Big Questions: Resurrection

1 Corinthians 15

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For the past couple weeks we have been tackling some of the big questions of our faith. Theology explains God, the world, and ourselves. Anytime our ideas about one of those things are significantly challenged, it prompts us to rethink the others too. So because we are facing such significant challenges to our ideas about the world, we are also asking questions about God and about ourselves. Our theology has to help us make meaning in our real life, in our present situation. If it doesn’t we will toss our faith aside because it will be meaningless.

We have said that the problem of sin is a global problem, a systemic problem, way bigger than our individual actions. Sin is like a virus in the world and we can’t beat it on our own. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the vaccine for this virus. Because the vaccine exists, the virus is defeated, even though the effects of the virus continue until the vaccine reaches everywhere. 

Death comes as a result of sin. Sin is too great a burden for us to bear and live forever and so we die. But the fear of death controls us, drives our need to justify ourselves, pushes us to fill our lives with things that will distract us from the inevitable end. Death is the power behind racism, sexism, homophobia, greed, environmental destruction, and all the other problems in the world. But if like Jesus we would rather die than be subject to the power of death, we can participate in Jesus’ victory over death.

In the last 2000 years, many people have followed the way of Jesus, believing that God could do more with their faithful dying than they could do by trying to run away from the power of death. Many people have died for their faith, and still do around the world. That’s a huge decision. One I can barely even imagine. Something must be behind that, giving a person the strength to make a choice like that. We all hope that there’s something on the other side of our dying, that it’s not simply the end of us. But what is that something?

Believe it or not, the classic Christian answer is not that we go to heaven after we die. That’s a very popular idea, one that has been spread for a long time, but it’s actually quite hard to make a case for it simply from the Scriptures. Also it’s problematic. See, an emphasis on going to heaven after we die actually minimizes what happens to us here in this life. This is the theology that supported chattel slavery in the United States. It doesn’t matter if you suffer here, just shut up and take it, because you’ll get a heavenly reward in the sweet by and by. This world is not my home; I’m just holding out for heaven. But friends, that perspective is not backed up by the Bible. Throughout the stories of Scriptures, God is concerned with what is happening here and now. God is concerned about how we treat one another. God is concerned for earthly justice, peace, and harmony. Our lives are not something to be escaped. God created this world and all of us and life is something to be cherished, even when we are suffering. 

Also, when thinking about the idea of heaven, we should ask the question of who benefits. A release from suffering might seem like good news for victims, but it’s actually a payday for oppressors. If you minimize people’s current suffering because they will get a reward after they die, that simply excuses the people who are causing the suffering. It doesn’t warn them or stop them or encourage them to change. And it’s really not just. The power of death is not conquered if all we do is escape it. What we want is redemption. We want problems like racism and environmental destruction to be solved. Heaven doesn’t do that.

So, the answer to the power of death is not heaven. The answer to the power of death is resurrection. Although it’s hard to sort out exactly what all the New Testament authors believe, we can find a consistent belief in the resurrection. 

In the book of First Corinthians, the apostle Paul spends an entire chapter talking about resurrection and here’s how he begins. This is First Corinthians chapter 15 verses 3 through 8. Paul says, “The teaching I received, I have passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.”

Paul goes out of his way to list all of these witnesses to Christ’s resurrection and says that the resurrection is a core teaching of the church.

And here’s why resurrection is better than heaven. Resurrection is the appropriate response to earthly suffering. If something is wrong here, it should eventually be made right here. War zones need to be made whole. Ecological disasters need to be restored. Unjust systems need to be balanced. Broken bodies need to be healed.

Think about it this way: if you spill something on your carpet, you clean it up. Get a towel, call your dog, whatever. But you don’t just leave the room and pretend it didn’t happen because you have other clean carpet in another room. And let’s push the analogy just a little further. If you spill something on the floor and it stains, you don’t just cover up the stain. Eventually, you want to get new carpet. That’s resurrection. 

Now, I totally get that for some people it is just as much of a mental leap to believe in resurrection as it is to believe in a soul that spends eternity in heaven or hell. I get that. And everyone must make up their minds for themselves. I’m just here to tell you what I find in the Scriptures and what I believe makes for a consistent Christian message of good news.

Paul continues in First Corinthians 15 verses 19 through 26. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Here’s why resurrection matters. Resurrection makes right what is wrong here. And if everything is made right, then everyone is included. Instead of eternal souls being separated into camps of bad souls in the bad place and good souls in the good place, resurrection gives every body the opportunity to be who they were created to be. If resurrection happens, then both victims and oppressors can be healed.

Now how does it work? The Bible does not tell us exactly. Regarding human bodies, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that these bodies we have now are like seeds and our resurrected bodies will be like plants. You can’t tell what the plant will be like from looking at the seed. But every seed grows a plant. 

At the end of 1 Corinthians chapter 15 Paul sings a victory song over death. He says in verses 54-57, “When the perishable body has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal body with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Our trust in resurrection has an effect on how we live here. Instead of thinking that this world doesn’t matter because we are going to escape it, or that we have to earn our spot for our souls in the good place, a trust in resurrection means that we affirm that this life matters hugely. Paul ends 1 Corinthians 15 by saying this, “Therefore {as in “because of all this stuff I’ve told you about the promise of resurrection} be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Our labor, the work we do for the Kingdom here, is not in vain because this world here will be restored. So we do our best to not stain the carpet. We try to do as much justice and love as much mercy as we can now. A trust in resurrection is an affirmation that this world that God so loves really does matter. A trust in resurrection reminds us to live now like resurrection is already happening. Because it is. The New Testament authors said that Jesus’ resurrection was a sign that God’s new creation, God’s Kingdom, is already breaking through our current reality. It is both now and still coming. It is already but not yet. 

And that’s what we celebrate in Communion, in the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving.” One of the meanings of this celebration is that is the meal of the Kingdom. As we eat and drink together, scattered yet gathered, we do so in anticipation of eating and drinking together with the whole world when everything has been restored. Isaiah has a beautiful vision of this that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15. Isaiah 25 says

“On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

In that day they will say,

‘Surely this is our God;
    we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
    let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.'”

This morning we look forward to that resurrection feast as we celebrate communion together. If you are uncomfortable with celebrating communion on your own or outside a church, by all means follow you own conscience. 

As we celebrate this morning, be encouraged. The church has always adapted to a changing world. For thousands of years our ancestors in the faith have changed their methods of proclamation to speak to the culture they were in. This morning we are experiencing yet another iteration of how God is able to speak to a new situation in the world. 

Although we are scattered this morning, we are still gathered with the wider church as much as we have ever been. Each time we celebrate Communion, we do it with the whole church, all around the world, past, present and future. That is still true today. In this season of physical distancing, I have often found myself feeling more aware of the communion of all the saints. We have to reach out further with our spirits when we don’t have so many people immediately around us.

Remember that Christ is here. Jesus is not present only in this bread and this cup. We receive a fresh experience of grace as we tell the story, as we pray, and as we affirm our real and lasting connection to one another. 

So this morning, although we are scattered, we are still gathered. We are still one in the Christ whose resurrection we celebrate this morning. This meal is the most ancient of Christian traditions and this morning we do this not only in remembrance, in looking back, but also in hope, in looking forward to something good that we know is coming.

Because, my beloved gathered scattered friends, as our ancestors in the faith have insisted for hundreds of years, THIS is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all genders, all ages, and all races—people in every type of body—people from the east and the west, from the north and the south, gather wherever they are and affirm that Christ is the host at all our tables …

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