I Corinthians 15:12-26
ďWhat If Itís Not True?Ē
April 12, 2009 - Easter
†††††††† ďAnd what about the Easter Bunny?Ē Thatís what our daughter Susan, age 6, asked us after we explained to her the facts about Santa Claus, trying to preempt a more painful disclosure by another child at school. Hearing the truth about the fat man in the red suit, she pretty quickly put two and two together and deduced that the big white rabbit with the basket of eggs might be in the same category.
†††††††† It was a good moment for us as parents because Susan took it well. She laughed and shook her little head in amazement at Daddy and Mommyís ability to pull off these little charades every year. Discovering that her beliefs about Santa and the Bunny were not true did not dampen the joy of Christmas or Easter for her at all. She grew up into Christian faith and a deep appreciation of what those holidays really mean. But what if even those Christian beliefs were not true? Sunday evening some of us heard atheist Christopher Hitchens put our Christian faith in the category of childhood story and fantasy. What if heís right? What if itís not true?
†††††††† Thatís exactly what Paul asks us to consider in our text today. What if all this that weíre celebrating this morning is not true? The empty tomb, the risen Jesus appearing to Mary and Peter, the nail prints in the living flesh of His handsówhat if itís all just a cleverly concocted story that has deceived millions of people for 2,000 years? What if itís not true?
†††††††† In I Corinthians 5:12, Paul started down that depressing chain of thought because some Christians in Corinth were doubting one particular part of the whole story. They were willing to believe that Christ was raised from the dead, but were having a hard time accepting that Christians will rise from the dead. So, he says in verse 13, suppose thatís the case, suppose ďthere is no resurrection of the dead.Ē
†††††††† Now, here at Valley Covenant Church, we recite the words from the Creed, ďI believeÖ in the resurrection of the body,Ē at least once a month. It might seem as if their problem, in Corinth, is not our problem. None of us are saying that there is no resurrection of the dead. Or are we?
†††††††† A Christian scholar named N. T. Wright and many others have recently been trying to remind us that our usual talk about what happens when we die is not quite what Paul has in view here, not quite what we regularly recite in the Creed, not quite what Easter faith is all about. What do we regularly say happens to a Christian who dies? She goes to heaven, right? Sheís with the Lord, right? Yes, and yes, but thatís not the whole story. Thatís not quite the substance of Christian hope.
†††††††† Going to heaven is not the whole story because when a person dies and goes to heaven, his body is left on earth. God willing, we bury that body, lay it to rest, but then we forget about it. We picture our departed loved ones as just that, departed into heaven and now happy and complete. Theyíve already arrived where they will be forever, they already enjoy all the blessings of Godís kingdom. We may speak of eventually going to join them there, of being reunited with those we love in heaven. Thatís our idea of hope. We want to go to heaven.
†††††††† Please hear this clearly. There is much truth in the picture I just painted. If you believe in Christ you will go to heaven to be with Him when you die. But that is not our ultimate goal. Thatís not what weíre celebrating today on Easter morning. Heaven is not our last and best hope as Christians. Our real hope is richer and better even than heaven.
†††††††† Itís not a uniquely Christian thing to believe in life after death. Hindus and Muslims believe in it, and even some atheists think advances in technology may one day allow us to revive a human mind in a computer. Hundreds of years before Jesus, Socrates and Plato argued persuasively for life after death, because the human soul is the sort of thing that just has to live forever. Itís not a distinctively Christian belief, nor is it the hope which brings us together on Easter Sunday.
†††††††† The true hope of Christian faith, which the Corinthians were having trouble with and which we downplay and forget in all our talk about going to heaven, is that God will raise our bodies from the dead, just like He raised Jesusí body from the dead. As Christians, we believe that being in heaven without a body is a temporary condition, a time of waiting, an incomplete state that still looks forward to what God will finally do. The Creed doesnít say we believe in the immortality of the soul, though we do. What we really believe in is the resurrection of the dead. Thatís what Paul was so worked up about here in I Corinthians 15. Itís what Iím worked up about this morning.
