Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 24, 2019

1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50 Commentary

It may be a good thing that the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday comes up only about “once in a blue moon.”  Its sections of 1 Corinthians 15 contain, after all, what N.T. Wright, to whose book, Paul for Everyone: I Corinthians, (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003) I owe great deal for this Commentary, calls “a hugely important discussion.”  Yet the Lesson is also what Wright calls “long [and] dense,” and contains what I think is imagery with which many of its 21st century readers are probably unfamiliar.

Those who follow the Lectionary’s suggestions for Epistolary readings recognize the emphasis Paul places on the resurrection for the life of God’s adopted sons and daughters.  In 1 Corinthians 15’s first 11 verses, he talks at length about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  Yet beginning with verse 12, he turns to talk about Christians’ coming resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15’s tone suggests that at least some Corinthian Christians were skeptical about both Jesus and Christians’ resurrection.  In fact, in verse 12 the apostle asks, “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”  Then, in verses 29 and 30, he goes on to ask (somewhat mysteriously to us), “If there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?  And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour?”

Those who somehow proclaim this Sunday’s Lectionary Epistolary Lesson may want to reflect on how at least some their own contemporaries share the Corinthians’ skepticism about the resurrection.  While I wasn’t able to identify any recent surveys about, for example, American attitudes about the resurrection, polls suggest that about 80% of Americans believe in some kind of heaven.  While this may at least imply that many Americans believe in the resurrection of the dead, since life after death may to some people refer to reincarnation or survival of some kind of spirit, it seems that talk about a bodily resurrection is both greatly needed and hugely important.

But, frankly, while Paul asks, “How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body will they come?” (35) he answers those questions in what are, to at least some of us, mysterious ways.  His talk about planting and harvesting is, after all, agrarian.  So perhaps relatively few people beyond farmers and some gardeners are going to be familiar with his resurrection analogy in more than a passing way.

As a result, most people who proclaim 1 Corinthians 15:35-38 and 42-45 may want to take Wright’s advice by hurrying to what he calls “the heart of the passage that has puzzled many people many times in the past, and still does” (220) – verse 44.  There, after all, Paul describes the bodies of God’s adopted sons and daughters who die before Jesus returns at the end of measured time: “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

Most of us at least sense what a “natural body” is.  It’s that with which God created us and for which God tenderly cares and provides throughout our earthly lives.  Those who proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday may want to take some time to describe the “natural body.”

However, Paul reminds us that our natural bodies that God so “fearfully and wonderfully” (Ps. 139:14) creates are also subject to physical death.  That is to say, every last body God ever created will die, unless Christ returns in glory first.

But how should we understand that “spiritual body” (44) that Paul says God will someday graciously raise?  As John Burgess notes in The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings  (Eerdmans, 2001), Paul is at least contrasting “the body that we are now with the body that, in and through the power of God, we will be” (230).  The gospel writers may offer some clues about the nature of that spiritual body in their descriptions of Jesus’ resurrected body.  The fact that Jesus ate, as well as could be touched recognized suggests some continuity with his pre-resurrection, “physical body.”  However, the fact that some people struggled to recognized the risen Jesus and that he could pass through locked doors also at least suggests some discontinuity between his “physical” and “spiritual” body.

But Wright goes one step farther in his contrast of the “physical” and “spiritual” body.  He suggests that the contrast Paul is “making is between a body animated by one type of life and a body animated by another type.  The difference between them is found, if you like, in what the two bodies run on” (ibid, 221).

We know what, by God’s grace, our “physical” bodies run on.  They’re, in a sense, “animated” by what Wright calls “the normal life which all humans share” (ibid).  So, for example, our consumption of food and drink helps do things like keep our healthy hearts beating, blood circulating, brains operating and lungs functioning.

However, Wright adds that the bodies God will graciously and powerfully give us at the resurrection will be animated not by the life that animates our physical bodies, but by what he calls “God’s own spirit.”  He refers to Paul’s words in Romans 8:10-11 to bolster this argument: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you.”

