1 Cor. 15:1-26; 51-57
Since it is Mother’s Day, we might note a different translation of v. 51….”We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.” It is one of those Bible play on words that seems very appropriate for mothers. It can be used to describe the life of a new mother (and father). A new parent quickly learns what it is like when the baby does not sleep at the appropriate times of the day. And parents change diaper after diaper. As I am sure you know, when baby does not sleep, parents do not sleep. And they are changed with the arrival of a child who suddenly commands complete attention and requires care around the clock. Parents everywhere can agree that we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.
Paul means we will be changed after we die. Sleeping is a common euphemism for death in Scripture. It is a change that is a mystery, a transformation that is beyond what we can imagine. It is called resurrection of the body. We know the phrase from the creed.. I believer in the resurrection of the body…we know it and we often struggle with it. In what sense does our body rise to life? No rational thinker would think our current set of flesh and bones will live again. So let’s just take that off the table at the very beginning.
Paul’s teaching is aimed at a group of very rational thinkers in the Corinthian congregation, the ones who have challenged the concept of resurrection of the dead. They figure, when you die, you die. It is the end. Period. They have stirred up enough confusion that others are now unsure what to believe about what happens after they die. The Corinthians’ confusion does not sound all that strange to our ears. There are multiple understandings of what happens after this body wears out in our day and time. It all depends on your theology, on the way you were taught to view death. Some watch for some visible sign of a soul leaving the body. We all like to find comfort in believing that our loved one is in a better place. Some say there is nothing after death. Some of us proclaim the resurrection of the body. Not this particular body, but somehow, a body which is us. And lots of us are really unsure. It makes sense that the confusion continues— we are talking about a scenario none of us has ever experienced. We are talking about life after death.
So how does it work, exactly? I can’t give you a detailed explanation. Paul did not know either. He calls it a mystery, and indeed it is. His line of thinking is this: when you get confused on this resurrection stuff, go back to the basics. Remember what I taught you. He opens this lengthy treatise on the resurrection with this: “Brothers and sisters, I want to call your attention to the good news that I preached to you, which you also received and in which you stand.” This good news is the message of resurrection– Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection. Paul points out that Jesus obviously died because he was put in the grave. He obviously rose from that grave because person after person, and even large groups, saw him alive after he was buried. Jesus was risen from the dead. Paul says we have to start there. Because if he was not raised, then what are we believing in? What are we preaching? What value does our faith have?
He attempts to help them sort out the confusion over understanding the resurrection of believers. For Paul, the two are directly connected. You can’t say there is no resurrection of the dead because Jesus rose. Death has lost its sting. God is victorious. And God remains victorious. Life continues. Not to say we will live forever (although our medical technology continues to make it possible to extend life way beyond what our natural bodies would do on their own). Not to say it is easy to watch a loved one die or to go to a funeral or to face our own death. What we can say is that this life is not all there is. We can say that we too will be transformed into a new life. We can say that when you believe Christ is resurrected you also believe that you will be transformed when your earthly house is no longer necessary.
He does not describe when that resurrection takes place–is it immediately following physical death, or when Jesus returns (which Paul was expecting momentarily) or at the end of time? It is left open ended. Left open ended makes room for countless interpreters to fill countless pages with arguments for being transformed into a new being immediately or for a general gathering of the saints at one time in the future… Maybe Paul leaves it open ended because it doesn’t matter. Paul is not a proponent for some disembodied soul floating around after we die. He doesn’t go for the dualism of a body and a soul that can separate from one another. He would not talk about moving into a room in the mansion of God which John describes. He would not talk about meeting up with your loved ones in heaven. What he does say is this: resurrection means transformation. Jesus was resurrected. We will be too. We claim this because we know that death does not win. God wins. Love wins.
Our claim is our belief. What you believe today might be different from what you believed or will believe at another time in your life. Believing is not the same as assenting to a list of facts. It is based on lived experiences with God, on a relationship with Christ. It is important to remember that what we believe shapes the way we act. What we believe about death shapes the way we approach it for ourselves and for our loved ones. Do we believe it is really the end? Are we afraid? Do we see it as a necessary evil or as a “welcome home” from a loving God? Are we able to talk about it? Do we try to be too scientific about it and close off the emotions? Death is a natural end to life, clearly a time for sadness because it is a true loss. Death itself is not evil. It is a transition. Physical death is a time for proclaiming life. In this lengthy treatise on the resurrection (we skipped over part of it, by the way!), Paul is pushing believers then and now to prepare to live as those who will die and to prepare to die as those who will live.
What does it look like to live as those who are preparing to die? Not dwelling on the end, but living each day to its fullest. Not hoarding stuff you can’t take with you and your family doesn’t want to sort through. It is building relationships with people and with God. Those who live that way are standing in resurrection faith
What does it look like to prepare to die as those who will live? Some die faithfully, full of grace, confident of the future–sometimes we say, “he has made his peace with God”. We all are not given time at the end to think it through. An illness can surprise us. An accident will happen. We never know. Even when we are in the best of health, there are steps we can take to be prepared to die knowing that we will live. I encourage you to talk with your loved ones about your wishes, your values, your beliefs around your own death. Put them in writing and give them to the appropriate people. Review them periodically to see if your values have changed.
I like the story of the woman who told her pastor that she wanted to be buried with a fork in her hand. He was kind of confused by that request until she explained. She had always been told to “Keep your fork” in anticipation of a rich, sweet dessert treat. From her point of view, the best was yet to come, so she wanted to be sure to keep her fork!
We did not read the last verse of chapter 15 earlier. I’d like you to hear it. Paul ends as he began, exhorting the believers in Corinth: “My beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Those are words of encouragement for those who are living as those who are prepared to die and those who are dying as those who are prepared to live. Amen.