Alive in Christ - Lectionary Reflection for Easter Sunday C (1 Corinthians 15)

1 Corinthians 15:19-28 New Revised Standard Version

19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.


                It is Easter Sunday and so we go with Mary Magdalene to the tomb, where to our surprise we encounter an empty tomb and the risen Christ (Jn 20:1-18). Therefore, we boldly sing “Christ the Lord is risen today! Alleluia!” The concept of resurrection offers challenges to our modern mindset. Our search for explanations of all things rules out mystery, and the resurrection is a mystery. We might wonder whether, in our day, the Christian faith really needs the resurrection. Perhaps we can dispense with it as a metaphor. It’s understandable since we no longer share the worldview regnant in the first century C.E. Yet, Paul is pretty clear that Christ has been raised from the dead, and that’s to our benefit. Death has met its match!

                Paul boldly claims that even as we all die in Adam, we shall all be made alive in Christ, who is the first fruit of the resurrection. Our hope, our future, is tied up on this promissory note. Recently I presided at a funeral for a beloved member of the church I’m subbing at. As always, I dove deeply into the promise of the resurrection. I don’t know what else to do when faced with a grieving family, even if the person we’re honoring was in her 90s at her death. The loss is real, and it is the promise of the resurrection that gives us hope that death is not the final victor. The Paul gives here is that if our hope lies only in this life, then we are to be pitied.

                As for what this future resurrection life looks like, Paul leaves us with a bit of ambiguity. He doesn’t address the issue of the resurrection body in this reading. That comes a little later in the chapter, where Paul tells us that God will give us the body God chooses, the heavenly body is imperishable. What was sown as a physical body is raised as a spiritual body. We can speculate on what the spiritual body entails, whether it has physicality or not. The truth is Paul doesn’t reveal that information. You might wonder where this spiritual body will reside? Paul speaks of the heavenly realm, but again he doesn’t give us a map. Nevertheless, we’re assured that whatever this entails, it will be glorious.

                Getting back to this reading from 1 Corinthians 15, which has been designated by the Revised Common Lectionary for Easter Sunday, Paul first connects our birth with Adam. We are born as the descendants of Adam. As such we are heirs to his death (mortality). On the other hand, to be in Christ means we share in his resurrection. Therefore, we will experience new life. According to this reading from Paul, this will take place when Christ returns. That, of course, gives rise to questions about timing. Do we wait for Christ’s return to experience the heavenly reality or does this happen simultaneously with our deaths? We know that Paul expected Jesus’ return to come quickly. So, I don’t think he imagined we’d still be here two millennia later asking the question. The early church, recognizing the problem posed by the delay came up with solutions, including a middle state where the soul might wait to be reunited with the body on the day of judgment. But as 2 Peter suggests, with God time flies differently than it does for us —so "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet. 3:8). Again, Paul doesn’t give us a lot of information about how this works. Thus, we are left to determine for ourselves what makes the most sense. As for me, I’m assuming that when we die, we experience resurrection as did Jesus. I agree with Jürgen Moltmann when he says that “our hour of death is the hour of our resurrection. When we die, we awake to eternal life” As for the body, well, again I turn to Moltmann, who writes “The new body in the resurrection—the soma pneumatikon—will be a body intensely alive in the divine life force in accordance with the body of the resurrected Christ, which was ‘transfigured’ in the majesty of God. It will take that form that God saw fit for us in the world to come” [Resurrected to Eternal Life, p. 26].  Ultimately, we can’t know for sure. As we read in 1 John:Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). So, perhaps we should leave things there, recognizing we don’t know for sure, but the promise is there that at the appropriate moment we’ll be like him.   

                The key to this concept might lie in Paul’s declaration that all of this occurs when Jesus hands over the kingdom to the Father, having “destroyed every ruler and every 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.” (1 Cor. 15:24-26).  When that happens, well, then God will be all in all (Vs. 28). As Gregory of Nyssa teaches, when that day comes, the context in which we live no longer is needed, things like air and water, etc. That is because “the divine nature will become everything for us and will replace everything, distributing itself appropriately for every need of that life” [On the Soul and the Resurrection, p. 86]. If God is all in all, then will we not experience union with God? Is this bit the message of theosis (deification), that we share in the likeness of God through Christ?  This doesn’t mean we are swallowed up by God (pantheism) for Paul is clear that we will receive in the resurrection spiritual bodies. However, as Gregory of Nyssa suggests, God becomes our life source in the resurrection through the Spirit.

                I close by taking note of our context. This is Easter. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which is the first fruits of the resurrection in which we participate. Therefore, we sing, “Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Son, endless is the victory thou o’er death has won” [“Thine is the Glory, Chalice Hymnal, 218].