1 Corinthians 15:12-28
In the previous passage, Paul established the fundamental confession of the Christian faith: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised, all in accordance with the scriptural and prophetic witness. Paul, presupposing that the Corinthians assume this to be the essential Christian proclamation, is incredulous as he asks how some of the Corinthians can say that there is no resurrection of the dead. To be clear, the Corinthians did not deny that Christ has been raised; rather, some members of the community did not believe that we would be raised from the dead in a general Resurrection. As far as Paul is concerned, however, this latter claim is incompatible with the confession that Christ has been raised. He illustrates his point with a step by step argument: if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then the Christian proclamation and the Church’s faith are both in vain. Moreover, a denial of the resurrection of the dead is a misrepresentation (literally “a false witness”) of God himself; if there is no resurrection of the dead, then it is false to claim that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Furthermore, Paul argues that Christ’s death cannot be saving without the Resurrection; if Christ has not been raised, we are still in our sins and our faith is futile. If Christ has not been raised, then those who were “in Christ” when they died have utterly perished. If Christ has not been raised, then the Christian hope is based on a lie and Christians are “most to be pitied.” While Paul may seem to be overstating his argument, his rhetorical point is very clear: the “message about the cross” (1:18) is has no meaning if there is no Resurrection.
We might wonder why. It might seem that affirming the Resurrection of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with our Resurrection. Jesus’ Resurrection could be the story of a hero who escaped the jaws of death, a story that is supposed to teach us to bear up in the face of adversity. Indeed, this is the kind of story that the cultured and philosophically-oriented Corinthians might have expected. Paul, however, recalls an illustration that he used in 9:10, suggesting that Christ is the “first fruits” of those who have died. The Resurrection of Jesus must logically herald a more complete Resurrection of the dead. It is important to understand Paul’s logic: if Christ is raised from the dead, but there is no general Resurrection, then the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is an isolated incident that only benefits him. For Christ’s death and resurrection to have any meaning for us, therefore, Christ must be the “first fruits” of those who have fallen asleep. If Christ’s death and resurrection are saving, then Christ must be the trailblazer, the one who gives us the blueprint for salvation, where we die to our sins and are raised to newness of life.
Paul goes on to make the point that all die in Adam, so all must be made alive in Christ Jesus. This verse has historically been used as a proof text the doctrine of original sin, the theological construct that suggests that our sinful nature was inherited from our ancestor Adam. While Paul would not deny the pervasiveness of human sinfulness, he does not use the example of Adam’s disobedience to explain the mechanics of how human beings became sinful. Paul mentions Adam because like Christ, he is a trailblazing figure: death came into the world through Adam, but Christ has made Resurrection possible.
Paul continues by suggesting that like worship in the Christian community, Resurrection will occur “decently and in order.” Christ is the first fruits; after his return those who “belong to Christ” will also be raised up. Then comes “the end” (which can also be translated “the rest”), after which the kingdom of God will be ushered in. The authorities of this world, including death, will be stripped of their power, and God will “put all things in subjection under his feet.” Interestingly, Paul suggests that even the Son will be subjected to God the Father, so that “God may be all in all.” Paul’s vision of the Resurrection is a moment when all of creation will be brought into unity with God. He does not explain what this will look like, but he seems to imply that the kingdom of God is not something that human beings will be able to recognize easily. All of our illusions of power and authority will fall by the wayside; Paul even suggests that the lordship of Jesus Christ will be folded into the unlimited majesty of God. Everything in creation will be redeemed and become part of God’s eternity; what we know will cease to be as we abide in the unmediated presence of the living God.
“Some people probably think of the Resurrection as a desperate last moment expedient to save the Hero from a situation which had got out of the Author’s control.” — C.S. Lewis
Today’s gospel reading came from John 12, the scene where Jesus visits Mary, Martha, and Lazarus for dinner and Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with burial ointment. I think that the most striking thing about this story is what happened immediately before: Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. After that miraculous defiance of death, we might expect Lazarus to realize that he has a new lease on life and do things he never thought of doing. John tells us, however, that Lazarus goes back to his daily life: he returns home and invites a friend over for dinner. It’s odd in some respects, but I think that this story from John’s gospel might shed some light on the Corinthian confusion about the Resurrection. When Lazarus is resuscitated, he returns to his life as if nothing had happened. If we think of Resurrection in this way, we might wonder what the point is; why on earth would we want to be raised from the dead if we just have to go back to the daily grind of our existence? The key difference, however, is that Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again. Lazarus was resuscitated and given the life that he once had, but Paul tells us that the ultimate Resurrection heralded by Jesus Christ transforms life as we know it. Though we will see this in the coming days, Paul affirms that Resurrection is less about rescuing us from death and more about transformation. Skeptics often perceive the Christian belief in the Resurrection as faith in a kind of magic. C.S. Lewis summarizes the skeptical position well when he suggests that some might imagine that Christians believe that God rescued Jesus from the jaws of death as a last resort. The substance of our faith, however, affirms that Resurrection was part of God’s vision to restore humanity in God’s image. Resurrection is not about magical intervention, but about God’s transformation of our very selves. I hope that we can keep this in mind as we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection. As we walk the way of the cross this Holy Week, may we come to understand that Christ’s obedience to the point of death was not meant to restore us to the life that we have now, but has given us an opportunity to be completely transformed.