Christ is risen. Our first Scripture lesson, from the Gospel of Luke 24:1-12, describes the details surrounding Christ’s resurrection that first Easter Sunday. Our second Scripture lesson from 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 explains that Christ will not be the only person to experience resurrection, but all “who belong to Christ” (19:23) and unpacks some of the theology behind what we in the Church call the general resurrection of the dead. It is this, the theological concept of the general resurrection of the dead, of which we will reflect on together using the Apostle Paul and his words to the first century church at Corinth as our guide. Together, on this Easter Sunday, we will celebrate the fact that resurrection is our destiny and through resurrection our hope of a life free of sin, sorrow, brokenness, and death will be realized.
Paul begins, in his typical Pauline way, by being a bit snarky (and for this reason I have always loved Paul). He is a pastor who, at times, can lose patience with people when they are being silly, nonsensical, or even dangerous to the faith communities he planted around the Mediterranean basin in the first century. All of Paul’s letters were addressed to specific faith communities, and here I am intentionally not using the word “church” to describe these communities, not because they were not churches — they were churches —but because these churches were organized so differently than what we now understand “church” to be and they did things together that were so different from what we do now in church that to name these communities churches would confuse us. For example: they did not have buildings with sanctuaries; they did not have organs or choirs; they did not have pastors or staff; they did not have sessions or congregational meetings. They were followers of Jesus Christ who organized themselves around the concept of house fellowships and who gathered together for meals, for prayers and impromptu songs, bible study, practicing the Lord’s supper and baptism, and serving the poor.
Each of Paul’s letters addresses a particular issue in one of these faith communities and most of these issues either dealt with conflict or trouble within the faith community. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is one of his longer letters and deals with a bevy of issues with which the faith community was struggling. In particular, one of the questions this community was asking was, “did Jesus really rise from the dead?” Paul spends the entirety of chapter fifteen addressing this question and in response to the Corinthians’ questions essentially makes one point: if Christ was not resurrected from the dead then being a Christian is worthless. If Christ has not been raised from the dead then the central tenet of the Christian faith, the forgiveness of sins and the gift of new life because of Christ’s defeat over sin and death, has been eradicated. “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever” (15:17-18).
There were some in Corinth who found Jesus’ resurrection too implausible as it defied their rationality. Instead, a strand of theology developed amongst some in that faith community that emphasized Jesus’ life and his teaching, not his resurrection, and emphasized the benefits Christ bestows on his followers in this earthly life, but not in any life to come. Paul refutes this way of thinking saying, “If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else” (15:19). Again, Paul reemphasizes his claim that unless Christ has actually been raised from the dead then those who believe in Christ as God-in-flesh have been swindled.
But Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead. That is the central hope of the Christian faith. The tomb which the women visited early in the morning that first Easter Sunday was empty. Yes, it goes beyond our rational understandings; yes, Jesus’ resurrection brings confusion and disorientation; yes, we must believe Jesus’ resurrection in faith, but both belief in and the subsequent hope that comes from Jesus’ resurrection are essential elements of the Christian faith.
Paul then spends the rest of chapter fifteen, including our passage of Scripture from this morning, not only countering those who would deny the resurrection of Jesus, but discussing the hope that comes for the followers of Jesus in and through his resurrection. What exactly is the content of that hope? Let’s examine Paul’s words more closely.
First, Paul affirms and agrees that Jesus provides blessings and benefits to his followers in this life. A great gift of walking in the ways of Jesus is to receive Jesus’ abiding presence within us in this earthly life. The follower of Christ does not have to wait until our earthly death to be united with Christ, but Christ, through the gift of the Holy Spirit dwells within us. As we journey through the shadows of life, we have the hope and blessing of Jesus present as our companion through life’s difficulties. Jesus is our hope in this life, but not only in this life. In many ways, Jesus’ presence within us, to us, and for us in this life sacramentally models for us our future eternity. The glimpses and glimmers we receive of Jesus’ presence in this life, will, one day, be transformed into the brilliant, blinding all-encompassing light of standing in Jesus’ presence in the fully realized eschatological Kingdom of God. Paul asserts we have hope in Christ in this life…AND in the life to come.
Paul continues by explaining that the way we Christians will realize the blessing of our future eschatological hope is through the same way Jesus inaugurated this hope —through resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is “the first crop of the harvest” (15:23). Here, Paul uses an agrarian metaphor to explain that Christ’s resurrection was the first of many more to come. Those of you have experience with gardening — even if your experience or expertise is as underwhelming as mine — know that there is always the production of the first fruit. The first fruit is the fruit that forms on the tree well before the main crop will ripen. It is often said that this early produced fruit is an indication of the future crop. If the first fruit is sweet and juicy, it is likely the remainder of the crop will be a good harvest. If the first fruit is bitter, dry, or sour, it is likely the harvest will be underwhelming. Such is the case with Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus is the first resurrection that foreshadows the future crop of resurrections that await all of Jesus’ followers. Just as Jesus has been resurrected from the dead so too will the disciples, the Apostle Paul, the saints who have gone on in glory before us, our loved ones in Christ, and ourselves as well. Resurrection is our destiny. Jesus’ resurrection represents the good fruit of the Reign of God; our resurrection will be equally excellent fruit. Jesus has been resurrected from the dead…AND all of Jesus’ followers will experience resurrection as well.
Paul continues his instruction on resurrection by explaining that Jesus’ resurrection is the primary way that God has chosen to defeat sin and death. In the Scriptures sin and death are named the great enemies of humanity because they have the power to separate us from God’s presence. Through Jesus’ resurrection God defeated these two twin enemies. Because Jesus lives there is nothing that will separate us from experiencing God’s presence —in this life or in the life to come. While we have to wait for our future resurrections, Jesus’ resurrection has immediately defeated death and sin…AND as followers of Jesus we receive these benefits immediately.
Finally, Paul concludes his instruction on the resurrection by explaining that while we immediately experience the blessings and benefits of the forgiveness of sins, the gift of experiencing God’s abiding presence within us through this life, and we are promised to be united with Christ, our God, in more profound ways upon our death, it is not until Christ comes again and fully ushers in the Kingdom of God that we will experience the resurrection of our bodies from the dead. Salvation, as Paul explains in this fifteenth chapter of Corinthians, is not only spiritual. The promise of salvation experienced in the coming Kingdom of God is not to only be experienced through spiritual union with God, but it will be embodied as well. Somehow, some way, just as Jesus’ body physically rose from the grave so too will ours and the coming Kingdom will be as embodied and enfleshed as this life is, but in a way that is perfect, eternal, free from sin, death, and decay, and fully in accordance with God’s ways of love, mercy, and justice. The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith expresses this holy ministry in this way, “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.”
This Easter we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, rejoice in the gifts we have received in the defeat of sin and death, and anticipate our own glorious future resurrections. Christ is risen. Alleluia. Your light has come. Alleluia. The hope of the Christian faith is that Christ’s resurrection is only the beginning. Amen.