Definite, not Detailed, Belief
Feb 13, 2022
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Text: 1 Corinthians 15: 12-20, 35-38, 42-44
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
I’ve been watching the Olympics on and off this week, and I find it to be both exhilarating and discouraging. The athletic and artistic ability of the participants is exciting and admirable. Just think of the years of practice, honing their skills and competing that it took to get them to the Winter Olympics, 2022. Of course, they all want to go home with a metal, preferably a gold one. The experience is great, I’m sure, but there is no doubt that winning is important too.
That’s why some of the most discouraging moments are when it becomes clear that winning – or even making a good showing – is no longer an option. The Pairs Ice Skaters are in the very last seconds of their routine, it has gone perfectly. As he lifts his partner above his head the blade of his skate somehow catches, and they both fall – HARD! It’s over, at least for this competition.
Or the Big Air competitor flies off the ramp, executes perfect twists and turns, but somehow cannot get her skies under her and she finds herself flat on her back, looking up at the sky. That’s it; there’s no debate. It’s done. I wonder … maybe it would be better to lose that way than by one-tenth of a point; at least there is a definiteness about it.
We find that kind of definiteness in today’s reading from I Corinthians, which is about the resurrection, not just of Jesus, but of all believers. I decided to preach on this passage because this doctrine is one that we often struggle to grasp. The Apostle Paul, though, as no doubt about it at all. For him, it is as definite as a big fall that equals loss in an ice-skating competition.
For Paul, belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not optional, nor is the belief that the resurrection will be a reality for all believers an option. Commentator Carla Works notes that for Paul, who wrote this letter to the early Christians in Corinth, “if there is no resurrection, then everything we thought we knew about God is a lie. If there is no resurrection, then all we have is this life. And the so-called gospel is not really good news at all.”
Please note that when Paul refers to resurrection, the focus is on the physical body. Quoting Commentator Works (and this may be a bit difficult to hear), “He does not say that the person’s spirit is resurrected, or that the soul will go on and be with Jesus. He does not talk about loved ones looking down from heaven or floating around. The focus is on the body (actually, corpses). (1) In other words, Paul does not teach that the spirit or soul is separate from the body, which was a popular Greek idea.
There’s no doubt that this is difficult to understand, but Paul does not budge. “God’s life-giving power had invaded the cosmos and conquered death by resurrecting Jesus. With this act God declared certain victory over death,” writes Carla Works. “If God did not actually raise Jesus from the dead, then God is not stronger than death.” (2)
Evidently, there was debate about this in Corinth. While they believed that Jesus had been resurrected, at least some in the Christian community did not believe this would be the reality for those who had died, or for themselves at some point in the future.
We can understand this debate, can’t we? What exactly do we mean when, in the Apostle’s Creed, we confess, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead?” I’ve mentioned this before in sermons, I know, but a bit of review does not hurt, especially as we read 1 Corinthians 15.
To put it in basic terms, the belief is that when Jesus returns, the dead in Christ will be raised and receive a new body, what Paul calls a spiritual body in today’s text. Those who are living at the time will also be transformed and join the others in God’s perfect kingdom – eternally.
But the question always is, what is happening in the meantime to those who have died? I will tell you that there is a lot of debate about that. Most agree that those who have died are in God’s care; they have begun their eternal journey, but it is not yet complete. But how is that occurring if there is no separation of body and soul? Or is there such a thing even though it is not focused on in the New Testament?
What makes sense to me has to do with the understanding of time. My mother died 44 years ago and has been in the grave since then. But if Jesus returns tomorrow, and she is raised from the dead and given a spiritual body, to her it would be as if no time as passed between when she took her last breath and the moment of resurrection.
Now, that’s a simple, yet complex explanation, which points to the reality that it’s a MYSTERY, probably the biggest mystery faced by humankind.
Not to the Apostle Paul, though, he teases out the implications of the assertation that the resurrection of the dead will not happen. Basically, he said, if the dead are not raised, then Christ is not raised, if Christ is not raised, then our preaching is false, and we are misrepresenting God. If the dead are not raised, if Christ is not raised, then your faith is in vain, it is futile, you are still in your sins. Those who have died in Christ have perished and we are of all people most to be pitied.
It takes a lot of courage to state the implications that clearly. Paul can do it because he has no doubt that, “in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (vs. 20)
I really like the way commentator Doug Bratt responds to that verse, “Christ isn’t a pile of dust in some Palestinian ossuary. God has raised him from the dead and to the right hand of God. Because God raised Christ from the dead, gospel proclaimers are not religious hucksters but both couriers and harbingers of the best news the world will ever hear. God’s dearly beloved people are not liars, but truth-tellers about God and people. We aren’t in sins deadly grip, but Christ’s nail-scarred hands. Jesus’ friends are not pitiful, but, by God’s grace, possessors of the hope the creation is dying to share.
Because Jesus walked out of the tomb on his own two feet, when he returns at the end of measured time, he’ll lead a glorious parade of his resurrected adopted siblings into the glory of the new heaven and the new earth. (3)
We all wish we could be as definite as Paul about the resurrection, especially our own resurrection. Perhaps he is because he experienced the hope of the resurrection in the turn around of his own life – transformed from a Pharisee among Pharisees and persecutor of the followers of Jesus to the greatest Christian missionary and bold proclaimer of the good news of Jesus. He is unshakable in his belief that there is more hope to come…eternal hope.
I am too, although I cannot explain exactly how that happens. We all can be as definite about God’s unshakable love for us as that Big Air competitor was as she laid on her back and looked up at the sky that she had not won a medal. Do you know what she did; she shrugged and then laughed. Life goes on … for us all … on, and on, and on into eternity. Perhaps we do not need the details. AMEN
(1) “Commentary of 1 Corinthians 15:12-20” by Carla Works, www.workingpreacher.org
(2) Same as #1
(3) “Sermon Commentary for Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022” by Doug Bratt, www.cepreaching.org