Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 17, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:12-20 Commentary
Few things are sadder than the sight of people who place their hopes in something that can’t deliver that for which they hope. Think, for example, about the sad specter of people lined up to buy lottery tickets, pinning their hopes for wealth on a generally worthless piece of paper. Or think about terminally ill people whose families drag them from one doctor to the next, pinning their hopes for recovery on some wonder-doctor or drug.
Yet perhaps even sadder than the sight of those who pin their hopes on false things is the sight of those who finally realize that their hopes are dashed. You’ve seen the look: a son or niece whom the coach cuts from the team. The friend who goes to the manager hoping for a raise but returns with a pink slip. The parents who hope for love and compassion from their children but receive only rejection and hostility.
I’ll never ever forget my first night as a volunteer chaplain at a hospital in Iowa. Doctors had placed a local first-year college student on life support after he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. His family made the desperate three-hour race to the hospital, clinging to some hope that their son might miraculously survive.
However, as doctors gave them the hopeless diagnosis, I watched the hope die on their faces, snuffed out like a trembling flame. If you’ve looked into such a face of someone who has lost hope, you’ve probably glimpsed a bit of death.
In many ways, hope is at the heart of the Christian gospel. It’s also one of the central themes of 1 Corinthians 15. Yet this text is shadowed by potentially misplaced or lost hope. Many of Paul’s contemporaries, like our many of our own peers, had no hope that anyone could be raised from the dead. Even some Christians suggested that God wouldn’t resurrect those who had already died at Christ’s return.
Paul counters this misunderstanding by asking the Corinthians to consider the implications of no resurrection. What, he posits, if God doesn’t raise the dead at Christ’s return? If there is no such general resurrection, the apostle insists, then Christ is not alive either.
And if Christ isn’t alive, then Paul is either a liar or a fool. If Christ is still dead, then the gospel is so much emptiness. If Christ is still dead, the proclamation of the gospel is only so much hot air. If Christ is still dead, there can be no faith and no forgiveness.
At the heart of our faith stands the Bible’s claim that Jesus Christ, once crucified our sins, is alive. But what if he is still dead? If Christ is still dead, churches might as well close their doors, sell the property and make some money off it. If Christ is still dead, people can spend time and money in other places than church.
If Christ is still dead, God’s adopted children can quit praying, reading the Bible and going to church. If Christ is still dead, we can essentially do as we please with each other, and ourselves as long as we don’t get caught. For if Christ is dead, we’re wasting our time, money and efforts in church.
Yet Paul also insists that if Christ is still dead, it’s not just our present lives that change dramatically. It’s also our futures. After all, if Christ is still dead, this life is all there is and ever will be. If Christ is still dead, when we die, we’ll simply cease to exist, evaporating like the morning dew.
In fact, says Paul, apart from a risen, alive Jesus Christ, “we are to be pitied more than all” people (18). Think about the pictures you’ve seen of devastated people whose hopes for the safety of their loved ones have been dashed. If Christ is still dead, we’re even more pitiful than they can be. After all, we are then those who have pinned our hopes on that which can’t deliver. If Christ is, in fact, still dead, our faith is a desperately empty, pitiful illusion.
Christians may disagree about things like the circumstances of Christ’s return and who should be baptized. However, Christ’s resurrection is a bit like the load bearing wall which holds up everything else that you and I believe. If it’s not there, our faith collapses.
Ten times in this relatively short passage Paul uses some form of the Greek word for “to raise.” Six times, in fact, the apostle uses the verb “to raise” in the perfect tense, indicating something that has already happened that has implications for the present.
If Christ is still dead, there is no resurrection of the dead. If Christ is still dead, we have no forgiveness for our sins. If Christ is still dead, our religion is an exercise in futility.
BUT!! Whenever the Bible uses this little word, God’s adopted sons and daughters sit up and take notice.
Of course, “but …” can introduce bad news. “You’ve been doing a great job around here,” but . . .” “I love you very much and always will, but . . .” That little word, “but,” can send icy chills shooting through us.
However, “but …” can also usher us out darkness and into the brightest sunlight we can imagine. “You’ve got this illness, but . . .” “You hurt me, but . . .” “You still need to improve, but . . .”
1 Corinthians 15:20 is one of those instances where the little word “but” sends us not into a dark valley, but into the most glorious sunshine. “But now hear this!” Paul almost shouts there. “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead . . .” Jesus Christ isn’t dead. His body, with John Brown’s in the folk song, isn’t “a molderin’ in the grave.” Christ is alive. God has indeed raised him from the dead.
Think of the looks you’ve seen on the faces of those whose hopes have been fulfilled. The sheer joy on the faces of both former prisoners of war and their loved ones. The looks on the faces of a son or daughter who made the play cast or choir. Or the look of a friend who learns that his or her boss has offered a promotion or raise.
This kind of joy, multiplied a billion times, is the joy that fills our text. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead!” And that historic beacon is a signal of countless wonderful things that are still to come.
Since Christ is alive, his resurrection is just the first among many that are still to come. Since Christ is alive, God will graciously raise all of his followers from the dead when Christ returns at the end of measured time. Since Christ is alive, God is reversing the dismal condition of death and decay that have reigned since Adam’s sin. Since Christ is alive, God makes all of God’s children alive in Christ, not just someday but even already now.
So since Jesus Christ is alive, we can go to the hospital rooms of Christians and gently talk about the hope of the resurrection. We feel bad. Yet we know that death is not the end for Christian patients or any of us. Since Jesus Christ is alive, we can go to funeral homes, funerals and gravesides. We grieve. However, we know that neither death nor the grave has the final word for God’s children.
Since Jesus Christ is alive, you and I can squarely face our own mortality and that of those we love most. For we know that when die, Christ will immediately take us into his glorious, eternal presence. For just as human death came through a human being, Adam, so resurrection comes through a human being, Jesus Christ. As in Adam all die, so in Christ will God make all alive.
We sometimes say you can only count on two things: death and taxes. Paul would add a third certainty. For as certain as he is that all people will die unless Christ returns first, he’s equally as certain that God will make his children alive in Christ.
Empty hope is the grim specter that looms over John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath’s Joad family. The Joads are among the people who suffered severe economic deprivation during the Great Depression. The banks drove them off the land they farmed during Oklahoma’s infamous dust bowl.
Greedy employers in California’s fertile fields and vineyards lured desperate people like the Joads to make the dangerous trip west in search of work. They scattered handbills all over the financially destitute Midwest, promising many jobs at good wages.
The Grapes of Wrath is the heartbreaking story of the Joads’ search for good work. All of the Joads have high hopes for what they’ll find in California. Ma Joad hopes for a big white clapboard house. Grandpa Joad hopes for so much fruit that its juices trickle out his mouth and down his beard. Connie hopes for a good education so that he can get a good job and buy nice house for his family. The Joad children hope for something as mundane as ice.
However, all of the Joads’ hopes are severely dashed. Even fruitful California can’t, or is in some ways unwilling to, give them that for which they hope. Ma Joad who’d hoped for a big white house ends up living in tents, clapboard shacks and even a boxcar. Grandpa Joad dies before he even leaves the state of Oklahoma. Connie abandons Rose of Sharon and their unborn child. The Joad family largely disintegrates as no family member find lasting good work. Sadly, virtually none of the Joads’ hopes come to fruition.
Readers watch the Joads’ loss of hope slowly sap their strength and vitality, replacing them with anger, despair and a general hopelessness. Not until the unforgettable but controversial end of the book do we catch even a fleeting glimpse of any hope.
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