†††††††† Verses 13 through 19 are what logicians call a reductio ad absurdum. Paul starts with the idea that the dead are not raised and shows that it reduces to an absurd, even pitiful conclusion. First, in verse 13, if we donít believe in the raising of the dead, then we canít believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. Thatís the key point. He repeats it again in verse 16, ďFor if the dead are not raised, Christ has not been raised either.Ē
†††††††† And if Christ has not been raised, all sorts of ugly deductions follow: in verse 14, that preaching is useless and so is faith; in verse 15 that the whole thing is a terrible lie; in verse 16 that faith is futile and our sins have not been forgiven; in verse 18 that those who have already died are lost; and finally in verse 19, if the dead are not raised, if our only hope is this life, then Christians are the most pitiful people of all.
†††††††† Thereís no in between according to Paul. Itís all or nothing. Thatís the great service which outspoken atheists like Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett do for us. They make us see that if we donít believe the whole story, donít believe that God raised Christ and that He will raise us too, then our faith is a complete lie, a travesty, a futile game we play that does no one any good. Thereís no half-way. We canít stop with just going to heaven. Real faith goes on to believe and hope and trust in the rising of the dead.
†††††††† As we struggle with life in the world of 2009, we need the better hope, the real faith. It might be easy when youíve lost your job or your house or health to want the half-way deal. Letís just leave these bodies and this world behind and all go to heaven. It might be comforting to think in the midst of global warming and a failing world economy and rising levels of violence and war that all we really want is to escape into the spiritual presence of God. It might feel pretty good to sing along with The Animals, ďWe gotta get out of this place, if itís the last thing we ever do,Ē and hope it is the last thing we ever do.
†††††††† Yet what we actually sang this morning is, ďChrist the Lord is risen today!Ē Thatís what Paul practically shouts from the page as he writes verse 20, ďBut Christ has indeed been raised from the deadĒ! Itís what we read in our Gospel lesson from John 20 this morning. Mary and Peter, then all the disciples saw him. As Paul tells us in verse 6 just before our text, he appeared to more than 500 eyewitnesses, most of whom were still alive and available for interviews.
†††††††† He showed them His hands and side, John tells us. He ate fish. He sat by a little charcoal fire on the beach and talked with Peter. Jesus did not leave His body behind. He did not escape from this hard, troubled physical world and float off to heaven as pure spirit. No, He rose in His body from the dead, with all the marks of crucifixion still on Him. And God means to do the same for us. Thatís the real deal. Thatís our whole and complete hope. We are to be raised with Christ.
†††††††† Thatís why Paul proclaims ďBut Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.Ē We believe Jesus is risen as the first of many. Weíre not looking forward to leaving our bodies and this world behind. Weíre looking forward to rising again in our bodies and living in this world forever. That is the Christian hope. Thatís the real message of Easter.
†††††††† Yes, I hear some of you. This Easter message may not sound so hopeful if your body is giving you problems, or if this world doesnít feel much like a place you want to be. If youíve struggled with a handicap all your life, or if where you live is a hard place, you may be very ready just to get out of there and fly off to heaven as a spirit set free.
†††††††† Yet the hope we have in Jesus Christ is that Heís not going to simply rescue us out of the world, out of our bodies. Heís going to rescue us, bodies, world and all. If He just wanted to yank us out of here into heaven, He could have done that without leaving His comfy throne in heavenís living room. But He wanted to save us completely, soul and body, For that He had to become one of us, had to be in our world, had to accept a body Himself, had to die on the Cross, and had to rise from the dead. All because He would not abandon our bodies or our world.
†††††††† At least one family here is going to lose their home soon. What a painful day that will be. To empty it out of all your furniture and belongings. To close and lock the door on all those memories, the rooms where you loved and played and ate and grew up together. To just walk away and leave it for the bank. What agony. My heart goes out to you. Itís like dying. Itís a lot like dying.
†††††††† Even if a Christian goes to heaven, the body gets left behind. Those arms that hugged, those eyes that sparkled, those legs that ran and that mouth that laughed and cried and sang and spoke and tasted so much good food will all be left in the ground. Thatís the very real agony of death. It feels like it doesnít matter if a soul is alive in heaven. You close the lid on the coffin. Itís lowered into the ground, and you walk away from precious, dear flesh and blood.
†††††††† Thatís exactly why the Christian hope is better and more complete than mere immortality of the soul. Because Christ is risen, we know that God does not abandon our flesh and blood, the beloved bodies of our friends and family. Heís going to save them, just like He saved Jesusí own body. And Romans chapter 8 and Revelation chapter 21 teach us that He will also save the world our bodies live in.
