“If Christ Has Not Been Raised”

April 21, 2013


I Corinthians 15:12-20, 53-58


After worship on Easter Sunday a member came down the stairs, shook my hand, and then said: “I’m wondering what it would be like if we didn’t have the resurrection. I mean,” He said, “We have the birth of Jesus, his teachings, his death—but what would it be like if we didn’t have the resurrection?” And he concluded: “That would make a good sermon!”

Of course, my first—and self-centered, grumpy—thought was: “What kind of person would ask me such a question right now? I’ve just finished leading worship and preaching sermons for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, which included the Sunrise Service. Right now, I don’t want to think about what might make a good sermon—or anything else.”

Of course, I didn’t say that. I smiled and said, “You’re right, Chris. It would make a good sermon. I’ll need to think about this.”

Well, by the time I got up to the study to take off my robe, I found, much to my surprise, that I was thinking about it, that it actually would make a good sermon, and that, indeed, it was just the question I needed to hear on Easter Sunday.

After all, it might be the question we were all asking three weeks ago. It might be the question that we are asking every Sunday. We come to worship wondering what it means to say, “Christ is risen” in a world where

as we saw again last week, tragic and senseless violence is real

 as we saw last week, incomprehensible accidents and disasters are real

as we saw last week, political weakness in the face of tragedy is real

as we see each week, death is very, very real.

Of course, if we didn’t have the resurrection, we probably wouldn’t have been standing in the entryway of this building talking on that Sunday three weeks ago. If those earliest, fearful followers of Jesus did not have the sure sense that he had been raised from death—whatever that might have looked like, whatever that might have meant—if the earliest followers of Jesus did not have a sure sense of resurrection, they would have hidden out for a few days after Jesus’ death, they would have returned to their fishing boats—and that would have been that. If we didn’t have the resurrection, Jesus would have been, at best, a footnote in the ancient world—an obscure, little known teacher and healer who met a gruesome and untimely end—because, really, without the resurrection, I think very few, if any people would have wanted to follow the way that Jesus taught or live the way that he lived.

I think it is safe to say that if we didn’t have the resurrection, the whole shape of the Western world—its history and its present would be quite different.

But I don’t think the question was really about alternative history and what the world might look like.

The question is really about what the world does look like and how we are best able to live in it.

It didn’t take long for me to remember that the question I was asked was, in a sense, the same question that Paul and the Christians in Corinth were asking within twenty or thirty years after the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead,” Paul asks, “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?”

The way Paul asks this question tells us much about the thinking of those people struggling with faith and life two thousand years ago. For the early Christians—for Paul, for the Corinthians—there was no doubt that Christ had been raised from death by the glorious power of God. That this one individual was resurrected was central to the faith they proclaimed and not in question. This affirmation sustained and encouraged them in the face of both persecution and even their own death.

As for the general resurrection of the dead, well that was a different matter. Some Jewish people looked with hope to the future resurrection of all people. This included most notably the Pharisees, with whom Jesus so often came into conflict. Paul himself was a Pharisee.

The idea of the resurrection developed over time in Judaism as a response to disaster and defeat. Slowly the people came to see that God’s justice and God’s love could not—indeed would not—be limited to this world alone. The resurrection at the end of the age would be a time of judgment and vindication.

We know, however, that the Sadducees, another Jewish group opposed to Jesus, denied a future resurrection of all people. So, too, did the general Greek and Roman population at the time in places like Corinth. This was most likely because, well, because they saw and knew—as we see and know in our own time—that dead people stay dead. They don’t rise again.

Such a denial of the resurrection had taken root among some within the church in Corinth. So Paul writes to these people asking in effect: “With the rest of us you say and believe that Christ has been raised from death. How, then can you not believe in the resurrection of the dead?

Jesus is the first, Paul says—an important first to be sure, but only the first of many who will enter into a new life that God is even now bringing into being. With the resurrection of Jesus, it was no longer a matter of waiting for the resurrection at the end of this present age. God was already doing something new.

Paul uses the image of first fruits—and you know what they are like. This time of year the strawberries start showing up in the grocery stores again. We know it’s early—really, too early—in the season for strawberries—in fact, I heard someone on the radio just this week asking if it was too soon to uncover his strawberry plants, what with the ongoing winter we’ve been having. (It isn’t, in case you’re wondering.)

We go to the store and find that those first strawberries are delicious, firm and sweet. They have that great strawberry smell that tells of warm days, green grass, and shady trees.

The wonderfully mysterious Brazilian Protestant theologian, Rubem Alves, says that first fruits awaken the appetite. They make us desire what is coming with more intensity. 

We can taste the goodness of that which is coming. Jesus is the first, Paul tells us. The risen Christ is a messenger of what is to come—life abundant, life eternal—evocative images of our existence in the presence of the holy.

