The Last for the Best
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It’s good to be able to find unexpected blessings in things – blessings that occur in the midst of dire circumstances, or at least challenging circumstances. We’ve seen this ever over the last several months. I pray that we have. Maybe it’s been cooking lessons with grandchildren on Zoom. Two weeks ago I found out that Zoom is a pretty effective way to hold a prayer retreat. Perhaps it’s been coming to know more of God through things being stripped away. Examples?? Every church has its dire circumstances or challenges, its issues, the things that the church struggles with. We said at the beginning of this series back in September “Imagine that the issues that your church was going through were laid bare for all to see in Holy Scripture itself!” Imagine.
The good thing about having this record of Corinthian issues, the blessing part, is that we get to be taught about things – like how the churches that Paul established celebrated around the Lord’s Supper. If they didn’t have the issues of inequity that were occurring around the Lord’s Supper we would never have known the words of institution that Paul handed on to them. If there was not some dissension or disagreement around the resurrection of the dead, we would not have this ending to the letter.
What Paul has done here is saved the best for last. Our hope! Where this whole thing ends up! We talked last week about keeping the long view in view. That holy city on the mountain toward which we travel. This doesn’t mean we don’t keep our present in view or remember our past – it’s not an either/or situation. This morning we’re looking at the hope which is ours. Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at the good news from Paul this morning.
We’ve said throughout these weeks that bridging contexts here can be tough. Bridging a 1st-century Corinthian context with a 21st-century Canadian context (or wherever it is you may be watching this from). How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? To those of a certain philosophical bent in Paul’s day, the spirit was up here and the body was down here. The concept of living a spiritual existence on some higher plane was a welcome one. The thought that we would live in some kind of resurrected bodily form not so much.
Paul wants to affirm one of the foundational pieces of our hope in Christ here. We see examples of belief in some sort of spiritual existence even today. People with wings floating around on clouds in a New Yorker cartoon or an ad for cream cheese. Talk of our spirits being subsumed or caught up in some kind of eternal divine consciousness or of people continuing to exist in the wind and the waves or what have you.
It’s understandable. The resurrection of the dead. Anastasis nekron are the words in Greek. It could be the title of a horror film, it might be said, or a Christian heavy metal band (if there are still Christian hm bands). Anastasis nekron. Sure you people who take the Bible literally might believe in such a thing, but we who are a little more enlightened know that such things are impossible. Sure it might have been fine for people to believe in that kind of thing at one point in human history when we weren’t so enlightened! I will always remember a line of dear Pastor Bill, who used to say “You know that it’s never been a thing for people to believe in someone who is dead being raised back to life, no matter what era we’re talking about.” It was the same for some in Corinth.
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you, in turn, received, in which also you stand, through which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain.
Hold fast to this with me dear friends. We’ve been hearing Paul’s message to the church for 11 weeks and it’s good to be hearing it. It’s a matter of life and death. It really is, and you know these days it’s almost jarring to my own ears to hear the word “death” spoken aloud. We have a lot of euphemisms for it. It’s been said that death is to our culture what sex was to the Victorian culture. Something that’s not spoken about. Often it’s not even marked really. Don’t do anything for me. Have a party, I don’t want anyone to be sad.
How could we not be sad? How could we not mourn or grieve? How are we to look at life and death? We talked in the very first week of our journey through Corinthians about the follower of Christ looking at everything in the light of the cross. We talked about picturing a stained-glass cross in a window through which the sun comes and bathes everything in its light. This is still a good image. As we come to the end we’re presented with a new image. Imagine a window frame through which we see the world, through which we see the events of our lives and our deaths too. On the left hand side of the frame, we have a cross. On the right hand side, we have resurrection life, resurrection bodies. Paul presents this frame in two verses in what must be one of the most concise presentations of the gospel message, the good news message. Here is the news:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I had received: 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. It’s so simple that a child can understand it. It’s so profound that we could live 10,000 lifetimes and never come to a full understanding of it. May God grant that we’re ever more coming to a deeper understanding of it. Our faith does not shy away from any human situation. Christ died. Christ was buried. It reminds me of one of the most famous opening lines in French literature. “Aujourd’hiu, Mama est morte.” Camus, like most existentialist, look existence squarely in the face. Respect to them for that – too often it doesn’t happen in a world full of distractions and entertainment and things to keep our attention diverted or keep us out of our minds and hearts and souls. Today, Maman died. There is a finality about this. Christ died. Christ was buried. There’s a finality about burial which anyone knows about who has attended a burial. No wonder people don’t want to do such things.
