1 Corinthians 15
What is Christianity all about? I mean, what is the linchpin of what we teach and practice?
That might sound like a too-obvious question, but I don’t think it is. Listening to what people say and write about Christianity could give you the idea that what Christianity is really about is – well, Morals. Or lifestyle. Or doctrine. Or social issues. How about miracles? Or life after death? Or the sacraments? Some people start their apologia for being a Christian with a description of their church’s polity, or how they were baptized, or with a narrative of their conversion experience; meanwhile, some people in The UMC believe that we can teach radically different things and do radically different things, but still remain united because we do “mission” together.
Because Christianity is a “totalizing” relationship – a thing that affects every part of yourself and reorganizes all your priorities - we wind up talking about, and arguing over, all these things. But none of these things is the make-or-break thing that makes Christianity, without which it wouldn’t be Christianity any more. The thing that does make Christianity what it is – the linchpin of everything else, the real center of all the talk and all the activity – is, according to the apostle Paul,
Resurrection: specifically, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; but more generally, the Resurrection unto the kingdom of God that the resurrection of Jesus guarantees. This is what we call “the blessed hope.”
If this is not true, then none of it is true. And if it isn’t true, then it doesn’t really matter how moral, or accepting, or philosophical it is, or what rites and ceremonies there are, or how you feel about it. Christianity without Christ is a big nothingburger, a giant waste of one’s time. And a Christ who did not rise from the dead is just another dead teacher, with nothing better to offer than any other guy on a soapbox.
That’s the essence of what Paul has to say here in Chapter 15 of his First Letter to the Corinthians. Having addressed himself to their various scandals and dysfunctions, having answered the questions they sent him, Paul now wants to make sure that what is eternally important doesn’t get lost in all the talk about everything else. So he says,
Now, I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast - unless you believed in vain. (15:1-2)He then goes on to talk about the factual basis of their faith: that there were over 500 witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that most of them were still alive (1st Corinthians was written within twenty-five years of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus).
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (15:3-8)Paul’s claim to be an apostle ultimately rested on his having seen the risen Christ and been called by him to this ministry.
Now, I don’t imagine that any of the Corinthian believers doubted that Jesus rose from the dead – it was too obviously part of the Christian message – but the implications of that might not have sunk very deep in them, particularly of they were Gentile Christians. For the Jewish believers, the doctrine of Resurrection would have been familiar, and they probably immediately grasped the importance of Christ having been raised: It's begun. God has started to judge the world – and redeem it! But especially for some of the Gentiles, Christ’s resurrection may have seemed like a one-off: a proof of his divinity, to be sure, but not something that mattered for anybody else.
Paul hits this hard:
Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. (15:12-16)And then he comes to the big consequences:
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. (15:17-19)In other words, if Christ has not been raised, then there’s nothing to hope for, no better day coming, no justice, and no glory.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. (15:20)This is the point: Jesus Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection, the firstborn of the dead. His victory over death means he can share it with those who entrust themselves to him. This is God’s means of addressing the fall of humanity. Paul talks about Christ as the new Adam here, the one who undoes the damage of our first parents’ sin.
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (15:21-23)Christianity is not, fundamentally, about life after death, but about life after life. Death itself, one of the basic building blocks of the material universe, is destined to be discarded. God intends to create a new kind of world, in which things don’t run down - don’t die – and in which his people will live with him eternally.
The hope of being part of that bright company, “when the saints go marching in” is what drives Paul – and should drive us – to live the kind of life that is pleasing to God.
What do i gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." Do not be deceived: "Bad company ruins good morals." (15:32-33)Well, okay, but this raises some questions, and Paul anticipates that:
But some one will ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.Paul is here trying to say something, I think, that he lacked a vocabulary for. Nobody had a vocabulary for it. He is trying to contrast the material conditions and physical laws of our world with the conditions that will obtain in a world whose fundamental laws are radically different from those we know. He reaches for the heights, and almost loses us in his attempt to describe the resurrection body – and then falls back on a simple declaration:
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. (15:35-44)
Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" (15:51-55)This is what you can put your trust in: Jesus will come back – and he will come back for you. Those who have died, awaiting his coming, will not miss out on the new creation, and those who are still living when he comes will not have to die first in order to receive the new life. Christ has promised to keep those who have come to him; has promised, “All that the Father gives me will come to me" and "No one will be able to snatch them out of my hand."
We believe that those who have died in him, still live with him, and will return with him, on the Day of days, when the creation is renewed. But why is it so important that we should live again in the body – in some kind of body? Isn’t going to heaven when we die enough? Ah, but the victory is to be a victory over death – over the very idea of death, over the loss of hopes, over running out of time, over things ending, over time’s decay – and especially, over sin.
Sin is the sting in death: all the things that messed up life that can’t be fixed; all the things you just have to settle for, because you can’t go back and undo the things that you wish you’d never done. So God intends to purge the world of sin, by purging sinners of their sin. And those who are so purged will then join him in a world that knows no endings – therefore, no disappointments – and no stain of any kind of sin.
In order to demonstrate his justice, God will demand an accounting of every act from everybody. Then, in order to demonstrate his mercy, God will give to those who have trusted in Christ a new creation in which there shall be no more of the former things that messed up the old world and their lives within it. It is for this reason that the Son of God came to be one of us, to die in our place and take away our sins, and then to rise on our behalf and open the way to the kingdom of heaven and the new life of the age to come. This is why we say that only Jesus can do this for us. Only he has risen fr the dead to make this possible for us. Only he is the Resurrection and the Life. And only he can give us a new life - the undying life of God.
That new life begins now. We can feel it stirring within us, and we want to be as far along the path toward holiness as we can get before our own lives end. But whether the end of our lives catches us sooner, or later, we know that God will finish the work he has begun in us, and our hope shall not disappoint us. “Therefore,” says Paul,
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (15:58)Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.