|Master of Osservanza, c. 1445|
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. ...
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
I Corinthians 15:1-4, 12-22
In the 18th century, part of what is known as the Age of Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant penned what was essentially the Enlightenment mantra: “Dare to know!”
It was as if Western civilization realized that their parents had lied to them, that the world was not what they were taught in school, and so now it was time for them to find out what the world is actually like.
It is often described as the world’s coming-of-age.
There was such a grandiose understanding of this age at the time that there even were intellectuals who tried to institute a new calendar, called the French Revolutionary Calendar. The year 1792, in this calendar, was year 1! And there are documents from years afterward that reflect this calendar.
Truly, these were a confident people. Everything that had come before them was childish nonsense compared to their enlightenment, their adulthood. One thinks of Paul’s statement, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”
I experienced my own personal version of this when I was in undergrad. I was a student of theology then too, but at that time I thought doubt was the way to truth, and I made it a point to doubt everything I had ever been taught about God and the Bible.
Eventually, I doubted my way out of faith altogether, as many have since the Enlightenment. I doubted my way down to a strict nihilism, and that meant many late nights, a lot of drinking, and anxiety. It was a path of despair and self-destruction.
The Enlightenment has also been called, “The Age of Absolutism.” What is meant by this is that it was an age when humans came to believe in their own authority and supremacy. Man, and it is quite safe to say “Man” here; Man is absolute, his observations and his reason are absolutely decisive.
Man, with his immense understanding and abilities, can discover and conquer whatever he sets his mind to. The possibilities for achievement are infinite.
But the possibilities for destruction were also infinite.
This was also the age of the slave trade.
And should we be surprised that this age so easily became what we now call the age of the Anthropocene, where humans so dominate the earth that they exploit and injure it to no end?
Should we be surprised that this age eventually led to the obscene existence of nuclear weapons? This past week, two leaders of nations in a post-Enlightenment world threaten to end the lives of hundreds of thousands of people!
Enlightened man does not just seek to discover things. He seeks to dominate. And his will for domination, and his capacity for destruction, know no limits.
Now, why am I saying all of this?
Where does Paul fit in?
Well, Paul says in I Corinthians 8, “Knowledge puffs up.” Knowledge can make one arrogant and foolish.
And he says earlier, in I Corinthians 3, “The wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. For it is written, ‘God catches the wise in their craftiness.’” And so, he says, “let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours” (vv.19–21).
Does this not speak to the fact that all the scientific advancement of Western society has brought us to nuclear crises? Time after time, we stand face to face with the possibility of worldwide catastrophe and destruction, the scale of which cannot even be comprehended.
Have humans not made it abundantly clear that our wisdom really is foolish?
But, Paul goes on, the Lord sees this, and very much in spite of it, the Lord offers redemption. With the Lord, Paul says, “all things are yours.”
What does he mean by this? He means resurrection.
But because we live in a post-Enlightenment world, we tend to think it was easier for people in the past to believe in resurrection than it is for us. When Paul says, “Christ was raised from the dead,” and “all will be made alive in Christ,” we tend to think, “Well, that was easy for him to say. He didn’t have science!”
But, we see in this passage that it actually was difficult to believe in resurrection during Paul’s time. And it apparently enough of a problem that Paul had to address it in a letter.
Belief in an afterlife or in miracles was by no means universal. There were schools of thought that said this life is all there is, and denied the possibility of miracles.
On top of that, Paul witnessed a church in crisis, surrounded by persecution. Was it really easy for Paul to believe in resurrection when Christians were being arrested and executed left and right? Or when he himself was in prison?
The idea that pre-modern people were more childish in their thinking is just unacceptable. If anything, we might be more childish for thinking we know better.
So, what does Paul say to those who denied resurrection?
He doesn’t try to prove the historicity of the empty tomb, like many today do. Rather, he says, if there’s no resurrection from the dead, then Christ is not raised, and if Christ is not raised, then our faith is in vain and God is a liar.
And all this would mean we are “still in our sins,” and everyone who has died before us is lost.
That we would be “still in our sins” means that we would be without hope of redemption, without the hope of a new world breaking into our broken world and healing its wounds.
“BUT,” he says—and this is probably the biggest ‘but’ in the whole Bible—
“But, in fact—and this is a bold use of the word ‘fact’!—
But, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, and Christ is the first fruits of those who have died.”