Yet Paul also seems to at least suggest that our “spiritual” bodies will also be somehow materially different from our “physical ones.”  When Christ returns, after all, he insists that we will all be “changed” (51).  Yet what will be changed is that while our physical bodies are perishable and weak, our “spiritual” bodies will be imperishable, glorious and powerful (42-43).

This promise of resurrected, “spiritual” bodies is, as Neal Plantinga writes in A Sure Thing (CRC Publications, 1986, 259), “marvelous enough for those of us who are now healthy.  But think of what it means for those of us whose bodies now need repair.”

Some people who have physical disabilities and those who advocate for them are beginning to at least suggest that those disabilities are such an integral part of their persons on this side of the new creation that they’ll carry them into the new creation.  I’m not in a good place to address that debate.  But I personally know some people who have physical or intellectual disabilities who long to be able to shed them in the creation.

So perhaps we might consider ending our proclamation of this section of 1 Corinthians 15 with Plantinga’s paraphrase of C.S. Lewis: “If the body you are now driving is a junker, take heart.  One day God will give you a new one” (ibid).

Illustration Idea

In his marvelous review of the movie E.T: The Extra Terrestrial that Calvin College professor Roy Anker wrote for this CEP website , he notes, ‘A lonely, heartbroken boy, Elliott, all of ten or twelve years old, stumbles upon a similarly bereft and needy creature, a rather funny-looking alien from only-God-knows-where.

‘Elliott’s father has run off with his secretary, and the alien’s friends have left him behind lest they be captured by marauding American scientists. Neither of these two is very formidable, to say the least, for they are indeed among the least of these—both exiled and also alien, albeit in different ways.

‘They need each other, big-time, and fast friends they become, first out of necessity and then from within a deep well of love, given what they do for each other . . . Mid-way through, as the alien lies dying on a gurney in a lab, because earth’s atmosphere is not so good for aliens (and ever less so for humans too), Elliot himself also begins to die.

‘Until, that is, the creature, named ET by Elliott for extra-terrestrial (the name, appropriately, begins and ends with the first and last letters of Elliott’s own name) severs his tie with Elliott in a gesture of supreme love, for without Elliott’s “life” he cannot live, “withdrawing” himself from Elliott so Elliott might live . . . And while viewers watch and wonder and even weep at this, as I did back when, we don’t really get it, at least not yet, meaning the full shebang of the story the film tells.

‘In order to dispel any mental “fuzz” about what’s going on here, it all comes rather clear, shockingly so, as if suddenly slapped in the face. Though skeptical of his plan, Elliot’s mates make off with the government van holding the remains of supposedly demised ET. With the Feds in hot pursuit, they come to a stop in park, and there they dispute just why they’re doing this wild stunt.

‘And at that moment, so to answer all their perplexities and fears, the rear doors swing open, clouds of white smoke (dry ice) billowing out, and through the fog steps a majestic looking ET, draped as he is with a white death cloth over his body, risen and resplendent, his warm red heart aglow once again.

‘The image borrows from Christian pop art of Jesus emerging from the tomb, grave-cloth over his head amid a cloud of white smoke or whatever. It is, in fact, the climactic moment, the pivot, showing viewers what love can do and that all will be well.

‘And, lo, all the noisy boys fall dead silent at the sight of the suddenly revivified ET, now majestic and luminous. Sometimes even the movies have actual icons, and this shot makes one of cinema’s most “telling,” not only explaining but radically overturning audience expectations of what is reasonable and smart. And for this there are hardly words, “it” simply being “it.”

“The lowly exile and fugitive, neither attractive nor powerful (or so it seems), a being who has brought love and hope to the forsaken (Elliott). Though hunted and dead, he is alive again and shows forth, now transfigured, masterful, regal, and luminous. He has made the “christomorphic” journey, moving from forsaken outcast to he who makes the world into what it was intended to be in the first place. It is, indeed, in Frederick’s Buechner’s words, the story “too good not to be true”.’


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