Spring is the beginning, not the culmination. Just as the green shoots outside the front door of the church tell us of more life to come, so the Resurrection of Jesus comes as the first fruits of a promised new creation.

Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning, not the culmination of the Christian hope. The victory of Easter is not yet complete, but it is promised.

So this is where we begin to get an answer to the question.

Because we have the resurrection, we are given a future.

Remember what we have heard several times on recent Sundays—that Easter is the beginning of God’s new creation. This means not only for Jesus but also for us a new body no longer empowered by what the Greeks called the human psyche—the life force we all possess, that keeps us going but “is ultimately powerless against illness, decay and death.” God’s new creation includes the hope and the promise of a new body empowered by the pneuma, the spirit, the wind, the breath of God. This is the hope and expectation that drives all those Easter and Pentecost stories about the gift of God’s Spirit that the resurrected Jesus breathes upon his disciples, that comes upon us like a powerful wind.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrestled with what this body might be like. It’s hard to get a good picture of this, but Christians have always announced, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “the resurrection of the body.” The Christian belief in the resurrection of the body does not tell us that when we die our souls shall be released from the prison of our bodies and we shall go off to be with Jesus in some spiritual, Platonic heaven.

No, when we as Christians confess the resurrection of the body, we are affirming that the persons we are and the world that God created and called good are both moving toward a future in which all will be affirmed and made new by God’s love.

Because of the resurrection we can look forward to the future with hope

Because we have the resurrection, we also have this present in all its fullness.

With faith in the resurrection, Paul tells the Corinthians, Paul tells us, “Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Because we have the resurrection in our present lives, to be immovable is not to be stiff and resistant. It is to be flexible and resilient, active and involved—abounding in the work of God. You can give with abundance; you can love with abandon. You can give yourself to those you love, to the causes that claim your heart. You can walk in the way of peace in a world that celebrates violence; you can work for justice in a world that favors power and wealth; you can speak the truth in a world that prefers easy lies. You can laugh and sing and dance.

Each of us can do this because we know that in the resurrected Christ what we do in this life is not in vain. The good that we do does not end with our defeat or even with our death. By God’s power our works continue, still bearing fruit.

Yes, death is real. And death is an enemy. But we hear the good news—and at times we sense even in our own lives that death has been swallowed up in victory, that we can live fully because Christ is risen.

The resurrection means that this time, these days are filled with great significance. The work of God that we do—the work that God does through us—is a part of the future that God is making. Reflecting on Paul’s words to the Corinthians, the Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells us: “The resurrection of Jesus means that the present time is shot through with great significance. What is done to the glory of God in the present is genuinely building for God’s future. Acts of justice and mercy, the creation beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness—these all matter and they matter forever.”[1]

This brings us to consider again this past week and all that we have been thinking about and talking about.

There was so much in the past seven days to leave us shocked and stunned. Some of the family members of the victims of last December’s shootings in Newtown, CT, sat yards away when two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. While the reports of this event occupied most of our attention, that same day, the New York Times reported that “a nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concluded that ‘it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture’ and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it.”

On Wednesday, despite the overwhelming support of the nation, the Senate was unable to pass even severely limited legislation in an attempt to curb the gun violence that is destroying our nation. And we awoke on Thursday to the news of the devastating explosion in Texas.

This is the world in which we are called to live faithfully.  This is the world in which we are called to create communities of kindness and forgiveness as a foretaste of God’s eternity.

David Hempton, the Dean of Harvard Divinity School, who lived through years of brutal and violent conflict in Northern Ireland, said that amid the horror of Monday he was reminded of the goodness of the human spirit, “that wonderful sense of human togetherness as the first responders and the medical people with courage and compassion just took charge and helped people. These are awful incidents,” he said, “but in the midst of this awfulness, that human compassion and spirit shines through in tremendously impressive ways.”

And we saw something of that again on Wednesday evening and Thursday in the small Texas town of West. When the fertilizer plant caught on fire, volunteer firefighters—and the fire department there consists entirely of volunteers—volunteer firefighters ran toward the plant. Some were killed in the ensuing explosion. Volunteers remain at the sight still because that’s where they are needed.

Resurrection tells us that such acts matter—and they matter not just this week but forever.

We have a future.

And as important, we have this present life, shot through with eternal significance.

God’s new creation doesn’t happen all at once. And it won’t happen completely in our lifetime. Sometimes the signs of God’s new creation are very hard to see.

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. In Jesus Christ we have been given a foretaste. In faith we can see that all creation moves in the direction of life and of love.

Even now we can act. We can act in ways that show that faith in the world.

[1] N. T. Wright “The Transforming Reality of the Bodily Resurrection,” The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, pg. 126-127.