Sermon preached for the Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
1 Corinthians 15:35-50
But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come back?” Look, fool! When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t come back to life unless it dies. What you put in the ground doesn’t have the shape that it will have, but it’s a bare grain of wheat or some other seed. God gives it the sort of shape that he chooses, and he gives each of the seeds its own shape. All flesh isn’t alike. Humans have one kind of flesh, animals have another kind of flesh, birds have another kind of flesh, and fish have another kind. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. The heavenly bodies have one kind of glory, and the earthly bodies have another kind of glory. The sun has one kind of glory, the moon has another kind of glory, and the stars have another kind of glory (but one star is different from another star in its glory). It’s the same with the resurrection of the dead: a rotting body is put into the ground, but what is raised won’t ever decay. It’s degraded when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised in glory. It’s weak when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised in power. It’s a physical body when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised as a spiritual body.
If there’s a physical body, there’s also a spiritual body. So it is also written, The first human, Adam, became a living person, and the last Adam became a spirit that gives life. But the physical body comes first, not the spiritual one—the spiritual body comes afterward. The first human was from the earth made from dust; the second human is from heaven. The nature of the person made of dust is shared by people who are made of dust, and the nature of the heavenly person is shared by heavenly people. We will look like the heavenly person in the same way as we have looked like the person made from dust.
This is what I’m saying, brothers and sisters: Flesh and blood can’t inherit God’s kingdom. Something that rots can’t inherit something that doesn’t decay. Listen, I’m telling you a secret: All of us won’t die, but we will all be changed— in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the final trumpet. The trumpet will blast, and the dead will be raised with bodies that won’t decay, and we will be changed. It’s necessary for this rotting body to be clothed with what can’t decay, and for the body that is dying to be clothed in what can’t die. And when the rotting body has been clothed in what can’t decay, and the dying body has been clothed in what can’t die, then this statement in scripture will happen:
Death has been swallowed up by a victory.
Where is your victory, Death?
Where is your sting, Death?
(Death’s sting is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.) Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord.
Some number of years ago, I received the oddest gift. It was from my mother’s second cousin’s third husband and his new wife—which tells you a bit about how southern families are put together. If I remember correctly, it was a graduation present.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The gift bag was small but heavy.
Once I managed to get it extricated from the tissue paper, I realized what I had in my hands was a glass pumpkin, complete with trailing leaves and stubby stem.
It was beautiful. And I had no idea what to do with it.
There are gifts we desperately want—a new phone, a just-released book, even a pony. There are gifts we begrudgingly accept—an itchy sweater or regifted candle.
And then there are gifts we are simply bewildered by.
Like a glass pumpkin. Or the promise of bodily resurrection.
All Epiphany, we’ve been talking about the gifts of our faith—gifts that we have in our lives that we wouldn’t have, or wouldn’t recognize, if we weren’t Christians. Today, the gift God gives us is the gift of resurrection.
It’s a beautiful promise—of life that lasts beyond what we can know here, of a spiritual body that rises without pain, of a payoff for all our exertion and frustration here. But I have to admit I also feel about it the same way I feel about that glass pumpkin—it’s beautiful, but what do I do with it?
Other than putting it on a shelf and admiring how nice it is, what do I do with the promise of resurrection?
It doesn’t help that Paul’s explanation of this promise is confusing at best. I don’t know how well you were able to follow his letter this morning, because I’ve been scratching my head and I’ve had all week to study it. It’s clear that the early church were just as confused. Paul had preached to them that because of Christ’s resurrection, they were to be resurrected too, dropped his mic, and left town.
But they wanted to know more, so they wrote to him. How will we be resurrected? What does that even mean? Will we have our bodies still? How will we have a body when everyone knows bodies decompose?
You know when you’re trying to explain something to a child that you don’t fully understand yourself, or that you aren’t ready to fully share with them, whether that’s how babies are born or how quadratic equations work, and you try to give them an answer and pray they don’t ask how or why? And then they always ask how or why, and you have to scramble to come up with something that makes half-sense so they don’t know you’re not the genius they trust you to be?
Yeah. Welcome to Paul’s life.
Bless his heart, he tries. He goes on a long, rambling explanation, based off the science of his day, which doesn’t really work, and a couple of metaphors that work better. But the crux of his argument is this: we will have a body, but a different kind of body. A spiritual body, rather than a physical one. It will be enough like ours to use the same word for it, but different enough that it won’t decay, decompose, waste away.
