This sermon was given at Colonial Church on February 11, 2019.
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have died (fallen asleep) in Christ have perished. 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 (fallen asleep).
– 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 (NRSV)
Will you pray with me? God, who is the resurrection and the life: not the great I wasnor the great I will be,but the great I am. As the Puritans have prayed, give us indeed “a mountaintop and high as the valley is low.” AMEN.
Well, good morning. My name Sara and I’m one of the ministers here at Colonial Church. This week we received news that Dawn, beloved spouse of our Senior Minister Daniel, is living with stage four pancreatic cancer. This was one of those moments that many of us have encountered in different ways in our own lives, where suddenly grief or pain opens up in ways that we hadn’t experienced before…and we are undone.
In the middle of this fundamental re-orientation of the Harrell family life it would be the case, of course, that the lectionary text which Daniel had pre-assigned for the sermon today (well, to be clear—not that he assigned it for the whole church world-wide!) is I Corinthians 15:12-20, the passage that was just read to you…on the resurrection from the dead.
Upon receiving Dawn’s news I, having preached the first part of I Corinthians 15 last week, told Daniel that I could preach today if he wanted me to. But upon recalling the content of this passage I thought: “Why did I say volunteer to preach on resurrection on this of all weeks?” I wrestled with and feared that my words would fail me and wished the text was something different. But then I thought: “Well, of course I’m going to preach on this passage today because this is what I actually believe…” You see, not only do I believe in resurrection, but I also think that faith matters most in the moments that feel the most impossible or challenging or rife with pain…where we fear our undoing…for those are precisely the places where the invitation of God is not to run away or to look away our faces, but to journey deeper into love and life and even indeed the darkness and uncertainty, for these are the paces of true gospel healing. For in truth, we all know and affirm a faith that affirms that resurrection can only come from death.
So this morning we come to I Corinthians 15:12-20. I wanted to start my sermon then by talking a bit about the text, then I will move to another layer of reflection upon some of the threads of which Paul writes, and then I will end the sermon with some invitations I think this text issues to us. Let’s jump in.
The text for today follows on the heels of 15 verse 11. This passage then is the content of what Paul said he has come to proclaim to the Corinthians: that Christ has been raised from the dead. For Paul, without the resurrection from the dead and if Christ had not been raised, then his proclamation is in vain, and so is their faith.
To be honest, whenever I read this passage while I was growing up I wondered: “Why are we supposed to be pitied the most of anyone if Christ has not been raised? Why would our faith be in vain then?” I mean, I get that I’m supposed to believe in Christ’s resurrection, but what does he mean here?
Well, Paul gives us some insight into what he means. He says that their faith is in vain if Christ has not been raised because then they are misrepresenting God (which I don’ know about you, but misrepresenting God is something that I tend to try to avoid). He also argues that they have testified that God raised Christ from the dead but if resurrection is impossible then Christ was not raised…so what are they even talking about and bothering to proclaim or live this faith? And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is futile because you are still in your sins. And all who have died, in Paul’s language here what we translate as diedactually should read gone to sleep, have perished.
So why are they the most to be pitied if Christ has not been raised? And why would we be pitied if this resurrection is not our hope? Well, when you stop to think about the life of Paul and the reality of the early church—why would anyone choose this faith? Why would anyone decide a affirm resurrection in the midst of a reality that their lives were under threat because of their beliefs (which was very much the case!)? This wasn’t just some nice bubblegum that made them feel better, it was something that asked and, indeed, demanded the whole of their lives. And to Paul’s point—What are you doing if this is all meaningless?!
Paul is challenging the Corinthians to think carefully about resurrection and the meaning of faith in Christ. He builds his case throughout the chapter of the centrality of resurrection, arguing that Christ has been raised and is the first fruits of resurrection’s promise. Later on in chapter 15 (beyond what we read for today) he will talk about how death came through Adam, but now through Christ life comes to everyone. Christ then is the first fruits of the coming of the kingdom of God—that one day indeed, Christ will have every ruling power and authority under his reign. But if Christ has not been raised, then why are we doing baptisms for the dead, he asks? Why are we putting ourselves at risk? If this life and death is all there is, and there is no resurrection, then—as he’ll pen later in chapter 15, let’s just eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we will all die.
But, believing in resurrection as he does, he discusses the resurrection body near the end of this chapter. He argues that the body which is raised is not like imperishable but is a spiritual body. He invites the Corinthians to apprehend more fully that the coming of God’s kingdom swallows up death in its victory, for the sting of death is sin and the power of sin if the law, but thanks be to God for God gives us victory in Christ Jesus. All of this talk of resurrection comes right before the final chapter of this letter to the Corinthian church as he ends by reminding them to keep alert, to stand firm, to be courageous and strong, and to let all that they do be done in love.
So let me say a little bit more of this Pauline discussion of resurrection (a lot of this section will be in conversation and coming from the commentary that Carla Works shared on Working Preacher). Dr. Works writes that throughout the book of Corinthians it is made clear is that for Paul, resurrection—bodily resurrection—is not optional. For if there is no resurrection then there is no hope. For Paul, without bodily resurrection, there isn’t any good news. And resurrection of which Paul talks about here in chapter fifteen, is one in which actual physical bodies rise. This is made clear as he employs a world that best translates as corpse to refer to our bodies. For him, it matters that God cares for our actual physical bodies. Christian faith then isn’t some dis-embodied spirituality, disconnected from the real of our lives. No, it is one that is located precisely in our bodies, our actual flesh, where the bodily resurrection of Christ animates our hope and new life.
This focus on the corporal is noteworthy particularly because at the time that Paul was writing the dominant philosophical and spiritual traditions privileged the spirit over against the body. For them it was as if the body was secondary or didn’t matter—it was corrupt. Indeed, leaving of the body made one truly spiritual. Inside of Jewish thought though there had long been strands of belief that affirmed the resurrection of the body, including the one that Paul was formed in as a Pharisee. Pharisees believed in, and had long hoped for resurrection. Even more so, Paul’s entire life pivoted on the moment he encountered the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. For him then, as we see here in his letter to the church in Corinth, he will not budge from the belief that resurrection is the central point of the Christian faith; the power of Christ’s resurrection has the power to actually destroy death AND the death-dealing powers in our world…that the ultimate spiritual, physical, and political victory would be God’s, as is made clear in Christ’s bodily resurrection.
This is why Paul doesn’t actually say in this text that people are dead but instead writes that they have gone to sleep, because for him death isn’t the ultimate reality. No, he believes that fundamentally, at the end of all things, God’s power and God’s reign will work and operate such that death indeed will be defeated, and sin will as well. In this reality, those who have gone to sleep will rise into the ultimate reality as resurrected beings, living freely and fully under the rein of God’s kingdom. And that is good news to Paul, indeed.
The centrality of the embodied and the real of our lives, and God’s intimate concern for them, is pervasive throughout Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In a similar vein, one of my favorite theologians, Ignacio Ellacuría, wrote about the gospel as that which invites us to deal with la relidad, the real. For him, the call of the Christian is to actually encounter the world in the midst of the real of our lives. And the real of our lives know pain, know suffering, know longing, know death…and it is this spot precisely, Ignacio Ellacuría reminds us, where the Gospel of life and resurrection breathes. For him, we are fundamentally at all times held and sustained by a God of resurrection life, and when la relidad feels like it might kill and destroy us, this is actually the moment and the place where the promise of life—the good news—shows up. That is not to say that faith ignores the fact that our lives are riven with pain and cancer and all sorts of other trouble, but it’s an affirmation that these things don’t get to have the final word. For the fundamental relidad, is the kingdom and love of God.
This reality then is opened up and made ours through the resurrection of Christ which animates our ability to embody resurrection life in the midst of a world where death appears to have victory and power. This notion was made real to me when I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador a number of years ago. While I was there I heard the story of a man named Oscar Romero. Oscar Romero was the Bishop of El Salvador during the gestational days of the Salvadoran Civil War.[13 ]He had been encountered by God in a way that is not dissimilar from Paul and he believed that the gospel invites us to radically realign the way that we order our lives…which is, indeed, Paul’s message in first Corinthians, right? The gospel—the good news—fundamentally re-orients how we live. Oscar Romero was challenged and changed by this gospel. Once bishop he began to speak out about the injustice that he was seeing in his country, preaching that people must stop the violence and stand as Christians against injustice. He was perceived as a political threat because of the gospel he preached and was assassinated while he was serving communion…literally shot as he holding up the body and blood of Christ. In the weeks prior to his death he had said: “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”
I remember hearing this quote and thinking: this is quite strange…he’s dead, how can/could he be resurrected amongst the people? Yet, I’ll never forget the day on the 30th anniversary of his assassination when I walked down the street with over 200,000 people as we chanted together about resurrection life and I thought: “This is part of the witness of resurrection and precisely what he was taking about…that we together carry this resurrection promise in our lives, in the way that we live.”
Until this weekend I had forgotten that this experience had impacted me so greatly that I wrote my final statement of faith for seminary around the theme of “Resurrection: A Story of Faith.” La Relidad. The real is that our lives know pain, that we know cancer, that we know going to sleep. But for Paul, for Ellacuria, for Romero, and for me, the challenge of the gospel is that the death-dealing machinations of our world do not get the final word. This is a good news that embodies the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who I referenced last week in the same quote that I want to bring back here:
“Redemption myths arise from the human experience of boundaries, but Christ takes hold human beings in the midst of our lives.”
The good news of the gospel isn’t just some nice thing that we think about to feel better for a moment or that keeps us from having to know the real of our lives or the real of the world, no—it is that which enters in the places precisely where we are undone, where we don’t have the words, where we don’t know what to say, and it breathes life that says: “This is not the final word.”
I have to admit that when I saw this sermon title “Rise Up”, I was like “Oh goodness–what is this title, Daniel (it was his chosen title when he was originally going to be preaching this morning)?” And I was going to change it, but then two things happened. One is that I thought that Daniel would have had something witty to say about it, which I don’t have (sorry), so I thought that I should keep it because it’s his. But then I had a second thought…I thought of a song. Anybody else hearing it in their head?
If you livin’ on your knees, you rise up
Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up
Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up
When are folks like me and you gonna rise up?
Every city, every hood, we need to rise up
All my soldiers, what’s good? We need to rise up
We ain’t got no other choice, we need to rise up
I am not throwing away my shot.
I am not throwing away my shot.
Anybody? I see that hand—Thank you! It’s from the musical Hamilton about the founding of our country. Here’s what I started thinking about…this musical, and the story of the founding of our country, made me think about this passage and the early church in Corinth to whom Paul was writing because I mean what bunch of idiots (don’t worry, I’ll keep going!)—the founders of our nation were risking their entire lives, giving everything they had to believe in a vision of freedom, of hope, of the ability to vote, of rights. They believed in this vision and gave their lives to it. As the song says: “I got rise up…rise up…rise up.”
Man, this makes me think First Corinthians! This rag-tag group of folks comes together because they believed in another vision of reality. As Kyle challenged us a few weeks ago, the body of Christ that Paul is referring to in this letter is about this new way of living; its the body politic that changes how we orient ourselves to all of reality—that resurrection and the promise of new life in the midst of going to sleep is about the fundamental reordering of everything. The God who holds us is the holder of all reality…the place where the connection between sin and death is broken. Where the shalom vision of peace of which the Jewish Scriptures had witnessed is now ours through Christ.
Yes, we will, we will all go to sleep.
Death is part of all of our stories.
But the God of resurrection life holds and encounters us in the midst of that coming sleep…asking and inviting and challenging us to live in a way that bears witness to resurrection life. Calling us to be a people who will rise up, who will not throw away our shot to live in transformed ways of being until the very last moment when we have the breath in the bodies we know now. I Corinthians echoes through the centuries with a call even more radical than that of Hamilton…so will we be a people who will rise up and believe in this vision and give and live our lives so as to see it made real?