In the Old Testament, the first fruits are the portion of your produce that you give to God as an offering. But by that offering, you make it clear that everything of yours belongs to God. Christ is the first fruits in that his resurrection demonstrates God’s claim over all creation.
That God is Creator means that God is the Lord of history, so nothing that happens in history can cause God’s plans to fail. Nothing that happens can deviate so far from God that history becomes hopeless. Nothing can permanently upset God’s saving work.
That Jesus was raised means that God is still the Lord of history, and, also, that God is the victor over sin and death.
That God is the victor over sin and death means that God is the Lord also of the future. God will one day heal history’s wounds, and will redeem all of creation.
God’s new creation will out-grow all the destruction, like all the trees and grass and flowers that now cover the ground around Mt St Helens. New creation will totally and decisively overcome the old, leaving behind the sins, injustices, and catastrophes of the past, leaving behind PTSD, shame, anxiety, and all the other afflictions with which the past plagues us.
“ALL,” Paul says, “will be made alive in Christ.” All. Everything. Everyone.
No matter what happens, justice will flow down like waters. Righteousness will be an ever-flowing stream.
It will be God’s Revolution.
And so Paul says, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Commenting on this verse, John Calvin says, “To believe in this life means” to limit our faith to this life, “so that our faith looks no farther, and does not extend beyond the confines of the present.”
To believe only in this life means to believe only in the status quo, to limit ourselves to it, to accept it as the way the world is and always will be.
To believe in God’s Revolution, however, is to think revolutionary thoughts.
Here at St. Lydia’s, we are in a time of challenge. We are reflecting on those who have come before us, on those who influenced the community we are today, and we are seeking to learn from them even more.
At the beginning of our passage, Paul challenges the Corinthians in a similar way. He says, “Brothers and sisters, I seek to remind you of the good news I have proclaimed to you,” and which he himself received. He challenges to remember the good news that they heard and received, and to believe again.
And it is challenging to “hold firmly to the message” of resurrection, to really believe what has been proclaimed to us. To believe that it is not just a fairy tale. That it is not just a nice idea that helps us sleep at night. That it is not just some hope useful for inspiring activism.
If that’s all it is, then it is futile. Then it is no match for the human’s will to domination and destruction. If Christ has not actually been raised, then we can sing with Tom Waits, “Misery is the river of the world!”
But, no, Paul says, resurrection is not just a nice idea. It is Gospel Truth. That it does not cohere with the reality we perceive has nothing to say to its truth. Rather than make God a liar by saying Christ was not raised, Paul wants to say, “Let God be true and every human being a liar” (Rom. 3:4).
This is a challenge. For we will never stop being daunted by the evil and injustice running rampant in our world. Doubt and fear will constantly tempt us to look at the storm, and take the storm more seriously than Christ.
Faith is like walking on water, and there’s always a possibility that we’ll fall in.
Last week I was on the subway, coming here, and a strange mood came over me. I found myself sinking into the subway window, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by a whole host of questions.
I was headed to church, and I didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel faith at all.
I tried to reassure myself, saying, “Well, you’re not always going to. You have to pray for faith, like manna in the wilderness.” But then a grim thought struck me as I was walking down Union St:
“Yeah, but what if I’m praying to nobody?”
It’s a thought that every now and then comes around the mountain to visit me.
There is no protection against such days.
The way of faith is not a bliss, it is not simply closing our eyes and ears, denying reality. Rather, it is a movement, from sadness…to joy, from despair…to hope, from doubt…to faith.
Sometimes, all we can do is pray, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”
And, with that, I want to close with a quote from John Calvin:
“In the realm of faith the two apparent opposites—evidence and things not seen—struggle with one another and are united. … [God] promises eternal life—to those who are dead. [God] speaks of the blessedness of resurrection—to those who are compassed about with corruption. [God] pronounces those in whom sin dwells—to be righteous. [God] calls those oppressed with ceaseless tribulation—blessed. [God] promises abundance of riches—to those abounding only in hunger and thirst. God cries out to us that [God] is coming quickly to our aid—and yet [God] seems deaf to every human cry for help. What, then, would be our fate, were we not powerful in hope, were we not hurrying through the darkness of the world along the road which is enlightened by the Spirit and by the Word of God?”
Preached at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church