Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 21, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 Commentary
Some biblical texts deal with rather ordinary things such stealing, eating and even caring for animals. Other texts, however, open readers’ eyes to far bigger issues. While Paul talks much about daily concerns early in his first letter to the Corinthians, he closes it by talking about bigger concerns. As Daniel J. Price to whose fine commentary on this passage in The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles (Eerdmans, 2001) I owe a great deal notes, Paul asks questions like, “What is love?” “What happens to believers after they die?”
The Corinthian Christians seem to be drifting away from the truths Paul had taught them. “It’s as if,” one scholar notes, Paul is saying, “This is it, Corinthians. If you faithfully to cling to God’s grace about which I’ve taught you, it’s your salvation. If, however, you throw it away, you’re in great danger.”
So what is of “first importance,” as Paul refers to it in verse 3? It would be an interesting exercise for 1 Corinthians 15’s preachers and teachers to ask our hearers to summarize the gospel message in a few short phrases. Paul boils it down to, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures … he was buried … he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures … he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.”
What’s most important is, in other words, God’s actions. After all, just as the Old Testament had predicted, people executed Jesus Christ. God, however, raised him from the dead. God in that resurrected Christ then appeared to his disciples.
But what if this isn’t true? What if Christians celebrate nothing but an elaborate hoax on Easter? Paul’s answer is as clear as it is chilling. If, as verses 17 and following insist, “Christ has not been raised your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Jesus will stay dead forever.” If Jesus is still dead, everything we’ve staked our lives on is what one paraphrase calls “smoke and mirrors.” If God didn’t raise Jesus, we’re telling people nothing but what one scholar calls “a string of barefaced lies about God.” We’d be little less foolish than the followers of crackpots like David Koresh.
“But,” it’s as if Paul roars in verse 20, “Jesus is alive. God has raised him from the dead.” So how can he make such an audacious claim? How can the apostle be willing to die for this claim? First, God revealed the risen Jesus to him. Paul met this resurrected Jesus even as he was traveling to kill his followers.
What’s more, the apostle writes 1 Corinthians 15 probably only about twenty years after Jesus’ resurrection. So plenty of people who knew Jesus could have challenged Paul’s version of events, just like they did some of his other teachings. No one, however, challenged the apostle’s account of Jesus’ resurrection. Early Christians agreed that God had physically raised Jesus from the dead.
Jesus’ resurrection means that our faith is not useless. It also means that we’re telling the truth about God. It means, moreover, that our faith has, by God’s grace, real value. Of course, Jesus wasn’t the first person that God raised from the dead. Jesus was, however, the first whom God has raised who never died again.
Yet while Jesus’ resurrection was the first of its kind, Paul insists that it won’t be the last. It’s a harbinger, a “firstfruits.” Those who garden know the joy of harvesting a “first fruit.” Whether it’s that first juicy strawberry or first crisp bean of the season, it brings its harvesters great joy. The first crop of a season, after all, indicates that more fruit will follow … unless critters get to it first.
Jesus’ resurrection, says Paul, is like that. It’s a sign that more resurrections will follow. That those who have died, who have “fallen asleep,” are not dead forever. They do have a real future. Even after God’s adopted sons and daughters die, we’ll still, by God’s grace, have a great future. Our bodies merely await the resurrection at the end of measured time.
Christ’s resurrection, however, insists Paul, also points to God’s reversal of the death and decay that has ruled since Adam sinned. Because of his and our sin, all of Adam’s descendants eventually die, unless Christ returns first.
Lots of different things separate people from each other now. Some seem to be, as Price notes, born with two strikes against them. Others seem to be born, as we used to say, “with a silver spoon in their mouths.” Few of us would claim that those groups of people have, humanly speaking, the same chances of success in life.
Paul, however, reminds us that all of us share one thing in common: we’re born into a doomed race. In the ultimate sense, since we’re all Adam’s descendants and will all eventually die, we’re all “dead.” So even the most powerful, wealthy and attractive people have inherited death from our first parent.
