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This past week, I attended the monthly Interim Pastor Group meeting of the Presbytery. At the end of the meeting, the topic of conversation lightened and the facilitator said to the group, “So, it seems that Donald Trump has his membership with the Presbyterian Church (USA). If he becomes the president and moves to Washington, which church do you think he would attend?” With quick wit and perfect delivery, the woman sitting next to me swatted me on the arm and piped up with, “What if he worshipped at Western?! Ha!! Can you imagine!?” The room erupted with laughter at the thought of it – but, I must say, I have been thinking about what that would be like.
I’ve gone to several different places with this idea – of Trump coming to worship at Western. First, I wondered about the murmurings would happen among you all – because you know you would be paying far more attention to him than any sermon preached up here that Sunday – and I wondered what you all might be thinking. Then, I went a little deeper – I wondered what we would say to him, as a community – would we speak of justice, of dignity – would we try to teach the lessons we have learned from Jesus to love God and to love neighbor? Or, would we speak of the power of the resurrection?
My first inclination would be to speak of justice and what it means to love neighbor—primarily because it would give us a chance to talk about the value of all God’s dear children – and frankly, it’s relatively easy to speak of ‘justice.’ And, if I’m being honest, explaining the resurrection is not at the top of my list of things I would like to say to Donald Trump – or at least it wasn’t, until I turned to this morning’s Scripture. And now, my imagination has taken me to a place to wonder what it would be like if we chose to speak about God’s power as we have come to know it through the resurrection. This would be a challenge because it would require quite a bit of vulnerability on our part – it would bring us into the conversation and it might change our perspective from assuming Trump is the only one in need of confession and assurance. It might require us to stand beside him as we all confess our sin and look to God’s power to redeem. But, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself…
Our Scripture lesson comes to us from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in chapter 15. To warn you, his language is a bit convoluted – you may want to read through it a couple of times to pick up his nuance – at the very least, you may want to read along. In our reading this morning, Paul concludes his theological lessons in this letter to a divided community in Corinth by talking about the resurrection – about the power God has in redeeming us out of the sin that permeates our bodies like embalming fluid does a corpse.
Paul is speaking to a specific audience, in a particular time and place. Yet despite the 2000 years that have passed since the letter was written, Paul has a Word for us today as well.
So, let us turn to Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15. We’ll read the first 26 verses and then skip head to verse 51, concluding with verse 58.
Let us pray: God of Life, God of Life Anew, tune our ears to hear Your Word. Expand within our hearts and our minds so that we might have deeper understanding of your love, of your power, of your hope. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
1 Corinthians 15: 1-26, 51-58
Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
55 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
This is a lot of the Word of God for the People of God – I know. So, let’s back up a bit and try to unpack the passage in stages.
We start with Paul explaining why he has written this letter – he tells them that he has received this message from the Lord and his call is to hand that message off to others. And, as he reminds them of his call, Paul reminds the people of the church in Corinth that they are a part of an on-going tradition, that, once again, “The proclamation of Christ’s death is not an invention [of his or theirs] but a recollection [that they participate in].” And in doing so, he highlights “the traditions of the community [that] unify the divisive Corinthians around one banner — namely their shared experience of belief in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:11)” (Shively Smith, Wesley Seminary, Washington, DC).
Throughout the entire letter, Paul seeks out common ground to unite the church. And, in our particular passage this morning, he starts with an assumption that the Corinthians share common ground in belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in some way, shape or form. And, he uses this common ground, this common belief, as a starting point to make the argument that if they believe in the resurrection of Christ, then they must also believe in the resurrection of believers. Now, I don’t know if this concept seems remarkable to you, but it certainly would have been tradition-upending stuff to the Corinthians – particularly in the way Paul suggests to consider resurrection.
You see, at that time, in the early church, there was an expectation of what God’s justice and reign would look like, and their belief in the resurrection of Jesus began primarily as a hope for the future as they wished to see it relative to justice. And, we can imagine this too. It is difficult to believe in a God of justice and fairness when violence and power seem to pervade our world with little hope of sustained peace or equality. The early believers had an expectation that the tables would turn, and they would turn dramatically, so that the wicked would be held accountable and the faithful would be rewarded. They had given up hope of judgment in this mortal life. All they had to do was look at Job, who suffered his entire life and never reaped any earthly justice. So instead, they looked with hope to judgment after death, and that logic led them to equate resurrection with judgment. Because if the resurrection and glorification of Jesus came after his death, then maybe they too would find their justice after death.
