Award for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for both fiction and criticism. You can learn more about John Updike and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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