There is a seeming finality to watching someone tamp down soil over a grave. I say “seeming” because of course, it’s not final at all. This is why we stand there as followers of Christ with our heads raise. There are some words from Jesus in Luke 21 where Jesus is talking to his followers about distressing times. Times of geo-political distress and upheaval. Jesus talks about people fainting from fear. The words apply very well I think to whatever kind of distress we may be in. Jesus says “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads…” Jesus tells them be alert at all times, praying. Treasure the hope that is ours deep in the centre of our being.
Henri Nouwen tells a story of a scene he witnessed while travelling through Donegal, Ireland. Here is how he describes it – “The people were like the land. I still see vividly the simple funeral of a Donegal farmer. The priest and a few men carried the humble coffin to the cemetery. After the coffin was put in the grave, the men filled the grave with sand and covered it again with the patches of grass which had been laid aside. Two men stamped with their boots on the sod so that it was hardly possible to know that this was a grave. Then one of the men took two pieces of wood, bound them together in the form of a cross, and stuck it in the ground. Everyone made a quick sign of the cross and left silently. No words, no solemnity, no decoration. Nothing of that. But it never has been made so clear to me that someone was dead, not asleep, but dead, not passed away but dead, not laid to rest but dead, plain dead. When I saw those two men stamping on the ground in which they had buried their friend… their realism became a transcendent realism by the simple unadorned wooded cross saying that where death is affirmed, hope finds its roots. ‘Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.’ (Jn. 12:24)”
Christ is raised. Everything is changed. Nothing will ever be the same.
We’re not just talking about a metaphorical resurrection. An enlightenment. Achieving a higher level of becoming a new person, achieving a higher level of spiritual consciousness. A metaphorical ascending some sort of spiritual mountain. The Easter account is not simply about a reflection of new life coming about every spring (though new life coming every spring certainly reminds us of the resurrection life as we’ll see soon) and a celebration of nature’s renewal.
We’re talking about the anastasis nekron! Christ is risen. If Christ hasn’t been raised from the dead, we might as well all pack up and go home! How absurd! “No resurrection of the dead” means Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised then all our proclamation is in vain – empty, meaningless. If Christ has not been raised, then our faith is futile and we’re still in our sins. If Christ has not been raised, then those who have died in Christ have perished. It’s done. Come on…
Here’s the thing. Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order; Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
What are some of the implications? We’ve said before that matter matters. Our bodies matter, no matter how frail, no matter how wounded or disfigured. We are called to come alongside one another right to the end. To hold hands. To pray. To sing. To recite Psalms. To place our hands on a brow. When we do so we’re proclaiming that this body matters, that there is more to the story. When we stand at a graveside and read the words of Revelation 21, we are proclaiming the finality about death that I spoke about earlier isn’t actually final. That there is more to the story. That we are looking at everything through that frame of Christ’s death and Christ’s resurrection.
And so we are able to face any circumstance standing with our heads raised, even death. But someone will ask “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” “Fool!” replies Paul. I pity the fool who asks with what kind of body will they come! We don’t know. It’s ok when we’re following Christ not to know things, you know. Think of it like a seed that becomes something else. We know that it will be good. We do know that when the 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?” Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, even over death itself. What have we to fear, dear friends?
Someone has said that Paul has saved the best for last here. It’s not quite the last of course. There’s another chapter where Paul writes about offering, travel plans, and finishes things off with greetings (always the importance of greetings – hellos and goodbyes) and a benediction. We’ve been looking at matters of life and death over the past 11 weeks friends. We’re stepping out together into the unknown. We’re stepping out together into a new season – winter - that some are saying will be a dark one. We’re also stepping into Advent, where we’ll dwell with the line from John – The Light Shines in the Darkness. Let us go with these final words from Paul – “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous and be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” May these things be true for all of us dear friends. Amen