And to make matters even more complicated, although the people of Christian faith in Corinth looked with hopeful expectation to the resurrection, the Corinthians themselves were divided on what the resurrection meant for life after death. Some believed a person’s physical body would be raised from the dead so that the individual might receive their reward or punishment on judgment day – as Christ’s body was raised, so they would be raised. Others did not believe in the bodily resurrection of future believers. Though they did have belief in some kind of after-life: they believed in a spiritual resurrection—the soul going up to be with God—rather than a physical resurrection. And, here is where Paul enters the conversation.
Paul didn’t believe this life, the life in the flesh, is merely something to endure while waiting for reconciliation after death. So Paul implores his readers to consider that God’s power, as we know it through the resurrection of Jesus changes us all – here and now, and forever. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus and faith in God is not just about having hope for balancing the uneven scales of justice in some great reckoning. Rather, Paul invites us to consider that faith in God and belief in the resurrection of Jesus offers a different hope – a hope that we are not beholden to our sinful ways any longer – a hope that new life, right here on earth, in our lifetime, is what God desires for us. Because, you see, Jesus’ body was not merely resuscitated and then granted glory – no, Jesus was resurrected. And, in the resurrection of Christ, we witness God’s power to heal the wounds inflicted by sin. Paul invites us to consider that if Jesus, wounded and killed by humanity’s sin, can be healed and be made new, so can we – and we need not wait any longer.
Each one of us is a work in progress by the creative hand of God. And though we are called ‘good’ and we bear the name ‘Beloved Child,’ we are all prone to wander, prone to sin. And, each of us bears the wounds of sin – each of us guilty of some measure of selfish pride, of greed, of hatred, of complicity. Each of us has hurt another, each of us has denigrated our own selves. We are complicit in heeding popular messages about looking out for number one, and working to be winners so that we’re not losers. We make room for the daily rhetoric that boasts racist vitriol and violent retribution. And we call people “stupid” who believe differently than we do and categorize them as “others.”
Given the brokenness we experience in our own lives and in the world, we might feel like the Corinthians, wishing for a reckoning to even the scales of justice. We might blame God for not ushering in peace more quickly. And, we might adopt as a coping mechanism the belief that we simply must endure this life and have hope in a reckoning in the after-life. But, dear church, Paul challenges us to consider that while we are sinners, we are also forgiven and such forgiveness, such healing, resurrects us to new life, daily.
When it seems like we are in the depths of the tomb of sin, we have a hard time opening our eyes to see the light. We move deeper into places of self-loathing, or other-loathing, and we dwell in the darkened places of guilt. But, Paul reminds us, that even in the depths of the tomb, none of us is beyond God’s power to resurrect the goodness of our being. God’s redemptive power is greater than the grave of sin, greater than the grave of suffering. And, this, is where our hope lies. Because when we feel we are in the depths of the tomb, we can trust that the tomb is not the end of the story.
The resurrection changes us all. Because of God’s power to redeem that which is sinful, God’s power to raise up new life from the depths of death, we have the framework of reconciliation to work within – and this power changes us all. Paul challenges us to make the leap that if we believe in the resurrection of Christ’s body, then we must believe that God has the power to crucify the sin and darkness even today, resurrecting us with hope that we shall be healed and transformed and redeemed to new life. And, this, in fact, is the good news, dear church – that God still has the power to crucify the sin and darkness even today, resurrecting us with hope that we shall be healed and transformed and redeemed to new life – as individuals and as the Children of God.
So, if Donald Trump came and worshipped with us – would we speak of such good news? Would we stand beside him, confess our sins too and speak of God’s power to forgive, to transform, to heal, to resurrect life anew out of darkness and death? Boy, I hope we would – for truly, our hope is in the Lord – God of All, God of Life Everlasting. Amen.