The metaphor he uses perhaps explains it better. We are like seeds, he says, planted one way and rising another. A sunflower seed does not look anything like a sunflower, does not behave like a sunflower, does not smell or taste or move like a sunflower, and yet everything that makes the sunflower a sunflower is in that little seed.
And so everything that we are in this life will make us who we are in the resurrection, even while it may look very, very different.
I imagine some of you in this room are having as much trouble with the idea of a physical resurrection as the ancient Corinthians did. I certainly struggle to imagine how eternity will work—my brain can’t wrap around it, any kind of way. I can’t imagine life like this going on forever, in a body that needs tending the way ours demand—constant feeding, regular sleep, hygiene and exercise and vitamins. Being in a body forever does not sound like an eternal reward.
So why is Paul so stuck on the idea of a bodily resurrection? Why can’t we just go be energy, at one with the cosmic radiation of the universe?
Partly, I think it’s because Paul did not ascribe to the division of the soul and the body. For many of his early Christian contemporaries, the soul was God’s creation, and the body was its jail—something bad, prone to sin, constantly leading us away from God. Many of Paul’s Greek and Roman philosopher comrades felt the same—that the soul was the pure thing, trapped in the impure body.
And yet Paul remembers his Genesis—that God created the human body with God’s own hands, and called it good. Paul believed that we are not a soul trapped in a body, but an embodied soul. One full indivisible unit.
For Paul, you can’t pull the soul out of the body and set it free to roam the cosmos, any more than you could drain the blood from a body and expect its heart to keep beating. So the only way Paul can conceive of us continuing after death, the only way he can imagine us joining Christ in the resurrection life is as bodies. As ourselves.
Some kind of bodies, anyway. Spiritual bodies. He’s not real clear on the details. And to be honest, neither am I. And I’m not going to ask anybody to believe in the physical resurrection of the dead or leave the room.
These mysteries take a lifetime of exploration, and still we will never have all the details sorted out.
Do I believe that I am going to spend eternity with brown hair, ten toes, a bad knee and a slight underbite? Not really. But I do believe that I will be, in some true, authentic way, myself. The myself that God created years ago, and called good.
What that spiritual self will look like, feel like, how I will experience the resurrection life with Christ?—I got nada. It’s a mystery I’m looking forward to discovering.
It has been a difficult 2019. Barely two months in and already the deaths and tragedies are piling up in my life, in the lives of people I love, in the national and global news. It feels almost flip to talk about resurrection when death is hanging so heavy.
But this is why I cling to this gift, this promise, so much, even when I don’t fully understand what it means: I need to know that death’s victory is hollow. I need to believe that the people I have loved and lost are more than a collection of fragile and decomposable cells. I need to know that God has cherished everything they were, and is ushering them into a life that is so much more.
I don’t always know what that more will look like, but I cling to the word. More. There is something more.
Paul looks forward to laughing at death. Like a child that has slipped out of a bully’s grasp, Paul looks forward to laughing at death. Death has been swallowed up by a victory. Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death?
We know where the sting is. We feel it, sharp and fresh or dull and constant, but we feel it, because on this side of eternity, we can’t yet laugh at death. But the promise of the resurrection is that there will come a time—if time means anything at all—when we will look back and laugh.
When we will look back and say, what was I so worried about? I’m still me. I’m still God’s. What else matters?
That is the hope we cling to, and the gift Christ promises us. That he himself has cut death off at the knees, robbed it of its ability to rob us, rob us of who we are, rob of us the ones we love, rob us of our life with God. Jesus has turned death’s period into a semicolon; God will keep writing our story forever.
I do believe in a bodily resurrection, although I don’t begin to have a clue what bodily will mean in the vocabulary of eternity. But what that means to me is that who I am now matters. What I do now matters.
My life here, right now, is not just a waiting game for God to eventually transform me into something and someone else entirely. The wisdom I learn here, the love I share, the challenges I face, the faith I nurture—all that means something. It all goes into the seed of who I am, that God is eagerly watching to see bloom into something even more beautiful.
So I think about that glass pumpkin, and I remember that after a while I took it off the shelf, and I made a paperweight out of it, gave it something to do, a purpose in my life.
And I think about the gift of resurrection, and I’d like to take that off the theological shelf too. I want to treat every day like it matters, like it matters what I do, who I am. I want to treat every day, not like it’s the last day of my life, but like it’s the first.
The first day of forever with my God.
I don’t always know exactly what I believe. But I do know why I believe: because I have felt the sting of death, and I have felt the power of God’s love, and I know which one is the heavyweight champion in my heart.
And that kind of love? It doesn’t let go. Not even for death.
God won’t let go. Not a single one of us.
To God be the glory. Amen.