1 Corinthians 15:35-50
My church youth group friend Elaine used to say she thought the prospect of heaven sounded short on excitement levels. “I mean, you can only last so many years sitting around on a cloud plucking a harp before you’re bored,” she used to say. (I’m only glad she didn’t say ‘bored to death’ – that would have been inappropriate.)
And you know what? I would be, too. It’s not as though I can even play a musical instrument, let alone a harp.
But then, sitting around on a cotton-wool cumulus bears so little resemblance to the Bible’s teaching about life after death that I don’t think Elaine needed to worry. And nor do I need to spend money on harp lessons.
The trouble is, we have imbibed so many images of life after death that have nothing to do with the hope Jesus and the apostles taught, and indeed many of them are downright contradictory of orthodox Christian faith. Several of our popular concepts about life after death themselves deserve a good burial. Our passage today from 1 Corinthians 15 is prime evidence to that end. I hope that by the time we have finished this morning’s section of the chapter we shall have a clearer idea of the hope the New Testament gives us.
Firstly, Paul teaches us that the resurrection hope is a bodily hope, even if it is a different kind of body. I want us to think here of the typical things we say when someone dies, like, “It’s only the body that has gone, not the real person.”
“Their body may have died, but their spirit lives on.”
“It doesn’t matter whether we bury someone or cremate them, because the real person has gone to be with the Lord.”
Now there are partial truths in all those statements, but the danger behind them is that we get to think that the body doesn’t matter, only the soul or the spirit does. The trouble with that thinking is that it isn’t what Jesus or Paul wanted us to believe. The idea that only the soul matters does not come from the Bible, but from Greek philosophy where the body didn’t matter. Christianity (and Judaism) can’t have anything to do with such an idea that only the soul matters, because we believe in a God who made his creation good. We also believe in a God who is remaking his creation, and the Resurrection of Jesus is the ‘first fruits’ of this, as last week’s passage said.
So we get in the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection clear evidence that Jesus has risen bodily. There is no body in the tomb. When Jesus appears to his disciples, he shows them his hands and his side. He breaks bread at a meal with the disciples walking to Emmaus. He cooks fish on the lakeside. It’s all physical. Jesus is bodily raised. The body matters.
Now Paul tells us here in verses 35 to 41 that we are talking about a different kind of body, and that is affirmed by the Gospels, too. Remember how Jesus suddenly appears in the midst of the disciples? That isn’t what a normal body does? But he is still bodily. The Christian hope is not the immortality of the soul – that is Greek philosophy, not Christian faith. Our hope is ‘the resurrection of the dead’. That means a new, but a different body.
We’ll come on in a moment to the implications of the resurrection body being different, but at this point I just want us to dwell on the thought that our future hope is physical. It isn’t disembodied spirits floating in space. It’s resurrected bodies in a new creation, the new heavens and the new earth. The God who made all creation good and who is sorrowful at the damage caused to all things physical by our sin is the same God who intends to renew this material creation, and that includes our bodies. So when the question comes up of whether we will be recognisable to one another in glory, the answer is ‘yes’, even if we find it hard to imagine how.
And this truth of a physical resurrection body is a sign that we should be concerned for the physical dimensions of life now. It is why we should be concerned with supporting the Food Bank here. It is why we should support campaigns for justice. It is why we should care about healing. We know not all of these things will be put right in the here and now, but we live in resurrection hope of the day when God himself will renew all these things and make them right. We anticipate them now as we long for the hope of bodily resurrection.
Secondly, then, how different is the resurrection body? Paul gives us a series of contrasts in verses 42 to 49, between the body we have in this life and the resurrection body. Perishable and imperishable. Dishonour and glory. Weakness and power. Physical and spiritual. Earth (or dust) and heaven. Clearly there is a vast difference with the resurrection body. Perhaps the key statement is in verse 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.
Now some people take this all wrong. They see the word ‘spiritual’ and overlook the word ‘body’. They make a leap into thinking that the resurrection is not bodily. But ‘spiritual’ and ‘body’ go together here. Instead of a body animated by physical things, we have a body animated by the Holy Spirit.
And that’s where the good news is here. Instead of human life being expressed in a body whose desires and appetites are often led by the wrong things, in the resurrection our new bodies will be led by the Spirit of God. Whereas in this life we struggle to follow the will of Christ, even though the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within the disciple of Jesus, in the resurrection of the dead that problem will be overcome. No longer will it be a battle to do what pleases the Lord. Our resurrection bodies will be fit for the kingdom of God.
