Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection “of first importance.” Yet does it really matter whether Jesus rose, in John Updike’s lyrical words, “as His body” (Seven Stanzas at Easter), or as Gerd Ludemann insisted in a 2012 debate, the Scripture’s accounts of it were just a “legend, not objective description”? Does it really make any difference whether Jesus rose from the dead “as His flesh: ours” (Updike), or as merely “in visions of Jesus’ exultation” (Ludemann)?
Those who proclaim the gospel always want to keep that gospel at the center of our proclamation. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, however, may present an opportunity to very carefully bend that rule just a bit. It may offer proclaimers an opportunity to cautiously speak of our own mortality – and then promptly scurry away from the center of attention.
I recently turned 64. So I have more years behind me on this side of the new creation than before me. I also have a chronic illness that can be, by God’s grace, only managed rather than cured. It’s possible that my illness will claim my life.
The issue of the exact nature of Jesus’ resurrection may linger fairly far from the center of at least some proclaimers’ and hearers’ thoughts. However, it sometimes creeps closer to the center as people deal with the effects of aging and illness.
As people age and sometimes sicken, they may increasingly wonder, “Will I cease to exist in anything but people’s memories when my heart stops beating and brain stops sending out life-affirming signals? Or is there Life beyond life?”
Verse 12 at least suggests that some Corinthians assumed that there is no Life beyond this life, that death is the end of existence. While Paul preached that Jesus walked out of his tomb on his own two feet, it seems that some claimed that his adopted siblings will never rise from the dead. They thought God may (or may not) have raised Jesus’ whole person from death. But some least some Corinthian Christians could not accept Paul’s promise that God would do the same for those who love the Lord.
Since Paul calls Jesus’ bodily resurrection of “first importance,” we shouldn’t be surprised that he doesn’t think of it as an ethereal question that has no real impact. He doesn’t even think of this as something on which his brothers and sisters in Christ can just agree to disagree. The apostle, in fact, vigorously defends the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
However, he doesn’t try to prove that Jesus actually physically rose from the dead. Paul likely realizes that there is no incontrovertible proof for something that occurred perhaps as much as 25 years before he pens his letter to Corinth’s Christians. After all, no one took any videos of Jesus walking out of his tomb on what we call the first Easter. In fact, no human being even seemed to actually witness Jesus’ resurrection. They only witnessed its effects.
So Paul grounds this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson in his assumption that Christ physically rose from the dead. His repeated use of the Greek word that we translate as “the dead” helps signal that. It’s nekron, whose root word means “corpse.”
As New Testament scholar Carla Weeks notes (Working Preacher, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:12-20,” February 17, 2019), the apostle doesn’t claim that God raised just Jesus’ spirit. Nor does he somehow teach that just Christians’ spirits go to be with Jesus when we die.
He focuses, writes Weeks, on the resurrection’s impact on “corpses.” Paul basically asks in 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, “What if Jesus is still a corpse? What if he didn’t actually walk out of his tomb ‘on his own two feet’?”
The apostle then offers answers to his own question that in some ways gets progressively sadder and grimmer. Frank Crouch (Working Preacher, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:12-20,” February 13, 2022) summarizes the gist of those answers as, “without resurrection, everything collapses.”
Paul’s first point about the issue of the corporeality of Jesus’ resurrection may at least initially seem like an odd one. However, it may make some sense especially when we remember that it’s a response to the first question he actually poses in this text.
As I noted, verse 12 at least hints that some Corinthians were claiming that while Jesus rose from the dead, every other dead person stays dead. But the apostle bluntly says, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised” (13).
In other words, the members of God’s family are all in this together. If God plans to leave God’s adopted sons and daughters in their graves, then God also left God’s only natural Son Jesus in the grave. Christians’ fate is Christ’s fate.
What’s more, Paul admits that if God didn’t actually raise Christ from the dead, the apostle’s ministry is “useless” (14). It’s kenon, which is also sometimes translated as “foolish,” “in vain,” or even “a lie” (cf. 15).
If Christ didn’t walk out of his tomb on his own two feet, Paul admits that he’s little better than swindlers who peddle junk simply in order to line their own pockets. His good news is no good news at all. It’s all just one big fat lie.
On top of all that, if Jesus is just a dead corpse (or, by now, dust), Christians who “buy” the apostle’s resurrection “snake oil” are, according to verses 17-19, worse than just duped. Our faith is not just “useless” (14). It’s also mataia, “futile.” Our faith in a still-dead Jesus is frivolous. If Jesus didn’t walk out of his tomb on his own two feet, we’re like people who spend their grocery and rent money on lottery’s tickets’ empty promises.
It’s easy to overlook another stake of Christ’s physical resurrection. If Jesus is nothing more than a corpse, Paul says, we’re “still in our sins” (17). Then even though our hearts still beat and our brains still function, we’re walking dead people. If Jesus didn’t walk out of his tomb on his own two feet, Christians are no more alive than the dust to which many of our ancestors have returned.
Yet, as I noted in an earlier commentary on this passage, the stakes surrounding Jesus’ resurrection don’t just involve this life. If Jesus is nothing but a rotting corpse, then “those … who have fallen asleep are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all” people (19). Then Christians are eleeinoteroi, the most pathetic people in the history of the world.
If Jesus didn’t walk out of his tomb on his own two feet, his adopted siblings aren’t just deluded. We haven’t just wasted our lives in loving service to God and our neighbors. Christians aren’t just destined for hell. We are utterly hopeless.
Admiral James Stavrakis recently ended a memorable presentation at Calvin University by quoting Napoleon: “A leader is a dealer in hope.” But if Jesus is still a corpse, then Christians haven’t just lied to people about God. We’ve dealt each other the deadly card of eternally misplaced hope. We’ve sold people not but phony hope.
“BUT!!” we can almost hear and see Paul shout in verse 20. “Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead!” 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 aren’t 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 sin’s 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.
What’s more, God’s resurrection of Jesus is just the first of many that are still to come. He’s what Paul calls “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep in Christ” (20). So even those who have died in a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ aren’t dead in the fullest sense of the word. Because Jesus walked out of his 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 earth and heaven.
Because Jesus is not a corpse, Jesus’ friends can follow the Spirit of our resurrected Savior to hospital and hospice rooms, to funeral homes and cemeteries. There we can gently and hopefully talk about the hope of the resurrection.
Death remains an enemy for whose victims we still grieve. Yet Christians don’t grieve as those who are hopeless, pathetic fools. We grieve as those who belong to the living Christ, both now and forevermore.
In his book, Secrets in the Dark, Frederick Buechner writes, “Ministers and congregation … came to church year after year, and who is to say how, if at all, their lives were changed as the result? If you’d stopped and asked them on any given Sunday, I suspect they would have said they weren’t changed much.
“Yet they kept on coming anyway; and beneath all the lesser reasons they had for doing so, so far beneath that they themselves were only half aware of it, I think there was a deep reason, and if I could give only one word to characterize that reason, the word I would give is hope (italics added) …
“I think it is hope that lies at our hearts and hope that finally brings us all here. Hope that in spite of all the devastating evidence to the contrary, the ground we stand on is holy ground because Christ walked here and walks here still.
“Hope that we are known, each one of us, by name, and that out of the burning moments of our lives he will call us by our names to the lives he would have us live and the selves he would have us become. Hope that into the secret grief and pain and bewilderment of each of us and of our world he will come at last to heal and to save.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 13, 2022
1 Corinthians 15:12-20 Commentary