Our final section in 1 Corinthians 15 today is the passage designed for the church crèche:
We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed. (Verse 51)
More seriously, to get into Paul’s thought as he brings this glorious chapter to a conclusion, we need to appreciate something of the way the typical Hebrew mind made an argument. It was different from ours. We tend to argue in a straight line: point one leads to point two, leads to point three, et cetera, and on to a final conclusion.
But for the Hebrew you have to think less of the straight line and more of the circle. Think more of a stone being dropped in a pond, and the ripples going outwards. That is what Paul does here. His central point is – well, central. It’s in the middle of the section, and the implications are ripples around it. So rather than explore these verses from beginning to end, I’m going to start at the centre for the main point and then ripple out to the implications and eventually the conclusion.
Firstly, then, where does Paul drop the stone in the pond? I suggest to you that it comes in verses 53 and 54:
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
What we have in this central pebble-drop is the image of clothing: the perishable clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. But this isn’t just any old getting dressed: to put one new set of clothes over an old set implies something bigger. It implies a particular kind of dressing up. In short, it implies an investiture. The resurrection of the body, says Paul, constitutes our investiture.
An investiture? Yes: in the resurrection of the body God confirms our royal status as his vice-regents in the kingdom of God. Just as in Genesis 1, humans bear the image of God to look after creation on his behalf, so now in the new creation we are invested with royal status to tend the new heavens and the new earth. Anyone who believes that the life of the world to come is simply one of singing around the throne of God is mistaken: there will be work to do, good work, as we care for the new creation to the glory of God.
Our receipt of a resurrection body is symbolic of this, for it is the clothing fit for the new heavens and the new earth. God has already promised us this status as his vice-regents in the new creation. Think of it as rather like the ways in which Prince Charles became Prince of Wales. He was actually created Prince of Wales by Letters Patent on 26th July 1958, but he was not invested and did not have the coronet placed on his head until the actual investiture ceremony at Caernarfon Castle on 1st July 1969. So today we already have the promise that one day we will reign with Christ in the new creation. But the day on which we receive our resurrection bodies will be our investiture. It will be the public sign that we have the authority to exercise delegated power in the kingdom of God for ever.
You may feel insignificant now. You may count yourself unworthy of the attention of Rupert Murdoch’s army of phone hackers. Hello magazine may never ask to do a photo spread of your beautiful home. Count yourself blessed! For in God’s kingdom the disciple of Jesus is the most significant human being apart from Christ in all eternity. No wonder it was that earlier in this epistle Paul told the warring Corinthians that ‘we shall judge angels’. The resurrection says that our investiture is coming.
This is where it all ripples out from, then: our clothing in our resurrection body constitutes our investiture as God’s vice-regents in his new creation. What, though, are the implications? I offer two implications, and then an important conclusion.
The first implication is that of change. Remember the crèche quote –
We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed?
Hear that reference to ‘change’ which applies to everyone, and then hear what Paul says immediately afterwards. When and how will that universal change happen?
in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (Verse 52)
The resurrection of the body means complete, instantaneous change. Throughout our Christian lives we labour in co-operation with the work of the Holy Spirit to see our lives change, and to see our changed lives affect our world for the better. To our frustration, we do not see all the change we long for – either in ourselves, or in our world. But when we put on our resurrection body, the formal clothing of our investiture as God’s vice-regents, we are fully changed. This is the Good News of our future hope. As Paul put it in Philippians 1, God has begun a good work in us, and he will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus.
As a teenage Christian, I was bemused by a song written by the Christian singer Randy Stonehill called ‘Good News’. It said, ‘Good news, Christ is returning’, when I thought that the Good News was that Christ has died. Now I see that the promise of Christ’s return is the promise to complete the good news he has begun in us.
The story is told of the enthusiastic Christian who found himself sharing a railway carriage with a bishop. Being suspicious of these bishops – you never could be sure whether they were truly Christians – our enthusiastic friend asked this particular bishop, “Are you saved?”
Wisely, the bishop replied, “Do you mean ‘have I been saved’, ‘am I being saved’ or ‘will I be saved’? Because all are true.”
