Redemption in Whole, not Part

1 Corinthians 15:29-50

Having made a logical argument for the reality of the general Resurrection, Paul turns to several practical examples to illustrate his point.  He begins by asking what those who receive baptism on behalf of the dead are doing if there is no Resurrection.  This is perplexing, mostly because there is no other reference to vicarious baptism in the New Testament.  Indeed, it’s not even consistent with Paul’s theology of baptism, which assumes a decision on the part of the person being baptized.  If we lay aside the fact that vicarious baptism seems to be a practice unique to the Corinthian community (and one that seems a little strange to us), then Paul’s point about the Resurrection is very clear: why on earth would you baptize someone on behalf of the dead if the dead are not raised?

Paul’s next example is much more resonant.  If there is no Resurrection of the dead, why would Christians risk their lives for the sake of the gospel?  Paul asserts that he dies every day; he risks his health and safety to make the good news of Jesus Christ known to the world.  Mere human hope would not have animated him to “fight the wild animals of Ephesus” (probably a metaphor), nor would it have caused him to be so concerned with the moral character of the Christian community.  If there is no Resurrection, then the Epicureans have it right: “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”  As if he were afraid that the Corinthians may have embraced this philosophy, Paul immediately enjoins the community to sober up and sin no more by quoting the Greek poet Menander.  He goes on to observe that “some people,” presumably those who have poor morals, have no knowledge of God.  Though Paul is saying this in order to “shame” the Corinthians, he is also making the important claim that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have made it possible to “sin no more.”  Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians would not have made any sense if Christ hadn’t destroyed the power of sin and death.  Paul elaborates upon this more in the letter to the Romans, but the most important effect of Christ’s Resurrection is the fact that it has made death powerless.

After offering some practical examples, Paul begins to address perhaps the most difficult question associated with the Resurrection of the dead.  He notes that someone might ask how the dead are raised; what might their body look like when they are raised from the dead?  Paul immediately dismisses this speculation as foolish, but it’s not a stupid question.  Indeed, theologians have spent centuries trying to figure out what the resurrected body might look like.  Paul, however, returns to the point we discussed yesterday: Resurrection is about transformation, and so the resurrected body will not look like anything that we can imagine.  Though the apostle’s example of a seed being sown in the ground represents a fundamental and typically first-century misunderstanding of horticulture (any farmer can tell you that seeds do not die before they germinate), the essence of his argument remains the same: the plant that sprouts looks nothing like the seed that is planted.  When a farmer sows, he does not sow “the body that is to be,” but something that on the surface bears little resemblance to what will eventually sprout.  Paul affirms that God gives each seed a body as God has chosen, even though the seed is different from the resulting plant.  Paul recalls the theme of diversity that he hammered home a few chapters before by noting that everything in creation is composed of different kinds of flesh;  even heavenly bodies are endowed with different “glories.”

By mentioning the diversities of flesh and heavenly bodies, Paul makes it clear that there are kinds of matter that are distinct from one another in the created universe.  In the same way, there is a distinction between the natural body and the resurrected body.  That which is sown is perishable, but that which is raised is imperishable.  Moreover, that which is sown in weakness will be raised in power (cf. the reference to God’s weakness in 1:25).  It’s important to grasp the next portion of Paul’s meditation on the resurrected body.  As Paul frames it, we received our physical nature through Adam, but we will receive a spiritual body from the last Adam, who is Jesus Christ.  For Paul, Adam and Christ bracket the entire scope of humanity; our physical existence came through Adam, but we will participate in the divine life through Jesus Christ.  Christ, in other words, is the final word in human history; Christ will remake our perishable physical nature into something imperishable and spiritual.  It’s important to observe what Paul does not say about the Resurrection.  Paul makes no reference to the soul; he does not claim that some eternal kernel within us will survive and be brought to heaven.  Indeed, this would be inconsistent with his argument; no part of the body we currently have will be untransformed.  Rather, Paul claims that our entire selves, bodies and all will be remade so that our physical nature will be changed and we will “bear the image of the man of heaven.”  This is why Paul refers to Christ as the “last Adam:” God has remade us through Jesus Christ in order that Christ might become the new ancestor of humanity.

“Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death.” — C.S. Lewis

Last year, I had the great privilege of working on a Master’s thesis about the intersection between the theologies of Paul and Rowan Williams.  While it was a wonderfully enriching academic experience, I got to the point where I was the most annoying person at lunch.  This was not because my friends and colleagues did not want to hear about my work; it was because I had the tendency to quote Paul at the slightest provocation.  In the most extreme case, I quoted the apostle when I went to the post office to ship a package.  When the clerk asked me if the package contained anything perishable, my response was “what is sown is perishable, but what is raised is imperishable.”  Though she didn’t get the reference, she smiled and proceeded to calculate the rate to ship the package (she was used to seminarians acting strange).

On one level, I was trying to be funny when I quoted 1 Corinthians 15:42 at the post office.  On another deeper level, however, I was unintentionally highlighting one of the most challenging aspects of the gospel.  Many Christians, particularly those who are most vocal in our culture, portray the Resurrection as some kind of divine rescue operation; those who are righteous will be scooped up and carried to a heavenly country where they will be fitted for wings and a halo.  Others seem to indicate that the only part of our being that will survive for eternity is an immortal soul, something that is distinct and ultimately separate from our bodies.  In some ways, these are images that comfort us.  They give us a vision of the Resurrection that is untainted with the challenge of other people or those parts of ourselves that limit us or make us uncomfortable.  In other words, they try to make sense of the Resurrection using human standards.  But these images are not consistent with the theology of the Resurrection.  As Christians, we believe that we will be raised with our entire redeemed bodies, even those parts of our bodies that we regard as low and bestial in this life.  Yesterday, we noted that the Resurrection is not a divine escape clause, but a transformation of our very selves.  Today, we are affirming that the Resurrection does not change just one particular part of us, but transforms our entire bodies.  Resurrection does not remove us from creation; it is the means by which creation is made new.  Our bodies may not be recognizable in the Resurrection (just look at the Resurrection appearances of Jesus in the gospels; no one recognized him until he made himself known), but our whole self and the whole world will be redeemed.  This is critically important: though we were weak in this life, we will be made strong.  Though we were plagued by illness in this life, we will be filled with health and wholeness.  Though this world was susceptible to the power of sin and death, this very same world will be remade into a place where death shall have no more dominion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.