This Easter season, we are currently preaching through 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection. Here is the passage that falls to me today:
We know that line from childhood, even if raw adult experience teaches us that it isn’t always true.
One of the problems we have at Easter is that we think ‘They all happily ever after’ is what the Resurrection means. We see the Resurrection as no more than a happy ending to the story after all the horrible stuff about Jesus dying.
But it isn’t. Do we all live happily ever after now, because Jesus has risen from the dead? No. I know that in one sense the Resurrection does point us towards a ‘happy ever after’ destination at some point in the future, but that isn’t what it means now. And the Resurrection has deep, central meanings for our faith even now, before death.
So much so that even though I initially entitled this week’s sermon ‘The Certainty of the Resurrection’ it might better be entitled ‘The Centrality of the Resurrection’. I want to show from our reading three areas of life and faith where the Resurrection is central, if not the foundation.
Firstly, the Resurrection is central to salvation. We so tie salvation into the death of Christ – ‘Jesus died for our sins’, and so on – that we overlook the place the Resurrection has in salvation. Indeed, this whole chapter has started with what Paul says is the Gospel as passed down to him – not only that Christ died, but that he was buried, raised and appeared to his disciples. The Resurrection is part of the Gospel message of salvation. But in what way?
Here’s what Paul says essentially in verses 12 to 19 of today’s reading. We affirm that Christ died for our sins. His death rescues us and we are forgiven. All well and good. But since the Bible speaks about death as the penalty for sin, death itself must be conquered if we are truly and fully to be saved from our sins. Hence why Paul says that preaching is useless without the Resurrection (verse 14), that we are liars if there is no Resurrection, because death has not been defeated (verse 15), that faith without the Resurrection is futile and leaves us still lost (verses 17-18) and that we are pitiable without that message (verse 19).
Moreover, Paul implies, everything we assume about life and salvation assumes the Resurrection. How can we affirm we are forgiven if the penalty for sin is still in force? If the Queen pardoned the offences of a criminal but he was still sent to prison, what kind of pardon would that be? It would be nonsense. So it is with sin against Almighty God, says the apostle. Say all you like about the Cross being the source of our forgiveness because Jesus died in our place, and that is true, but unless the death sentence is removed from us there is no practical benefit to that forgiveness. Hence the Resurrection is as much a part of our salvation as the Cross is.
But of course we all expect to go through death. The conquest of death for us remains in the future, when we shall be bodily raised, just as Jesus was. And it’s this future hope which is the important thing here, for there is a parallel with forgiveness. The forgiveness we receive through the Cross is an assurance that in the future, at the Last Judgement, we shall be pronounced ‘not guilty’. And our Resurrection to eternal life will be the sign that confirms the Judge’s merciful verdict on us.
One scholar, Kenneth Bailey, puts it like this:
The resurrection affirms that sin and death do not have the last word. At the cross the finest religion of the ancient world (Judaism), and the finest system of justice of the ancient world (Rome), joined to torture this good man to death. These were not evil forces. They were the best institutions the ancient world had to offer, and yet together they produced the cross. But that was not the end. After the cross came the victory of the resurrection. After the cross, no form of evil surprises us, no institutionalized brutality amazes us, because we have been to the cross and we know that beyond it is the resurrection. We have stood at the cross … and have witnessed the empty tomb …!
All this, then, makes the Resurrection much more than a happy ending. It makes it far more than any idea that the Cross was all bad and the Resurrection kissed everything better. When we look at the empty tomb and believe in the Risen Lord, we have the assurance of salvation. Believe in the Easter hope and know the promise of salvation.
Secondly, the Resurrection is central to the kingdom of God. In verses 20 to 28, Paul talks about Christ’s resurrection as being the first fruits of the general resurrection of the dead, leading to everything being put under God’s feet. While we wait for that time, Christ reigns until every enemy has been put under his feet.
In other words, God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit shows that God reigns, because he even conquers death in his Son. However, much opposition to that reign remains. Just as a human authority can be in charge of a country despite there being opposition to that person or government, so Christ reigns over creation, despite opposition to him.
It’s within that framework that Paul uses the image of the ‘first fruits’. Judaism celebrated two harvest festivals: as well as the full ingathering of the crops around the end of the summer or beginning of the autumn which corresponds to what we understand as a harvest festival, they also celebrated the appearance of the first fruits in late spring. We have a name for that ‘first fruits’ festival: we call it Pentecost. The first fruits guarantee what is to come, the full harvest. In kingdom terms, Christ’s resurrection is the first fruits of God’s reign that promise the full victory over death in the ingathering harvest when the general resurrection of the dead happens.
