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.
A plague on the X-Factor, with its manufactured music and manufactured hype to get the Christmas Number One. (Not that any of these things are new.) So a campaign to usurp it, like the previous one to get Jeff Buckley‘s version of Leonard Cohen‘s ‘Hallelujah‘
up the charts, rather than Alexandra Burke‘s, is something I would welcome.
But more positively, it set me thinking about what would be on my personal Christmas playlist.
For fun, you have to have Dylan. Yes, really: the old goat is laugh-a-minute. The recent ‘Must be Santa’ has to be in there:
Bruce Cockburn‘s ‘Christmas‘ CD from the 1990s was pretty stunning. ‘Joy to the world’ is but one of the gems – unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to add the video into WordPress either directly or indirectly, so click here or possibly here to see it. Anyway, you won’t be surprised to find Cockburn in this list, since this blog’s name is inspired by him!
Back to the daft, and I have an irrational affection for ‘I Want An Alien For Christmas’ by the Fountains Of Wayne:
And for real Christmas kitsch, there’s nothing like a pseudo-Phil Spector sound, so over to Bruce Springsteen for ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’:
Or for the real thing, Darlene Love and ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’:
I mean, you just don’t need Mariah Carey, do you?
Of the mainstream big Christmas hits, there’s something I like about the guitar sound on Chris Rea‘s ‘Driving Home For Christmas’:
But where’s the Christian stuff? Randy Stonehill has written a couple. I can’t find a video online of ‘Christmas Song For All Year Round’, but someone has put pictures to the poignant ‘Christmas At Denny’s’:
For Christian cynicism about the commercial season, I can’t trace a video by Larry Norman himself of his song ‘Christmastime’, but here is Stonehill’s version, complete with the immortal lines
Christmastime is coming and the kids are getting greedy
They know it’s in the store because they’ve seen it on the TV
Well, that’s just some random stuff from me. What do you love at this time of year? What can’t you stand?
“This is my friend David Lewis, whom I’ve never met before.”
Those of you who came to the recent demonstration of the Digital Hymnal may remember me using those words. David, the minister of Hutton and Shenfield Union Church, brought the equipment to show us what it could do. I knew David through Internet connections – Facebook, Twitter and his blog. But before that evening we had never met. I had seen photos of him, I knew what his work was and had some idea of his interests. But I had never actually met him.
On Advent Sunday, we think in similar terms about Jesus. We know him, but we have never met him face to face. Yet on Advent Sunday, our thoughts traditionally go not to his first coming in the Incarnation but his ‘second coming’ – although the expression ‘second coming’ is not a biblical one. The main Greek words used in the New Testament mean his ‘appearing’ or his ‘royal presence’. Right now he is hidden from us and we know him from the Scriptures, the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments and what we see of his work in others and in creation, but we have not seen him. Advent Sunday is when we look forward to seeing him when he appears.
So we turn to these words in Luke 21, a chapter where Jesus addresses all sorts of world-changing events – the Resurrection, the coming fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the ‘second coming’ – or, if you prefer, ‘the appearing of his royal presence’. What does Jesus say to his followers?
Firstly, he gives his followers a sign:
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ (Verses 25-28)
Is this a weather forecast? No. you don’t expect these verses to be followed by someone saying, “And tomorrow will be windy with scattered showers.” Rather, various Old Testament prophets referred to the ‘Day of the Lord’ having cosmic portents involving the sun, moon and stars – there are echoes here of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel.
So is it a sign of the Last Judgment? You might think so when you read about ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with great power and glory: that fits our stereotypes about Christ’s return. Except … it’s a quotation from Daniel 7, and the context is one of vindication after suffering. Which makes the more likely context here not the Second Coming but the Resurrection.
So – the Resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the Second Coming. Why? Because the Resurrection was the first evidence of God making all things new. Jesus received his resurrection body, just as others will at the End.
What does that mean for us? It means that in the Resurrection we already have the guarantee that God will renew creation and bring justice. The Resurrection is what the New Testament calls the ‘first fruits’ – it’s the harvest that happened in late Spring which reassured people the main harvest would come at the end of the summer. For us, then, the Resurrection means we know Jesus will appear again, and God will put right all that is broken and that contradicts his will. Because we are Easter people, we are also Advent people.
