Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 17, 2022
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Death stinks – both literally and figuratively. While such a reminder may not seem like a particularly popular (or common) way to begin an Easter proclamation, it is the context within which we begin any and every proclamation of Easter’s great news. Even after Jesus rose from the dead, death still stinks.
The northern hemisphere is in a season of the year in which lovely scents have begun to float in the air. Flowers are blooming. Trees are blossoming. Grass is growing. Grills are firing up. But in both hemispheres, one stench threatens to overpower nearly every other. It’s death’s disgusting odor.
We smell death on the world stage where various nations and groups wantonly inflict it on civilian populations. We smell death in the climate change that seems to stalk the creation and its creatures that God both so deeply loves and cares for. We smell death in the sometimes casual gun violence perhaps especially Americans inflict on each other.
We smell death when we enter or even just pass by our hospitals, hospice centers, funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematoria. But we also catch whiffs of it in our courtrooms, shelters, and food pantries. We even sometimes smell death in our own bodies, hearts, and minds.
We may smell hints of death when we put money into a life insurance policy or even when we celebrate milestone birthdays. We get a whiff of death every time someone bullies a classmate, abuses a person who is vulnerable or swindles investors of their savings.
That’s a reason why Paul can begin this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by insisting that “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (19). If death not only saturates so much of life, but also is the end, Jesus’ friends are pathetic. As Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases verse 19, “If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few years, we’re a pretty sorry lot.”
On Easter Sunday the Church insists, with Paul, that Christians are not to be “pitied more than all” people. After all, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (20). Yet even as we make that bold profession of faith, we also remember that death is still very much “alive and kicking,” as it were.
Christians proclaim that “the resurrection of the dead comes through” Christ Jesus (21). Yet we also remember that death has not yet been destroyed. On Easter, as well as every Sunday, the Body of Christ announces that “in Christ all will be made alive” (22). Yet we also remember that death will be the final enemy to be destroyed. Christ Jesus’ friends proclaim that Christ is the “firstfruits” (20, 23). Yet we never forget that death remains the final enemy to be destroyed.
God’s adopted sons and daughters remember that the power that is death is not yet destroyed. Yet we also profess, “the end will come, when [the risen and ascended Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, power, and authority” (24). We don’t forget that Christ has not yet fully subdued one of God, as well as God’s creatures and creation’s enemies that is death. So Christ’s adopted siblings celebrate that the risen and ascended Christ “must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet” (25).
Death is not yet, in other words, destroyed. But thanks be to God, Christ has, in fact, been raised from the dead. We profess, however, that he’s merely the firstfruits of all who have fallen asleep.
Yet a full grasp of the impact of this profession includes an understanding of just what Paul refers to by “death” in 1 Corinthians 15. Our culture thinks of death as that which occurs when hearts stop beating and brains stop functioning. For citizens of the 21st century, death is, in other words, a largely biological or physiological phenomenon. While modern medicine and ethics make death for some people a somewhat elusive concept, we still dare to pronounce people “dead.”
Paul, of course, speaks in part of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson about death as a physical phenomenon. Christ, he remembers, was “raised from the dead.” That means that Christ’s heart actually stopped beating on what we call the first Good Friday. When the apostle speaks about “those who have fallen asleep,” and “the resurrection of the dead,” he’s also alluding to people whose brains have stopped functioning.
This is the death whose stench most noticeably fills so much of our world, relationships, and lives. People die. Even Christ Jesus’ friends die. We will, in fact, all physically die unless Christ returns first.
Yet Paul seems to begin to shift from death as a physical reality toward death as something else in verse 22. So those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 15 will want to explore that in their own theological context as they contemplate and proclaim what it means that “in Adam all died.”
Yet whether or not verse 22 means that physical death only entered the world after Adam sinned, it insists that Adam’s disobedience opened the door for another kind of death to enter God’s good creation. That’s the kind of living death that is rebellion against God’s good and loving will, plans, and purposes. It’s the second kind of death whose stench also fills so much of our world. It’s the kind of spiritual death that often leads people to inflict physical death on each other.
That’s the kind of death that Paul seems to have in mind especially in verses 24-26. That death is one of the dominions, authorities and powers that have staked their claim to God’s good creation. That death is one of the “enemies” that Christ is working to put “under his feet” (25). That death is what the apostle calls in verse 26 “the last enemy to be destroyed.”
In her seminal work, The Crucifixion (Eerdmans, 2015), biblical scholar, and gospel proclaimer Fleming Rutledge spends much time exploring the Pauline emphasis on death as one of the powers and principalities that have laid claim to God’s good creation. She laments what she perceives to be the “death” among many 21st century Christians of the idea of death as what Paul calls in verse 24 a “dominion, authority and power.” Those who would join Rutledge in proclaiming 1 Corinthians 15’s gospel would do well to familiarize ourselves with Paul’s argument for death as not just a biological phenomenon that shatters lives and relationships, but also as an unseen power that wreaks great havoc on God’s people and creation.
Christ’s death on behalf of the world that God affirmed by raising him from the dead changes the nature of all subsequent death. Ever since the first Easter, death hasn’t been the same. Of course, death is still a mighty power. It still stings mourners deeply. It still strikes terror in the hearts of people who don’t know what lies on its other side.
But Christ’s death and resurrection largely disarmed death’s power. Death is no longer God’s people’s end of existence. It is for God’s adopted children a doorway from life to Life. Death can’t separate Jesus’ followers from his loving presence. In fact, Jesus’ death and resurrection signed the death sentence of death as both a biological fact and spiritual power. Death remains mighty. But its days are numbered. Someday soon death will be completely conquered.
There will, after all, be no room for any kind of death in the new earth and heaven. All forms of death will be dead. In Revelation 21:4 apostle John celebrates how “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away.”
What’s more, all the principalities and powers that have tried to usurp God’s loving rule will be destroyed. All human rebellion against God’s sovereign care will be ended. Satan, sin, and death will be destroyed. God will be all in all.
The dying Leonard Fife is one Russell Bank’s novel Forgone’s main characters. He’s telling his story to a filmmaker. Fife tells his nurse, “It’s like I’m the old Italian carpenter Geppetto, the guy who made a puppet out of wood named Pinocchio, but I’m too old and feeble to pull the strings for the puppet show … But I’m the puppet too. The wooden puppet who, thanks to the intervention by a blue-haired fairy, was resurrected as a real boy.”
Fife asks his nurse, “Did you read the story of Pinocchio, Renee?” “No. But I have heard of it. It is a child’s story, is it not?” “Yes, but it’s too scary for children. It’s about lying and dying. Lying and dying, and the vanity of believing in the resurrection.”
Renee continues, “You said the real boy was resurrected.” “No, the wooden boy was resurrected. Which gave him a second chance at dying, only this time for real. Wooden boys don’t die. They’re like storybook characters that live on even after the story’s over.”
“I would not like it, then. I am a Christian. There was a movie about it, was there not?” “Yes, a Disney movie, but it left out all the scary parts.” “And the vanity of believing in resurrection? Did it leave that part out too?” “Yes, it did.” “Then perhaps I would like the Disney movie,” Renee counters. “I believe in the resurrection.”
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