Christ’s Resurrection: First Fruits -- A Sermon for Epiphany 6C (1 Corinthians 15)
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Today’s hymns, scripture reading, and the sermon title might suggest that Easter came really early this year. Don’t worry. You didn’t sleep through Lent. While the service has the feel of Easter, it is good to remember that the resurrection is itself an epiphany. It’s a manifestation of God’s presence in the world. Besides, as the song puts it: “Ev'ry morning is Easter morning from now on! Ev'ry day's resurrection day, the past is over and gone!"
In the spirit of Easter, we have already sung: “Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Son, endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won.” Death did its best to keep Jesus in the Tomb, but by raising Jesus from the dead, God put Death on notice. God declared that life, not death, will emerge victorious, and we can join in serving the risen savior who is in the world today. We can “see his hand of mercy” and “hear his voice of cheer” (“He Lives,” Chalice Hymnal, 226).
Paul’s foundational message shared with the Corinthian church is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). Paul uses the rest of chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians to answer those members of the Corinthian church who were questioning the resurrection. He asks a question that still rings true today: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?”
The reasons given today might be different from Paul’s day, but even many Christians have trouble with the idea of resurrection, especially bodily resurrection. Today the questions center in science, and in Paul’s day they were often philosophical. In his day many Greeks and Romans asked: Why hang onto a body, when you can experience the freedom of a disembodied immortal soul? While Paul doesn’t give us any scientifically-verifiable answers to our questions, in proclaiming the resurrection he emphasizes the importance of the embodied life. This is true on both sides of death’s divide. As for proof of Paul’s position, you will have to take Paul’s word and that of the witnesses named earlier in the chapter as proof. In other words, this is a matter of faith.
As for me, I have accepted this witness. I’m fully on board with the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I think it makes the most sense of the biblical witness, and it reaffirms the Hebrew understanding that connects body and spirit. What is true for Jesus, is true for us.
This is Paul’s message to us: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:17-19). If there is no resurrection, then why bother with this Christian thing which only offers us a crucified messiah. Wouldn’t it be better to join with the followers of Epicurus, who declared: “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Paul heard the challenge, and responded with the word “But.” This word “But” might be one of the most important words in the New Testament. According to Charles Campbell: “It is the word through which the gospel breaks into the wisdom of the world and interrupts the powers of this age; it is where the new age breaks into the old and something new becomes possible.” [Campbell, 1 Corinthians, pp. 250-251]. Since, the old age is marked by death, if Jesus wasn’t resurrected, then the old age, which is Death, continues its reign. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor. 15:20). With this “But,” Paul declares that Jesus’ resurrection is the “first fruits of those who have died.” He is the pioneer of our faith. His resurrection guarantees the resurrection of all those who belong to him.
With the resurrection of Jesus, we enter a day of new beginnings. As Brian Wren’s hymn declares, “for by the life and death of Jesus, God’s mighty Spirit, now as then, can make for us a world of difference, as faith and hope, are born again” [Wren, “This is a Day of New Beginnings,” CH 518]. With the resurrection of the body comes an affirmation of human life. In fact, the resurrection affirms the value of all God’s creation. It’s not an escape from life, but a reminder that God has declared that all of God’s creation is good. It is also a declaration that embodied life does not end in death, which according to Paul is the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26).
Now at some point in the future death will come to us all. But, death is not the last word. In words that Handel took up in The Messiah, Paul declared:
“For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:21-22 KJV).
I chose the reading from the King James Version, because it seems to catch Paul’s vision better than the other translations. The phrase “even so in Christ” is the key here. While we all share in Adam’s mortality, “even so in Christ” we will gain immortality. Or, as Paul also writes, the perishable puts on what is imperishable (1 Cor. 15:42).
I have always believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but that belief has been reinforced in my years as a pastor. Being present with families at the time of death, I know the power that death has. These moments with family and friends of the dying and the dead, have reinforced my appreciation for the preciousness of life.
Because life is so precious, “end of life decisions” are extremely difficult to make. In fact, I think most of us would rather not discuss such matters. That’s why my clergy group is reading a book titled Making Faithful Decisions at the End of Life by Nancy Duff. She takes up Paul’s point that death is an enemy to be resisted. She writes that “death for Christians is not simply a natural part of life, a friend, or a transition from one stage of life to another, but the enemy” [Making Faithful Decisions, p. 32]. We should resist death, even though we know that because we are moral and finite beings death will come in due time. When that time comes, how do we let go and where will we find hope? Paul’s answer begins with the resurrection of Jesus, who is the first fruit of the resurrected life.
Later in the chapter, Paul writes that “when this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:"
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:54-55).
By embracing the resurrection of the body, we affirm the sacredness of embodied life. God creates and sustains life. According to Paul, our bodies serve as temples of the Holy Spirit, and with our bodies we glorify God (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Because life is sacred and sacramental, God will not let death have the final word. Instead, we are called to celebrate the coming of the Kingdom of God, which is already making itself present in this world. By embracing the resurrected life, we participate in this coming kingdom.
It might not be Easter yet, but remember “every morning is Easter morning.” Therefore, we can boldly proclaim the resurrection promise that life has triumphed over death; the old age is giving way to the new. Therefore we can begin entering into God’s abundant life, which is marked by righteousness, peace, and joy. That is, a life that flourishes.
It’s fitting that today is the beginning of our Week of Compassion emphasis. Through Week of Compassion, we can share in kingdom work that honors embodied life and brings love, peace, and joy to the lives of many. With this embrace of resurrection life, we can join with St. John of Damascus singing:
Now let the heavens by joyful! Let earth its song begin!
The world resound in triumph, and all that is therein;
let all things seen and unseen their notes of gladness blend;
for Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end.
(“The Day of Resurrection!” CH 228, vs 3.)
Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
February 17, 2019