When I was a teenage Christian, I discovered the music of an American Christian singer called Randy Stonehill. The last song on one of his albums was called ‘Good News’. I expected a song called ‘Good News’ to be about the Cross, but it was about the Second Coming. ‘Good news, Christ is returning,’ sang Stonehill.
And now I think he was right. The coming of Christ is good news, because it means all will be well. And we believe that because we have the sign of the Resurrection. So when injustice prevails, remember Jesus is risen and will come again. When suffering overwhelms, remember Jesus is risen and is returning. This is a doctrine of hope for the Christian.
Secondly, Jesus gives his followers a parable, the story of the fig tree:
Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Verses 29-33)
I have two problems with this story: firstly I am no gardener, and secondly I don’t like figs. However, it is clear even to a garden-phobic, fig-hating person like me that there is a simple principle at work in this parable. When a tree sprouts leaves, you know what is coming: it is certain.
What does that mean for the followers of Jesus? I think it means this: the purposes of God are certain. When God sets out to accomplish his great plans for creation and for humanity, they will be fulfilled. I am not suggesting that God dictates everything and that we are mere pawns, nor do I believe that our every action is predestined. What I believe is simply this: that God has free will and we have free will, but God’s power means he has more free will than us, and he uses it to further his purposes of salvation. As the fig tree sprouts and later summer comes, so God speaks and his words do not pass away.
How do we respond to this parable? In rather similar ways to the sign of the Resurrection. We respond with hope and with humble confidence. We put our lives in the hands of the God who promises to work for good in all things with those who love him, those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
So this is a parable of hope for the disciples of Jesus. Those of us who entrust our lives into his hands and follow him know that a good outcome is promised for creation. Suffering will not render life meaningless. Evil will not prevail. Things may happen which cause our pulse rate to rise and worries to increase, but in the midst of the anxiety God offers us peace, because his Son is risen from the dead and is coming again. Be encouraged! As the communion liturgy says, ‘Lift up your hearts – we lift them to the Lord.’ And, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’
Thirdly and finally, Jesus gives his followers an exhortation:
‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’ (Verses 34-36)
What is the essence of this exhortation? To me, it is a call to a disciplined life. ‘Be on guard,’ says Jesus. Don’t have a lifestyle of dissipation and drunkenness. ‘Be alert.’ These are the watchwords of lives with a focus, a focus on Christ, and therefore matched with a discipline to keep that focussed concentration on him and not on sin or a casual approach to life. The watching and alertness are not about working out exactly when Jesus will return, but about keeping our eyes fixed on him in our lives.
So the way to prepare for the coming of Christ is not to work out a celestial timetable, but to concentrate our efforts on doing what pleases him. We do that in contrast to a lifestyle of ‘dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life’, as Jesus puts it – which remains a very contemporary challenge.
The temptation to ‘dissipation’ or self-indulgence is all around us, but Jesus calls us to self-discipline and self-denial. The life of the world to come will not be a hairshirt one, but it will be one where joy and pleasure are based not on what I get, but on what I give. So let’s get in tune with it now.
The temptation to ‘drunkenness’ is not merely about alcohol, but about addiction to all sorts of things from drugs to food to shopping to relationships. Often our addictions mask pain in other areas of our lives, but Jesus calls us to face that pain and find healing with him. Then we can let go of damaging habits and live a life that anticipates the healing found in God’s kingdom.
As for ‘the worries of this life’, our whole consumer society is based on feeding those worries. It isn’t that Christians can’t enjoy good things, but an obsession with them is counter again to the values of God’s kingdom, where true riches are found in other things, notably the fruit of the Spirit as God renews people to be more like his Son. Those are what the Christian will chase.
So in conclusion, Advent is a time of hope for the Christian. As we recall Christ’s first coming and anticipate his appearing again, God’s action in the Resurrection gives a certainty to our hope. His purposes of love are certain and we are in his hands. That means we respond by reordering our lives according to the purposes of his kingdom, which means living distinctive lives –counter-cultural lives. May the hope of Christ’s coming give us the passion to do so.
 Tom Wright, Surprised By Hope, chapter 8.