†††††††† So the hope and promise of Easter is largely yet to come. Christ is indeed risen. Thatís already happened. But verses 21-24 look ahead to what will happen. ďSince through a man came death, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.Ē But it hasnít quite happened yet. Thatís why verse 23 cautions us, ďBut each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.Ē And itís only now do we read in verse 24, ďThen the end will come.Ē
†††††††† It ainít over till itís over. It ainít over when a Christian dies and goes to heaven. Thatís just the beginning. It ainít over until the sky breaks open and our risen Lord comes down again to raise us up like He was raised. It ainít over until all Godís people who have ever lived join Him in this world Heís going to re-create. It ainít over until He takes our risen bodies and our remade world and ďhands over the kingdom to God the Father.Ē
†††††††† Iím glad to believe that my mother is in heaven with Jesus now. But Iím even happier that there will be a day when I see her again, red hair, fair skin, freckles and all. I expect to be totally surprised and overwhelmed with joy one day when Beth and I greet in the flesh the child we never knew, an unborn baby lost between the births of Susan and Joanna.
†††††††† A baby never born and a 79 year old woman. It raises all sorts of questions. What shape will our resurrected bodies be in? How old will we look? Hugo of St. Victor thought we would all appear about 30 years old, because thatís the age of Jesus when He began His ministry. At 53, that sounds pretty good to me. Maybe itís not so great if youíre seventeen. But we donít know. Scripture doesnít answer all our questions. What we do know is what Paul says later in chapter 15: our resurrected bodies will be imperishable, immortal. Each one of us will be whole and complete and as beautiful and strong as God meant us to be.
†††††††† I could go on. I look forward to seeing my grandmotherís slightly crooked smile again. I expect to see the small form of our old friend Ellis, a little person, but he will be standing straighter than he was ever able to before. Iíd like to greet the fat bulk of Thomas Aquinas and the wiry thin frame of Francis of Assisi. I kind of hope C. S. Lewis will have a pipe clenched between his teeth when I meet him. Iíd love to see Mother Teresaís marked and wrinkled old face smoothed into lasting beauty.
†††††††† Most of all, though, what we hope to see and hear and touch with raised and renewed and perfect bodies is the glorified shape of the One who made it all possible. As our text for next Sunday from I John says the first believers did, we look forward to seeing His face, to hearing His voice, to touching His hand. We will rise and meet Him not just in spirit, but in the flesh.
†††††††† In the meantime, you and I have a mission. God raised Christ from the dead because He cares about our bodies and our world. Heís not going to let death foreclose on our flesh and blood or on our planet. Instead, Heís going to make them into His kingdom. Verse 24 tells us Jesus will destroy, ďall dominion, authority and power.Ē Verse 25 says, ďFor he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.Ē
†††††††† Jesus is going to raise and redeem and remake our bodies and our world. Heís going to reign over a kingdom where no one will be forced out of their home, no one will go hungry, and no one will suffer the pain of cancer or the embarrassment of a handicap. Heís at work building and getting ready for that kingdom right now.
†††††††† That means we are called to live as people who plan to be here in Jesusí kingdom forever. Weíre not going to lock the doors and finally walk away from body and world. If we leave for awhile, we believe weíre coming back. Weíre going to live here again. Itís our Christian mission to do our best to leave things in good order.
†††††††† Verse 26 tells us, ďThe last enemy to be destroyed is death.Ē Thatís why we are called to be people of life, people who work for bringing life into this world that Jesus came to save. Now is the time to plant trees, to heal bodies, to clean up rivers, and to build houses for those who have none. Now is the time for Christians to show everyone else what the kingdom of God looks like and help them discover and feel the hope we have. Now, as the economy is falling and people are dying, is the time to preach that Christ is risen, and that He is coming to raise us up with Him. Now is the time to tell our world the truth.
†††††††† And I invite each one of you to believe that truth. Maybe you never have before. Maybe you just had a halfway hope of getting to heaven somehow. But Christ is risen! Thereís no halfway. If itís not true, then weíre all pitiful fools. But if it is true, if it is true, then itís the only thing worth all your hope, worth all your life. Please put your hope for the future in Jesus Christ.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj