Rev. Jay Rowland
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Sunday March 3, 2019, First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN
This sermon utilizes material published by Richard B. Hays in First Corinthians Interpretation Commentary (John Knox Press).
“Someone will ask, How are the dead raised?
With what kind of body do they come?”
That's rhetorical. Word has already reached Paul that these questions are being asked (and answered) in Corinth.
What about you? Perhaps you may be asking, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body? …” It seems to me we don’t talk enough about resurrection. Something that is so central to our faith, should provoke lots of questions and conversations. We all have questions, thoughts, maybe even doubts about the resurrection. The gospels proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—hallelujah—praise God!
But sometimes, explanation is preferred to proclamation.
Paul’s effort in the fifteen chapter of First Corinthians begins (v.3-5) with his recitation of the oldest known creedal statement on the resurrection (traceable to within three years of Jesus’ crucifixion). He does this to divert their focus from their immediate surroundings, and maybe even from Paul himself, to the wider Christian community. Paul then circles back to Corinth, to the misinformation about resurrection rampant among the congregation he planted there. Many are openly declaring that Jesus’ resurrection is merely a metaphor. Paul is convinced this will destroy the church in Corinth. Multiple other controversies are already wreaking havoc there. Paul devotes the prior fourteen chapters to addressing each one, as requested by church members through letters they sent to Paul asking him to do so.
The resurrection was not something Paul was asked to address. But when word of mouth reaches Paul about resurrection bashing he determines to put a stop to it. These are people who were converted by Paul and his preaching on the-crucified-and-risen-Lord. What happened? Why are they now suddenly denying the resurrection?
It seems they started to take themselves a bit too seriously. Richard Hays reports in his excellent commentary that the faction in Corinth denying resurrection consider themselves “hyperspiritual Christians (pneumatikoi)”. Some even claim special, divine wisdom and knowledge (gnosis - gnosticism). They had become so spiritual, they elevated the soul far above the body. Their idea of salvation was escape from the limitations imposed upon the soul by the body and the distractions of the flesh. Paul’s declaration about the “resurrection of the dead” literally the “rising of corpses” struck them as crass and horrifying, unsophisticated superstitious nonsense. (Hays, p.253)
The notion of our human soul being at odds with our body is a product of ancient Greek philosophy which was embedded in the dominant Hellenistic culture throughout the Roman Empire. It’s one of those accidents of history that as Christianity spreads throughout these regions, Greek philosophy bleeds into Christian faith formation.
Two thousand years later Greek philosophy continues to infect Christian faith formation. I could walk into any church on any given Sunday and ask, what do you think happens after we die? Many devout Christians would speak in terms of our soul being released from our body, transformed into a spirit-being, ascending to heaven from where we can observe our loved ones still alive on earth.
Sounds wonderful. And it is. But it’s essentially ancient Greek philosophy, not Christian faith.
The New Testament attests to something distinctively different. Jesus was dead and buried. God raised Jesus from death in his body. When the risen Jesus appears to his disciples they see and can touch his bodily wounds. Jesus asks them for something to eat. Thus the risen Jesus is not a spirit-being. He is embodied. And yet his body is also different, a new creation ... able to pass through locked doors. Some do not recognize him. The risen Jesus is not a philosophical abstraction. What he is has never been seen before. Perhaps that’s harder for people to understand and therefore accept. Paul’s answer to the question he posed in verse 35 relies upon theology more than philosophy:
It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. … The first man (Adam) was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man (Jesus) is from heaven. … Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.
But so what, right? What if we don’t go for the resurrection? Is it that big of a deal? What’s the harm if we mix in a little philosophy. No harm no foul right? Closer examination may prove otherwise.
In his commentary, Richard Hays shares an experience of a young woman from his church whose 18-year-old sister was killed in a car accident. Her relatives and friends were saying things to her like, “your sister is in a better place …” and “… she’s happy now, and telling us not to be sad” And “God must have needed your sister up in heaven”
These pithy declarations denied the painful reality and the bitter tragedy of her sister’s death and left her confused and angry, which in turn produced guilt because she thought she was supposed to agree with what her well-meaning Christian friends and family were saying, and doubting her own Christian faith.
Hays reports that this young woman felt liberated by Paul’s words which treated death as a destructive enemy that will be conquered only at the end of this age. She was previously unaware of Paul’s explanation or simply had not paid attention until now. 1 Corinthians 15 “enabled her to struggle with the reality that her sister was truly dead and buried in the ground, while at the same time, affirm the Christian hope that she will hold her sister in her arms again one day …” (p.279)
Paul insists that all Christian proclamation is grounded in the resurrection. Our faith stands or falls to the extent that this is true. “The resurrection of the dead” Hays writes, “forces us to take seriously that God is committed to the creation and that God has acted and will act in ways beyond our experience and external to our subjectivity.” Resurrection does not circumvent the pain of death nor relieve God of any responsibility or accountability. “The resurrection is not simply a symbol for flowers coming up every spring,” Hays concludes “or for the generic hope that ‘springs eternal’ in the human heart. Our Christian faith is grounded in the rising from the grave of Jesus Christ who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried” (p.281).
Our daily life and movement is infused with the sacred rhythms of God’s movement in us, with us and among us. The very pinnacle of the sacred rhythm and movement of Jesus Christ among us here on the other side of the Transfiguration is and ever shall be resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection, yours and mine too, declares something deeper happening all around us and with us, something we seem reluctant to accept, and yet, something God-filled and God-blessed.
In a few days, we will enter again into the season and pilgrimage that is Lent. It begins with a solemn declaration that without God’s breath in us, we are dust. From that moment we begin a long, slow, meandering pilgrimage winding, twisting and turning eventually to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Crucifixion Friday. The pilgrimage of Lent reminds us that resurrection is something that we cannot produce or reproduce, we cannot control nor manipulate. Resurrection places our hope exclusively in God’s hands where it belongs (Hays, p.280).
As we come to the Table Jesus has prepared for us, a reservation kept in heaven, come and receive sustenance for the pilgrimage, and be reminded that we live and move and have our being in the Resurrection Rhythm of Jesus Christ … who lived, died, and rose again, yet who lives and reigns, here with us, now and forever.
 Hays: “It is highly significant that this early creed specifies the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection must be interpreted in light of the Scripture: the earliest church understood the gospel as the continuation and fulfillment of God’s dealings with Israel” p.255
 “Christianity in which Jesus is seen not as the crucified and risen one but only as a great moral teacher (and) … the resurrection, if it is preached at all, is understood only as a symbol for human potential or enlightened self-understanding … (or) a dream(s) warmly of ‘going to heaven’ but ignore(s) the resurrection of the body (effectively) ignore(s) the challenge of the gospel to the world we inhabit” (p.278)