Yes, this isn’t some pill that I can give you that fixes everything—which I wish I had. It’s not a magic wand that rids us of injustice or suffering or cancer.
But maybe it’s something more revolutionary than that.
We will all go to sleep, but this resurrection life, this resurrection promise is that which will always have the final word.
So let us be a people who are willing to risk the terror of resurrection —who are willing to rise into the places we called to be…to be with and for one another, no matter what may be, and to bear witness to the risen Christ whose life fundamentally alters all human history, all of political relationships, and all things.
The prayer from the Puritans that Daniel shared on Dawn’s Caring Bridge blog two days ago is this: “God, grant me more and more of the resurrection life. May it rule in me, and may I walk in its power.”
Let us rise.
Let us rise up.
Let us follow this God of resurrection.
Let us bear witness to this good news: that even as we go to sleep, God’s power and love and resurrection life holds us all…
as we are with and hold you, Dawn.
Let us rise up.
Daniel referenced this prayer in the journal on Dawn’s Caring Bridge site. February 16, 2019. See: https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/dawnharrell/journal
The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of weekly readings utilized by many Protestant churches that follows the church calendar and includes a weekly reading from the Hebrew Bible, a Psalm, a reading from the Gospels, and a reading from the rest of the New Testament. You can read more about the lectionary online at: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/faq2.php
15:11 reads: “Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” (NRSV)
V.20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. (which will then be followed by how death came through one and now resurrection through one; all die through Adam all alive in Christ).
Questions from (v.29-30): Why baptism for the dead if they do not raise? Why put ourselves in danger every hour? If it was merely for human animals then why would we have fought? “Eat Drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
V. 42-44: “42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” And V 50-54- “50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 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.”
V.56-57: “56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
16:13-14: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
Carla Works, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3966
The word he uses here is nekros; corpse.
Carla Works argues: “There are many reasons why a first century audience might not find belief in a bodily resurrection appealing. Even in Greek culture, that celebrated the body in its art, there were still strands of philosophical thought that vilified the body and cautioned against giving into its desires. The body, after all, was corrupt, physical matter. According to Plutarch, death was simply the release of the soul from the body. Marcus Aurelius taught that at death the body goes to the earth and the soul to the atmosphere. The separation of the soul from the fleshly matter of the body was a widespread belief. If the soul, which was considered pure and heavenly or celestial in substance, longed to escape the corrupt body, why would this God raise corpses? This must have seemed counterintuitive to Corinthians who had thought of themselves as educated, sophisticated, and wise. Why couldn’t they place their hope in their souls going to be with the Lord.”
You can read more about his work online: https://www.iep.utm.edu/ellacuri/.
Read more about Romero online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Óscar_Romero.
The full quote is: “I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in a death without resurrection. If am killed, I shall arise again in the Salvadoran people…You may say, if they succeed in killing me, that I pardon and bless those who do it. Would, indeed, that they might be convinced that they will waste their time. A bishop will die, but God´s church, which is the people, will never perish.” See: http://www.razonypalabra.org.mx/anteriores/n19/19_hegil.html#14a
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, 448.
From the musical Hamilton. The song is “My Shot.” See: https://genius.com/Original-broadway-cast-of-hamilton-my-shot-lyrics.
Christine M. Smith in Risking the Terror: Resurrection in this Lifewrites:
“Resurrection as process, not moment; resurrection as neighborhood and community transformation; resurrection as bodily integrity; resurrection as a refusal to play cards with the jailer; resurrection as resistance and insurrection; resurrection as coming out; resurrection as remembrance and presence; and resurrection as that which we practice…may these images lead us to claim and name every conceivable expression of resurrection life among us.” Christine Smith, Risking the Terror: Resurrection in this Life (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2001), 113.
Daniel referenced this prayer in the journal on Dawn’s Caring Bridge site. February 15, 2019. See: https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/dawnharrell/journal