Meanwhile, as we await that complete conquest, Christ reigns. Just as a Roman colony (such as Corinth) anticipated a day when the Emperor (who had the status of a god) would come and visit them, so Christians anticipate the future coming of our triumphant risen King. And just as the Roman emperor rewarded the retired soldiers who fought to win that colony for him, so our coming King will reward those who have served in the cause of his kingdom.
But there are bigger implications. It’s not just that you can draw imperfect parallels between the risen King and earthly empires, it is also a matter of contrast and conflict between the kingdom of our Risen Lord and the kingdoms of this world. Kenneth Bailey again:
When Paul wrote, “We have one Lord, Jesus Christ” (8:6), he was not only confessing his faith, he was also making a political statement. If Jesus is kurios (Lord), then Caesar isn’t. In like manner, here in verse 24, even though Paul was writing about the climactic end of the age, he was at the same time de-absolutizing the rulers, authorities and powers around him. It was dangerous to even think let alone proclaim such things anywhere in the Roman Empire. But to write this kind of subversive literature and send it to the largest Roman city outside Rome was extremely risky. The apostle as much as announces that one of the goals of the resurrected Christ was the setting aside of eternal Rome. Paul was intimidated by no one, and by committing his vision to writing he surrendered control over who would discover these views.
The Resurrection, then, proclaims the kingship of Jesus at the expense of the rulers of this world. Now the latter, of course, won’t like that. They expect our allegiance. The Resurrection puts us on a collision course with them and we may end up suffering, because we retain our allegiance to our Risen Lord ahead of them. We respect the earthly authorities as much as we can, but the time comes when we have to choose between obeying God and obeying human beings. It is the Resurrection that leads us to make that choice in favour of Christ. For it shows that he truly reigns and it promises that his kingdom will come in all its fullness. Furthermore, if we do suffer, then the Resurrection promise that life conquers death fortifies us in our eternal perspective.
Thirdly and finally, the Resurrection is central to our lifestyle. We’re into verses 29 to 34 here. And what on earth is all this stuff about being baptised for the dead? We can perhaps appreciate the idea of Christians such as Paul risking their lives virtually every day, because we can read the accounts of their tremendous courage in service of the Gospel. But baptism for the dead?
It has puzzled readers down the ages. There are something like forty major different explanations lying on the scholars’ table. Fear not, I won’t take you through all of them, but I will just briefly mention one famous interpretation. The Mormons have a particular take on this. Since baptism is connected with salvation, what happens to those who have died without being baptised, they ask? So Mormons volunteer for some kind of proxy baptism on behalf of the dead to assure their salvation, and they use this text to justify that practice.
However, that is almost certainly a wrong approach. Much more likely in the view of scholars I trust is this scenario: in the early years of Christianity, some followers of Jesus died, and their loved ones – who may not have embraced the faith – feared that they might not be reunited in eternity. Therefore the surviving relatives were ‘baptised for the dead’, that is, baptised for the sake of their beloved deceased family members, in the hope that such baptism would see them through to the reunion after death that they desired.
Now that may sound like a bizarre practice, but the point Paul is making is that those who went in for it could only make sense of it if there was the resurrection of the dead. If there were no resurrection, they could not be reunited with their loved ones after death. The game was up.
And similarly, and more seriously, was the courage that Paul and the other church leaders showed in the way they proclaimed the Gospel in the teeth of opposition. Why risk their lives every day? Because they knew that even if they paid with their lives, resurrection would one day be their destiny. Therefore they would not be deterred by the worst the world could throw at them. But without the promise of resurrection, such courage would make no sense. There would be no point to that kind of risk-taking, and you might as well indulge yourself to the fullest extent and be done with worrying about living in a good and godly way.
But if you want to know why Christians see a point in living ethically and in holiness, it’s the Resurrection. If you want to have a reason for Christians to do the right thing even at great cost, it’s the Resurrection. It gives meaning and purpose to right living.
Having lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war and through the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, I understand the affirmation “I die every day.” This is the speech of someone who goes out each day wondering if it will be his last. Included in this is the never to be forgotten feeling at a rogue checkpoint when stopped by heavily armed militiamen. On such occasions one is convinced, “I will not be alive five minutes from now.” The fall of 2009 I was privileged to meet Mr. Paul, the senior manager of “Hotel Rwanda” during the massacres that took place in Rwanda in 1994. For the three-month period of the massacres, Mr. Paul “died every day.” It was the look in the eye. We understood each other. Paul the apostle breaks into very strong language, indeed the language of oath taking, as he declares, “I die every day.”
But the Christian can ‘die every day’ when we live in Resurrection hope. The Resurrection is the reason we can and do live differently from the world. The Resurrection is fundamental to our salvation. It points to the coming kingdom of our Risen Lord. It makes sense of life and faith.
Let us live in the light of the Resurrection.