“The Hope of Resurrection”
The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 10, 2019)
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
For Paul, everything hinges on the resurrection. It grounds the gospel. It is the substance of Christian hope. It is an objective truth that Paul received and that he in turn passed on to his church. Paul knows that Jesus has been raised because he trusts the testimony of others and because the risen Jesus appeared to him. Theologically, Paul is putting all his eggs in this one proverbial basket. Belief in the resurrection is an all-or-nothing, high-stakes game.
I read just a portion of this chapter (there are a whopping 58 verses in it), but the summary of the rest of it is that Paul drives home the vital importance of the resurrection of Jesus as the first-fruits, or, as we say these days, the prototype for the resurrection of the dead when God’s reign finally comes in its fullness. While he doesn’t venture to describe exactly what happened on Easter morning, he does go to great lengths to put into words what will happen on the Last Day to our our bodies “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality” and “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Writing to the newly established church at Corinth, Paul writes with an almost feverish sense of urgency:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Paul believes all of this, and he wants them to believe it too. It’s a nonnegotiable for him.
Which is precisely why I was really intimidated to preach this passage! The Revised Common Lectionary, the calendar of Scripture readings we follow, gives us four texts a Sunday. To be honest with you, one reason I decided to preach from 1 Corinthians for three Sundays in a row was because it was a bit of a challenge. I bet if St. Mark’s was to rank our favorite Biblical writers, the Apostle Paul wouldn’t be high on the list. Why? Well, for starters, his arguments wander and are often hard to track. He writes with a polemical style, like he’s always debating someone or some idea. Read with modern eyes, many of his words are demeaning to women. “The Problem with Paul” is the title of one of the books on my shelf. The book’s not long enough!
Not only are his words sometimes hard to “swallow,” but he’s just so dang adamant! There’s not a lot of room for mystery and nuance with ol’ Paul; it’s quite often all-or-nothing. Maybe that’s what makes him an ornery conversation partner on the topic of the resurrection. The gospel accounts vary on the details. There’s a holy haze surrounding what happens on that Sunday morning and with Jesus’ appearances afterwards. There’s a spaciousness to how the gospels describe the resurrection; what happened was grander than mere resuscitation of a dead body, yet not simply a metaphor or the delusions of grief. There’s enough room in the gospels for us to wiggle around and ask questions and delve into the mystery of the empty tomb. One gets the sense from the writers that it was an event so transformative that it was hard to put into words.
Not so with Paul. Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, has been raised by the power of the living God, and because he has been raised, in a time beyond death, we too can hope for resurrection, for future glory. That’s the message he received. That’s the message he proclaimed. That’s the message you should believe.
And that makes me squirm. Maybe it makes you squirm, too.
Someone in the congregation texted me earlier in the week. I was happy to learn that this person reads the lectionary passages ahead of Sunday. “Do you have your text for Sunday the 10th?” they typed. “1 Corinthians 15:1-1,” I replied, punctuated with a grimacing emoji. “Good luck with that one!”
This is a belief that many of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, struggle with. And I think we should—doubts and questions are a natural part of cultivating an authentic, sincere faith. One reason we have trouble believing resurrection is because we live in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “disenchanted age.” Our western, post-enlightenment, postmodern culture doesn’t leave much room in our imaginations for miracles and divine intervention and such. On top of that, sound scholarship has helped us use the tools of sciences and history and literary criticism to hold Scripture up to scrutiny. And then there’s the painful truth confirmed in our lived experience: dead people don’t live again.
The truth is that resurrection in Paul’s day was almost as incredulous as it is today. Even in First Century Judaism, people had a range of opinions about it. Paul was from the Pharisee camp, which believed in the resurrection of the righteous on the day of judgment. But there were other camps who didn’t believe it; namely the Sadducees. There’s an old, cheesy Sunday school joke that says “the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection… they were sad, you see.” People within Judaism believed different things. People in the Greco-Roman world were all over the map in terms of what they held to be true about life after death. Jewish people and early Christian were ridiculed for such beliefs.
“Now at this point you all may be thinking, “How doctrinaire, Bart! Why does this matter?”
Put plainly: the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of humanity at the end of time matter because of hope. It gives us hope for the future and, if we let it, transforms us in the present.
For Paul, the resurrection gives us the assurance that:
- Death is not the end. Something of the lives we live in these bodies is sustained.
- Death doesn’t have the last word. Life does.
- Failures and faults (sin) don’t have the last word. God’s grace and forgiveness does.
- Evil and hate don’t have the last word, either. Goodness and love do.
It is the good news that in Christ, God began the process of bringing into being a new creation out of the old, not erasing it, but redeeming it.
And that in turn gives hope to:
- Anyone who has tried to snatch back anything from the jaws of death in its many forms.
- Anyone who has battled addiction,
- or sought forgiveness or to move on from a haunted past,
- or worked for reconciliation in seemingly intractable conflict,
- or fought for the dignity of all bodies,
- or trusted that, in the words of Dr. King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,”
- or otherwise struggled against insurmountable obstacles, can fine hope in that.
We can find hope in the words Paul ends this chapter with: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
In other words, because of this hope, work offered in faith; work done in the “nitty gritty,” flesh and bone of daily life; work on behalf of goodness, truth, beauty, and justice is never, ever wasted. Despite the powers of death, it is vindicated by God. It counts.
In thinking about hope, my mind wanders to the movie, Castaway. I know I’m probably about at my limit with movie references lately, but here’s just one more. Have you seen it? It’s a movie starring Tom Hanks, who plays Chuck Noland, a FedEx employee whose cargo plane crashes in the South Pacific. Noland is the lone survivor and finds himself stranded on a deserted island. He tries to survive by opening the packages that wash up on the shore. Probably the most memorable package was the one containing a volleyball that he draws a face on and names Wilson. They have several conversations, and even arguments.
But one package that he finds, a box with angel wings on it, he leaves it unopened. And when Noland finally returns to civilization years later, after making a raft out of a portable toilet and spending who knows how long at sea. His family had thought he had long since died. His wife had moved on. She gives him their old car, and he drives to rural Texas to deliver that package to its original addressee. He scribbles a note and leaves the package by the front door: “This package saved my life.”
Resurrection, though we might not know what we believe about it or think about it, is a hope we cling to. And it saves us.