That means that the scent of death clings, in a real way, to all people. We catch a hint of it whenever we walk into an intensive care unit or a funeral home. You and I may even catch a whiff of death when we celebrate a birthday or write a check for a life insurance policy.
However, God’s beloved children also smell a puff of it every time a child is cruel to a classmate. We smell death every time someone neglects or abuses a spouse or child. People even smell death every time a leader misuses her power or authority.
However, those who die in Christ can be sure that, because of Jesus’ resurrection, God will someday blow away that awful stench of death. After all, God will also raise all of us from the dead.
So we can say that a hint of life also clings to even Christians’ youngest children. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, God also promises to raise all of Adam’s descendants from the dead. While God will raise some to the hell they’ve chosen, God will raise God’s people to eternal life. Someday God will overcome every evil ruler, power and enemy – even death itself.
God, however, doesn’t just promise to graciously raise God’s children to life on the last day. God has already raised us to life, giving us the gift of life that we begin to enjoy even now.
Just outside of Prague lies a testimonial to both the power of death and the power of God’s gift of life. The Nazis built and operated the Terezin concentration camp. It was a somewhat unique camp. After all, the Nazis built what they called this “model ghetto” to cover up what they were really doing to Jews and Gypsies, pastors, homosexuals and people who were impaired.
The Nazis even fooled the representatives of the Red Cross who inspected this camp. Tourists can, in fact, still see what the inspectors saw: spacious bathrooms, showers and sinks with mirrors. The Nazis, however, didn’t admit that Terezin was just a transit camp where inmates stayed only briefly before the Nazis shipped them off to death camps where virtually all of them were murdered.
Among the things about Terezin was its disproportionately high number of children: 15,000 of them passed through its gates. Only 100 survived. Yet those children did what children do while they were in Terezin. They laughed and played, argued and fought, ran and made up games.
However, Terezin’s children also drew pictures, some of which visitors can still see at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They drew them on the walls of their crowded barracks, in notebooks and on scraps of paper.
Those children drew pictures of camp life from a child’s perspective. However, they also drew pictures of flowers, birds and butterflies, lots of butterflies. Terezin’s children, condemned to die by the powerful, deadly Nazis, drew pictures that spoke of life in the midst of death.
On this Easter, those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 15 invite our hearers to think of our lives in a similar way. God’s adopted sons and daughters too are, after all, condemned to die, unless Christ returns first. However, Jesus’ followers, in a sense, also draw pictures of life by the way we live, talk and even think.
Each time Jesus’ followers hang around with a lonely classmate, forgive someone who hurt us or speak up for justice, we paint a kind of picture of the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Whenever we share our faith with an unbeliever and share our resources with the poor, we paint a kind of picture of Jesus’ resurrection power. God’s adopted children are like artists who show the world the importance of Jesus’ resurrection here and now.
What if dead bodies can’t be raised from the dead? It’s the kind of question some say Simcha Jacobovici and his colleagues raised in 2007. They collaborated on a television program and book about ossuaries labeled “Jesus son of Joseph,” “Mary” and “Joseph” that archaeologists found in a Jerusalem tomb.
Jacobovici claims that, while the names Jesus, Mary and Joseph were common in Roman-occupied Israel, it’s statistically unlikely to find them on the same tomb. He also claims DNA tests show that the Jesus and Mary of these tombs weren’t related, meaning they were probably married. So Jacobovici believes people found the bones of Jesus Christ.
The holes in Jacobovici’s hypothesis make it look like a thin slice of cheap Swiss cheese. His television show and book attracted more viewers and readers than converts. Yet would the discovery of Christ’s bones mean that, as an editorial in the March 20, 2007 Christian Century magazine asks, “Christianity must close up shop?”
Unless one could somehow show that bones can be left behind after a resurrection, I would suggest the answer must be “Yes.” That’s how central Jesus’ physical resurrection is to the Christian faith.
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