No wonder, then, that Paul also uses words like ‘glory’, ‘power’ and ‘heaven’. For just as God is preparing a new creation with new heavens and a new earth, so he is preparing new bodies fit to live in that renewed dimension of existence.
Which one of us is not frustrated with the way we live here? We struggle to do what is right. Often we don’t even want to do what is right. Even when we do, it’s a battle. We know we are forgiven, yes, and we see signs over a period of time that God is changing us by his Spirit. But which one of us would settle for the life we have now as also being the life of the world to come? Not one of us, I think.
But the resurrection body is animated by the Holy Spirit. God is making all things new. That will include us.
How does that help us now, while we remain embroiled in the battle to do good? For one thing, it gives us hope. It will not always be like this. For another, it gives meaning to the little victories we have now. When we do align ourselves with God’s kingdom, when we do conquer the forces of evil in the name of love, we are working for the kingdom, we are anticipating the kingdom, we are giving a sign to the world of what is to come for those who will follow Jesus. It encourages us to open ourselves even more to the work of the Holy Spirit now, so that we can be foretastes of God’s kingdom, colonies of the new creation, in the midst of the mess. That is worth doing.
And that neatly leads us into the third and final point I want to make about the resurrection body: it shows the way to God’s kingdom. Hear again the final verse of our reading:
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. (Verse 50)
My parents were never wealthy by the usual standards of life in the UK. However, my father had one luxury he used to indulge: he had his work suits made to measure. Not like me, where I know my jacket size, my waist size and my inside leg and I then go around a menswear store trying to find trousers and a jacket that match within that combination, Dad used to have a tailor come to the house and measure him up for his suits. The tailor would arrive by appointment of an evening, take all the precise measurements and go away. When the suit was ready, he would phone to arrange a return visit. Even then it was not certain Dad would buy the suit: the tailor checked very carefully that the suit fitted my father in every way.
What I am saying here is that in the resurrection of the body that is to come for all disciples of Christ at the end of time, God is precisely fitting us for his kingdom, like a master tailor.
I was tempted to lift the line from ‘Away in a manger’ that says,
And fit us for heaven
To live with thee there
Except that it isn’t quite accurate theologically. Heaven is not where we spend eternity, if you read the New Testament carefully. (I’ll pause while the shock sinks in.) Heaven is where we wait ‘asleep’ in death for the resurrection of the dead. When we have been raised to new life, then we live eternity not in heaven but in the new creation, specifically the new earth. So I would rather more generally say that God is fitting us for the kingdom than fitting us for heaven. If, as Paul says here, ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’, then the implication from the context is that the ‘spiritual body’, the body animated by the Holy Spirit can and will inherit the kingdom of God.
In our resurrection, then, we shall come into our inheritance, which is to live unhindered in God’s kingdom. It’s something we greatly look forward to as we muddle our way through Christian living now, even with the help of the Holy Spirit.
But the great thing is that we know this is what we are going to inherit. We know that unhindered kingdom living is what awaits us when God has raised us from the dead, pronounced us innocent at the Last Judgement because of Christ and welcomed us home.
So the question arises, how do we know that will be our inheritance? After all, you may know what you are going to inherit from your parents when they die, because they have told you what is in their will, or you may even have seen a copy of the will and know where it is lodged, ready for the fateful day. What is the sign from God that we shall inherit unfettered kingdom living, where all will be healed, where relationships are characterised by reconciliation, peace and justice?
The answer is the Resurrection of Jesus himself. It’s a case of going back to that language last week of first fruits. The fact that God has already raised him is the guarantee of what he will do for us. The fact that he already has the resurrection body animated by the Spirit shows what God will do for us.
Jesus is the pioneer. He is the prototype. When Paul went on to write 2 Corinthians, he would say that all God’s promises find their ‘yes’ in Christ. This is true here, too.
In conclusion, then, this morning is not so much about a rousing call to passionate action. It is about thinking differently. It is about rejecting the idea that the body is merely a shell for the soul, and instead valuing the bodies God has given us, because he will one day give us new ones.
This morning is also not about being told off but about being encouraged to see that the coming resurrection body, empowered by the Holy Spirit, gives us a vision of living for God’s kingdom now – even if we mess up with some degree of regularity.
And this morning is also about anticipation. The kingdom is coming. We have an assurance of that fact in the Resurrection of Jesus himself.
Be filled with hope. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!