The Impotence of Death

1 Corinthians 15:50-58

Throughout this chapter, Paul has made an effort to explain that the resurrection of the dead is not something that fits within our human expectations of the world.  The Corinthian assumption was that the Resurrection was impossible and unpalatable: why on earth would we want to be raised to the life that we currently live?  Paul, however, makes it clear through his response that the Resurrection of the dead is not about mere resuscitation; the Resurrection is about transformation.  Our bodies will be changed from something perishable that is sown in dishonor to something imperishable that is raised in glory.  The Corinthians could not conceive of this world or their bodies intersecting with the eternal, because they could not understand that the Resurrection was ultimately about our bodies being given an utterly new life.  They could not see that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had ushered in an entirely new creation.

In his summary statement, Paul acknowledges the Corinthian objection that our mortal flesh cannot intersect with the eternal: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”  Nevertheless, we who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ will inherit the imperishable kingdom of God.  Paul himself admits that this is a “mystery:” something formerly hidden about the nature of God that has been disclosed through the Christ event.  The trumpet, the traditional sign of the day of the Lord, will sound and the dead will be raised with imperishable bodies; we will all be changed.  Paul says this a necessity; when the creation is made new through Christ’s return (known as the parousia, from the Greek for “presence”), we must be given imperishable bodies and “put on immortality.”  Once we have done this, the power of death will be completely nullified.  Paul uses Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 to make this point.  In the verse from Hosea, the speaker is taunting death from a safe vantage point: “Where is your sting, O death!?  I am safe from you and you cannot hurt me!”  Paul, in other words, is lampooning death, which can only be done from a position of safety.  Death no longer has any power over us; sin has been laid to waste and we have been freed from the law through the cross of Jesus Christ.  (Though Paul does not elaborate upon the relationship between sin, death, and the law, they are intertwined in Pauline theology.  The law is the power of sin because it makes us aware of our sinfulness and our inability to overcome our sinful nature.  While the law is not bad in itself, Paul does not believe that it frees us from sin; only the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can do that).  The power of death has been defeated, and Paul gives thanks to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Incidentally, a phrase similar to this appears in several other places in Paul’s letters (cf. Romans 7:25), so it may have been familiar to his congregations.  As this letter was read, we might imagine the entire community reciting these familiar words that give thanks for what God has done in Jesus Christ.

The final verse of this chapter might seem anticlimactic after the rousing and elevated tone of Paul’s concluding paragraph.  After expounding upon the centrality of the Resurrection, however, it is important for Paul to remind the Corinthians that it is only through the Resurrection that their hope and their faith are not “in vain.”  Moreover, in the words of Richard Hays, Paul wants to make the point that the Resurrection is the foundation for faithful action in the world.  It is impossible for the Corinthians to be the community Paul calls them to be throughout this letter if they do not trust in the Resurrection of the dead.  In other words, this final verse brings Paul’s argument full circle; the Christian community derives its unity from a common faith in Christ’s resurrection, the redemption of our bodies, and the ultimate defeat of death.

“What do we find God ‘doing about’ this business of sin and evil?  God did not abolish the fact of evil; He transformed it.  He did not stop the Crucifixion; He rose from the dead.” — Dorothy Sayers

It’s hard to read this passage without hearing the thrilling baritone aria that Handel places toward the end of the Messiah.  Handel’s music not only captures the unbridled joy associated with the Resurrection, it also always signals a change in the piece.  Whenever the soloist begins to sing “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” there is invariably a subtle shift in the performance.  The audience sits up a little straighter and the choir gets ready to sing the final chorus.  This shift may occur because the piece is almost over, but I like to think that singing about the Resurrection has a transformative effect on those gathered for the performance.  Something about the central mystery of the Christian faith encourages us to listen more closely and prepare for a change.

There is, unquestionably, much death in this world.  Every day around the world, children die from starvation and treatable diseases.  Every day, soldiers fight and die in dangerous and unfamiliar places.  Every day, people die under oppressive regimes that trample their right to self-determination.  Every day, teenagers are gunned down for “suspiciously” walking through a neighborhood.  Every day, men and women die with their bodies riddled with cancer.  In the face of all this death, it is easy for us to despair.  It is easy to throw up our hands and withdraw from the world, so that we do not have to get hurt.  This, however, would not be faithful to the gospel.  The central mystery of our faith is that even though death is a part of our daily experience of life, death has no power over us.  Even though we live in a world that is broken by human division, we can trust that God is transforming the world and bringing about a new creation where we will be in unity with one another.  God never promised that suffering and death would not be a part of our lives, but God did promise that suffering and death have lost all their power through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As Dorothy Sayers put it, God did not stop the crucifixion; he rose from the dead.  Part of our call as Christians is to enter into community with one another, to participate in the Resurrection by loving wastefully and understanding that we are connected to everyone in creation by the grace of God in Christ.  As we approach these final days of Holy Week, I invite you to remember that through his sufferings, Christ has ensured that our sufferings have no power over us.  And I invite you to think of Easter as that baritone aria at the end of Messiah, a signal that a change is coming.  Death has no more dominion; we are being remade.


One thought on “The Impotence of Death

  1. Yesterday I saw a Christian teen wearing a skull design on her sweater. I said, “Why on earth would you wear a death symbol?” She said that she hadn’t really thought about it, that she wore it only because it’s the fashion. I suggested that she sew a red bar across it to show that death has been defeated–fashion with a message! She loved the idea. We’ll see if it catches on!

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