The Creed: The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

1 Corinthians 15:35-58

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

***

“Oh, I just don’t say that last line.”

A friend once told me this when we were, of course, talking about the Apostles’ Creed. “My dad taught me that,” she continued. “Just mouth the parts you don’t agree with. It was the only way he could make it through church as a scientist.”

I’ll admit I didn’t entirely know what to say to her. It had never occurred to me that the Christianity’s most famous creed could be treated like a choose your own adventure story.

“Like the virgin birth,” she added. “I mean, obviously that never happened. And the resurrection of the body? Sounds like a bad zombie movie.” 

My friend wasn’t alone in her concerns.  Since that conversation I’ve known reams of dedicated Christians who see the final lines of the Apostles’ Creed as an embarrassment, a relic of less sophisticated times, an affront to modern science and a base distraction from the spiritual life. And while I understand their hesitancies an arguments and concerns, I proudly proclaim today:

I do believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. 

Really the issue seems to be that first phrase: the resurrection of the body. The second phrase, the life everlasting, was a later addition to the creed, tacked on to answer some of the concerns the earlier Christians had about the phrase. These resurrected bodies aren’t like zombies, reanimated and prone to destruction all over again. These resurrected bodies will be our home for all eternity.

It’s a bold claim, a strange claim, and one that has led to all sorts of theological gymnastics over the years. If it means our bodies are going to literally rise up out of the grave and become eternal, early Christians asked, what happens after a body decays? Or what about the martyrs who were eaten by lions? I kid you not, there are ancient treatises about whether or not God would have to resurrect all the lions in order to find all the body parts to put the person back together. Today, people still ask these questions. What about people who give their bodies to science? What about cremation? Scientifically—in the ancient world as now—the resurrection of the dead does not make any sense.

But resurrection is not the same as reanimation or reconstitution, and I think it is a fool’s errand to try to answer a question about the next world with the logic of this one. I am a huge fan of science. Love it. But I don’t for a second believe that the science of this world has to rule the next. Where would the fun be in that?

I believe in the resurrection of the body. But I don’t know where, or when, or how, precisely. Only God knows that. 

In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul lays out his idea—however hazy—for how resurrected bodies might come about. The crux of Paul’s argument is this: we will have a body after death, 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. We are seeds, planted one way and rising another. We will have continuation and transformation both. 

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? And why, out of all the things it could have said, does the creed insist on it? 

The ancient Greeks believed in a strict dualism of the body and the soul, or spirit. They even had a clever pun, soma sema, which meant, the body is a sepulcher. The body was a tomb, a prison, an antagonist to the soul. And when Marcion (remember him?) adopted Christianity, he brought this dualism with him. Marcion could not fathom that anything in the created world, anything material, was good, or worthy, our bodies included. The only goal of humanity ought to be our escape into a world of pure spirit.  

Yet the creed insists that this world is the good creation of a good God. I believe in the God the father, maker of heaven and earth, and of these bodies we live in. God has made us as embodied souls, one indivisible unit. God cherishes these bodies, our bodies—and somehow, someway, God will not strip them from us. God will not destroy what God has made. 

But the fact of the matter is that God is in charge of this process, not the laws of science. And I am sure that the God who brought sea and sky out of chaos and void can make and remake our bodies no matter how or when we die. 

Even Paul, that desperate overexplainer, admits at last that exactly how all this works is a mystery. And I can only echo him. Death is a mystery. We have only scattered glimpses into all that God will do for us. To get too hung up on what is possible—or impossible—is a waste of time. Living with death is an act of trust, that God is big enough and loving enough and creative enough and inventive enough to get us to that life everlasting, whatever bumps there are along the way. 

So when you say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” I certainly don’t want you to imagine a gnarled hand bursting through a cemetery plot, nor do I want you to imagine wispy souls rising up to heaven as beams of light. All I want you to imagine is that, despite the worst that death can do, you will still, in some indefinable but unmistakable way be you, and so will those you love, and all of us will belong, still and forever, to God. 

At the end of the chapter in Corinthians, Paul looks forward to laughing at death. Like a child that has slipped out of a bully’s grasp, Paul looks forward to taunting 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, and wonder what all the fuss was about.

These are strange truths we proclaim, and perhaps this last—the resurrection of the body, the life everlasting, the very defeat of death—is the strangest. Yet we stake our faith on these words, this Apostles’ Creed. There’s no way to prove any of it, but, as Pastor Pastor Adam Hamilton says, “In the end we make a choice to believe. That’s how the Creed begins, credo in Latin: I choose to believe these truths; I choose to build my life upon this foundation; I have decided that if I must take a leap of faith, I’ll take this leap of faith rather than the other.”[1]

And at the end of the day, the creed is about more than just what we believe in our heads. It’s more than a set of theoretical hypotheses, or a mental checklist. The creed is about how we live. 

Do we live like God made this world and what happens in it matters?

Do we live like we have access to God through Jesus Christ?

Do we live like the Holy Spirit is real and active inside us?

Do we live like the church makes a real difference in the world?

Do we live like we were meant to be in communion with one another?

Do we live like we are forgiven, and do we live like we can forgive?

Do we live like we’ve got a lot more living left to do, on the other side of eternity?

I believe, and so I live. Amen.    


[1] Hamilton, Adam. Creed: What Christians Believe and Why: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed., 2016. Kindle edition.

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