And the bishop was right. Being saved is more than the forgiveness of our sins. It is the transformation that then begins in this life but which will come to a climax in the resurrection of the body when God will complete the work he has begun in us, and when he will also transform all of creation. Salvation is comprehensive.
None of this is a reason for complacency now. Rather, it is a vision that inspires us now to see more of that change before we are clothed with our resurrection body. Let us anticipate God’s great future now, and let that be a sign to the world!
The second implication is of confirmation – confirmation, that is, of Jesus’ victory over death. Death is beaten, yes, but it isn’t just that death is conquered – it’s about who has conquered it:
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Verses 54-57)
The point is this: people have wanted to cheat death or deny death for centuries. At funerals, I sometimes get asked to read dreadful prose which contains lines such as ‘Death is nothing at all’, or ‘I did not die’. Russian Communist authorities kept treating the publicly displayed corpse of Lenin as if to suggest he was not really gone (and – ironically – to encourage veneration, despite their attacks on religion). Wealthy Westerners pay for their bodies to be cryogenically frozen, so that one day they might be cured of the disease that killed them. And it’s all rank nonsense.
Except over Jesus Christ. And because he has conquered death, we shall have victory over it too one day when our bodies are raised and clothed with immortality. Or should I say, not ‘Jesus Christ’ but the phrase Paul uses: ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘Our’ – because he is over his pilgrim people, the church. ‘Christ’ – because he is the fulfilment of Israel’s messianic hopes. And ‘Lord’ – because he is, and Caesar is not, and the whole world must bow to him. All must acknowledge him. And when we do, the fullness of God’s kingdom comes. His humble servant reign is everywhere to be experienced. The sorrows and injustices of this world will dissolve.
But it only happens with the embrace of ‘our – Lord – Jesus – Christ’, risen from the dead, who will raise us, too. No political schemes will bring in the kingdom, much as we must care about politics. No violence and superior firepower will bring in the kingdom. No pious hiding from the world will do it, either. But we anticipate our resurrection bodies, following the One who has already conquered death.
So – the pebble in the pond caused by our investiture as God’s vice-regents in the new creation as we are clothed with our resurrection bodies has led us to two significant ripples. One is then anticipation of change, in the completion of a comprehensive salvation. The other is its confirmation as the victory over death won solely by our Lord Jesus Christ means that all must bow the knee to his benevolent reign, and in this we shall see the fullness of the kingdom.
What conclusion should we draw from all this? Many Christians would end on a note of future hope of glory. Let’s look forward!
Not Paul. His conclusion, his application, is for the here and now:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (Verse 58)
The resurrection is the great doctrine of hope. Do you ever feel like jacking something in? Do you feel like giving up? This verse is for you. If you are plugging away at kingdom of God things, says Paul, then nothing is wasted. Death will not obliterate it. God will bring what you have done into his new creation, in a transformed way.
Maria Muldaur, the singer perhaps best known for ‘Midnight at the Oasis’, once recorded a gospel album. The track I always remember from it was called ‘Is my living in vain?’ If we’re honest, some of us Christians feel like that sometimes for a variety of reasons, some of them personal, some of them public or social. It just doesn’t feel worth it. A dark cloud descends and envelops us.
But Paul says, ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain’, and hence why he urges his readers ‘Always to give [themselves] fully to the work of the Lord’. The Resurrection is what will make it worthwhile.
And if I may speak personally, I want to tell you that this verse has been a life-saver for me. I have told some of you how my last appointment in the ministry was a terrible misfit. I wondered why God called us there. I still don’t have an answer for that. But what I do have is a promise here: ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ Whatever the reason was that God took us there, he will take it up and make it new in his kingdom. He will do the same for you as you cling on to him in your darkness.
But let me end with some beautiful words. My sermons in this series have been inspired by a book on 1 Corinthians by a favourite scholar of mine called Kenneth Bailey. In writing on this verse, he quotes a certain Bishop Bill Frey. And Frey’s words seem a fitting end to this sermon and to this series:
Hope is hearing the music of the future; faith is dancing to it today.