One of the central questions some Christians have about the resurrection is, “Will we recognize each other’s resurrected persons in the new creation?” It echoes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’ verse 35 where Paul quotes some people as asking, “With what kind of body will [the dead] come [to life]?” Both questions suggest that Christians sometimes struggle to imagine how a place that will have no room for mourning or death will also have no room for our recognition of the resurrected people we love.
After speaking about Jesus’ bodily resurrection and the apostle’s own spiritual resurrection, Paul finally turns to God’s people’s coming resurrection. “In Christ,” he insists in verse 22, “all will be made alive.”
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Paul uses a lot of agricultural imagery to describe that being made alive. So proclaimers will need to weigh just how much to delve into that imagery with which perhaps increasing numbers of Christians are unfamiliar.
When Paul speaks of “sowing,” he’s describing what farmers do to seeds when they plant them in the ground. Yet while he spends some time talking about the sowing that is planting seeds, proclaimers want to focus on the sowing that is the burying of human bodies. People “sow” bodies when they bury, inter, or in some other way dispose of human remains.
1 Corinthians 15’s proclaimers need to choose how to organize their proclamation of Paul’s exploration of that sowing. Those who approach preaching through the Four Pages of the Sermon method might organize their proclamation around Paul’s descriptions of the bodies that are “sown” and those that are “raised.”
After all, the nature of bodies that are “sown” reflect this text’s “trouble” and invites consideration of the world’s “trouble” that echoes it. “Raised” bodies’ nature invites consideration of 1 Corinthians 15:35-50’s grace and invites reflection on the grace that offers to the world.
“The body that is sown,” says Paul, is “perishable” (phthora), “sown in dishonor (atimia) … and weakness” (astheneia), and “a natural body” (soma psychikon). While his description of dead bodies’ characteristics differ slightly from each other, all reflect a certain vulnerability and frailty. Paul is quite blunt about human bodies: they die.
The New Testament scholar Carla Weeks notes that the apostle’s Corinthian readers would have resonated with his assessment of human bodies’ frailties. After all, citizens of the Roman Empire didn’t have enough food to eat. Poor nutrition made things like poor eyesight common. Fewer than 10% of children lived until their tenth birthdays.
Part of North American shock at the virulence of the COVID-19 pandemic may stem from our amnesia about bodies’ vulnerability. Up until about two years ago at least some of us assumed that epidemics were largely the domain of Saharan Africa and other parts of the world where health care is sometimes spotty.
The pandemic has reminded us that no human beings’ bodies are entirely safe from epidemics’ ravages. As COVID-19 raged through our hospitals, care facilities and communities, we were reminded that our bodies are “perishable.” We assumed that if we just did all the right things and avoided the wrong things, our bodies would remain “powerful.” But COVID’s soaring death toll, even among some relatively young and healthy people, reminds us that our bodies are weak.
That realization can be very unsettling. Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour’s teenaged Sally watches an elderly woman for whom she helped to care basically choke to death. When she flees the deathbed for her job at a local tearoom, the narrator says, “She imagined … each of the girls who chatted around her with her head limp, caught in the gentle crook of a dark arm, eased down to a pillow, still.
“She saw in the tearoom, the calm hush of the place … the dumb oblivion of the human race. A terrible stillness would overtake them, come what may. A terrible silence would stop their breaths, one way or another, and yet they spooned sugar into their cups or leaned back to take a watch from a waistband or pressed a linen napkin to their pink lips.”
Those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 15’s blunt message about human bodies’ frailties to mixed-aged audiences don’t want to frighten younger hearers. It requires creativity to sensitively communicate Paul’s message about those vulnerabilities. But perhaps especially given North American’s illusions about our invulnerabilities, it’s worth the effort.
The contrast Paul draws between our bodies that die and those that God will raise to life at the end of measured time could hardly be starker. Yet the gospel writers especially at least hint at something less than a total disconnect between our bodies that are buried perishable and those that will be raised imperishable.
After all, they report that the resurrected Jesus ate food with his disciples and that his followers could touch his resurrected body. That implies some continuity between Jesus’ body that was buried in dishonor and the one God raised in glory. Yet some people struggled to recognize the resurrected Jesus who could somehow pass through locked doors. That also at least suggests some disconnect between his weak and powerful body.
The language Paul uses to describe resurrected bodies emphasizes that disconnect. He says they will be “imperishable” (aphtharsia), “glorious” (doxe), and “powerful” (dynamei). Christians’ bodies that God will raise from the dead when Christ returns at the end of measured time won’t be frail and vulnerable. They will be immortal, glorious, and powerful.
This promise of resurrected, what Paul calls “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 at least suggest that some disabilities are such an integral part of their persons that they’ll carry them into the new creation. I’m not an expert on that debate.
But I do know some people who have physical or intellectual disabilities who long to shed them in the creation. I think especially of a dear friend who can’t yet see. She has told me that she’s excited to think that the first person she’ll ever see is her ascended Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
As Weeks (ibid) goes on to note, 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t answer all of our questions about the exacted nature of people’s resurrected bodies. It doesn’t explain, for instance, how it’s possible for a body to become immortal. Paul doesn’t tell us what a body that’s not scarred and corrupted is like.
But as Weeks also notes, perhaps that mystery is part and parcel of life during the season of Epiphany as well as on the doorstep of Lent. God has revealed to God’s beloved people both the suffering, crucified Jesus and the glorious, risen Christ through the Scriptures and by the Spirit. However, we also faithfully await the full revelation of the glorious Christ when he returns to usher his adopted siblings into the glory of the new earth and heaven.
In his review of the movie E.T: The Extra Terrestrial, Calvin College professor Roy Anker describes how ‘A lonely, heartbroken boy, Elliott, all of ten or twelve years old, stumbles upon a … needy creature, a rather funny-looking alien. 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), 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 …
‘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 …
‘And at that moment, so as 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 is 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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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 20, 2022
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50 Commentary