There are actually three kinds of people who travel. There are wanderers, there are tourists, and there are pilgrims.
- Wanderers can’t stay still because they can’t stand themselves, and so constantly wander, thinking that someplace else will be better – it doesn’t matter where; just keep going.
- Tourists like to be interested in things, but don’t like to get involved. Much better to stay at the Hilton than to deal with the natives.
- And then there are pilgrims. Pilgrims can take all shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common: they know where they’re going. They have a purpose. They have an intention.
And one of the most important things about the whole Hebrew/Christian tradition is that, unlike much of the ancient world, the Asian world, and the classical world, we are not wanderers. We are not involved in a cyclical cycle that repeats itself with no intention. We are in a world that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We are now in the middle, but it was begun because God loved the world into being. It will end because God wants it to be sufficient unto Himself, and complete. And we as pilgrims in the meanwhile move from that time of creation to the time of fruition, but we know where we’re going. That’s very important, and all of Holy Week we have been on that pilgrimage, walking alongside our Lord as he trod the Via Dolorosa, endured the Cross, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.
Today’s Gospel is actually my least favorite of the four resurrection stories, because it doesn’t give all of the wonderful bits and pieces about the angels coming, and the stone being rolled away with thunder and all sorts of things. It ends with the three Marys, who after all had come to give reverence to a dead body, being fearful and afraid. It had been a wonderful thing to see the empty tomb; but the empty tomb isn’t the point. The empty tomb is only half of it. The empty tomb is an empty tomb because of the Risen Lord. His body was not there, because it had been resurrected. And it’s very important for us to know as Christians two things: Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily resurrection; and he has promised that we too in Christ shall know our own bodily resurrection. We’re not going to be spirits somewhere in the way-out-there, floating around with nothing in particular to do; we are going to be resurrected in a new life that is consistent with our old life, in the sense that that which makes us who we are is retained, so that we will know face to face those whom we’ve loved in the past, even as we see Our Lord face to face as well. So let’s look first of all at the issue of Our Lord’s body, and then talk about our bodies.
The important thing about Jesus’ body is better explained in a poem by the American poet John Updike. Cynics among you might think, “Oh, what a depressing man.” He was actually a committed Episcopalian and a very devout Christian, and one of the poems that made a splash because it was so terribly un-contemporary was his poem called “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule 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
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 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.
If our Lord has not raised bodily from the dead, as St Paul says, then our faith is in vain. One of the problems that has passed with many people in terms of the Resurrection is that many of you grew up in a Newtonian world, a world where Deism and those who liked Deism reigned, and where reality had to be physical, and there was a separation between matter and energy. They were different. But we now live in an increasingly post-Newtonian age, where physicists (I have a son who is a particle physicist) talk about the fact that the cosmos is an incredibly intertwined mystery, where we don’t have easy answers, where matter becomes energy, energy becomes matter, where time is transferable, time is changeable, time is relative. And so consequently, all of the stabilities of a modernist age are now in disarray. Why not have the body of Our Lord transformed? Why not matter into energy?
St Anselm, the great philosopher-theologian, said, “I believe in order that I might understand.” He didn’t say, “I create my understanding to what I want to believe,” but “I believe in order that I might understand.” We as Christians today are facing many people who have varying theologies, who think that we have to be relevant to the age. Those who say that are actually already themselves antiques, because they’re talking about being relevant to the former age. Newton is dead; his apple is rotten; and people like him in the grave may have a great surprise at the end of time.
Jesus rose from the dead because he wants us to be a part of him, and as I said last night, one of the beautiful things in the Mass that normally is not perceived by the congregation is that as the wine and the water are prepared for Mass, the priest says a prayer, as he mixes the water and wine, and says, “By this mingling of water and wine, may we participate in Christ’s divinity, who partook of our humanity.” Remember the water and the blood that flew out of Christ’s side at the Crucifixion. The imagery there is that, because Jesus took on our nature – our physical nature – we of all creation are unique, and that we now have been divinized through Christ even as he has humanized God in our relationship. We are a part, we are brothers and sisters, of the Godhead. It doesn’t mean we are divine; and indeed one of the great dangers of a lot modern “spiritual but not religious” is that self-actualization is equatable with spirituality. Self-actualization is impossible, because you cannot be actualized except in relationship. A child brought up, as we know, terribly, from experiences in the Eastern bloc countries where infants who were orphans were raised physically but never nurtured, and in the end result was that they had no relational ability. They were smothered and small.
CS Lewis in The Great Divorce, a wonderful novel, talks about a human being given the privilege, like Dante’s figure in the Divine Comedy, where he goes to both Heaven and Hell. In Hell he finds people getting smaller and smaller and smaller, because they feed on themselves. They have nothing else. They’re given the chance of going to Heaven, but they refuse. Each has an excuse. My favorite is a bishop (I think I know who it is, exactly) who is a great debater and much prefers the uncertainty of Hell, where he can debate the possibilities, than having to face the reality of Heaven. And when that same human person goes to Heaven, he finds everything bigger and more real than it was in his human experience, and he realizes that the transformation in the Resurrection doesn’t mean, mercifully, that you’re going to need some kind of skin care after you’re resurrected. The “is-ness” of our resurrection is not about the fact that we look exactly as we did, but that which makes us who we are continues.
So much of Eastern spirituality talks about us being merged into the great ooze of being. Well, I’ve never liked ooze, nor do I find it very relational. Squishy, yes, but not relational. And so consequently, it’s important for us to recognize that what Jesus is talking about in his own resurrection is a life transformed and made fuller and richer and more real than even the life as we know it now. That has implications for us as well. When I have a really difficult point to make I always quote somebody bigger than I am. N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham, has a wonderful thing to say. He says, “The continuing message of the resurrection of Jesus is precisely not that there is life after death. There is of course life after death, and all God’s people will inherit it, but the point is that it won’t be what most modern Westerners think, as if life after death was a mere continuation. It will involve God’s people being given new bodies, like Jesus’ body, to share in the new heavens and the new earth that God will make.”
Every time we say the Creed, we say, ‘And we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.’ Now, what does that imply? I think there are four things we as Christians need to rejoice in about the resurrection of the body of our Lord and the fact that we have the hope of resurrection of ourselves.
The first is that Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of our own. We will have a continuity with our past lives, but washed and enlarged. And our life won’t be static. Think of the three virtues – “Faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest is love.” Why is love the greatest? Because when we come into fullness of life in Heaven, we won’t hope; we will know. We will no longer have faith, for we will have sight. The one thing we will have, the one thing that continues and grows in us, is love. So that the love which Christ gives us – and indeed, for a Christian, love is not something we possess; love is something for which we are a channel; God’s love abundantly flows through us out to the world, if we but let it. And by means of the Sacraments, by means of hearing the Word, by means of prayer, by means of coming together and sharing with each other, we activate that love, which then flows through us out into the world and establishes a greater part of God’s kingdom. So, we will be whole and complete, and we will know and love and be loved in ways we never could have anticipated.
Secondly, Jesus’ resurrection empowers us to experience new life right now. God the Father fully reigns in Heaven, as we say every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, but his dominion on earth is not yet complete. By these words and sacraments and our actions, we continue and extend that reign of God. He works in us and through us to extend his will. As St Teresa of Avila once said, “God can work without us, but He wills to work with us, because He wants us to cooperate in this dominion of love.”
Thirdly, Jesus’ resurrection demands that we see a wider vision of the cosmos, and the limitations of our own understanding. We are part of a greater reality than we can see, that transcends our own limitations. One of the things that many of us forget in the West is that we talk in the Creed about, “He descended to the dead”, or “He descended into Hell.” Many people in the 18th century got rid of that, because it was too downbeat. You probably know that the person who became the Minister at King’s Chapel told people that he’d love to be their minister as long as they got rid of all that stuff about the Trinity, because it didn’t make any sense. But that’s again a misunderstanding of dogma and true doctrine. What happens is that we are a part of a huge, very deeply interconnected experience, and all of that is tied together in love. One of the ways Paul talks about the importance of Jesus is that he says – and this is a mis-translation of the Greek – “Jesus is the glue that holds the whole world together.” It’s the divine energy of love that created the world; it is the divine energy of God’s love that maintains the world, and we only see a small portion of that.
Finally, we will rise with our bodies, not as dismembered spirits, and we will meet and greet all those whom we have loved in the past, and get to greet all those people we’ve wanted to but never could. Can’t wait to talk to Anselm, myself. Revelation, the great Apocalypse, describes a new heaven and the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth; a new and renewed physical world. Jesus calls us into that reality now that will continue forever.
I want to leave you with one Yankee thing. Every time you walk through a graveyard, especially in those graveyards that were established before the 18th century, notice the fact that the tombstones are all at the west side, because the body was always laid with the head toward the tombstone. Why? Because from the early Middle Ages on people understood that when Jesus came back, he came back from the east, with the rising sun, and so everyone wished to be buried so that as they were resurrected, and they came up out of their tombs, they would see Him face to face.
The joy of Easter is ours. Let us rejoice and be glad, and as we come to what I call the “Anglican altar call”, and receive our Lord’s presence in His Body and Blood, let us know that this is a foretaste of the feast to come. Amen.