May 8, 2016
“The End of Death”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
1 Corinthians 15:1-26
15 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, 2 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.3 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,4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15 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. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
So we arrive at last, in the last week of Eastertide, at the Apostle Paul’s confession of the Resurrection.
It is quite possible that this is one of the earliest statements about Jesus’ resurrection ever written, coming as close as 20 years after the events of Easter. It predates the writings of all the Gospels and Acts and Revelation by decades.
And we find these words at almost the very end of this first letter to the Corinthians where any good writer or speaker knows you put the information that you value most, that you most want your hearers to remember.
What I appreciate about Paul is that he is confessional in his writing. We learn from him not only theology – that Christ died for our sins, and was raised on the third day, and appeared to many people, some of whom are still alive to testify to it.
But then we learn what the resurrection means to Paul – it is transformational, it changes everything.
We learn about Paul’s journey in the book of Acts, which we have spent a good bit of time in this Easter season, learning about how the resurrection transformed the followers of Jesus, and how the church spread throughout the world, and how Paul was persecuting the early church and encountered the risen Jesus in a vision on the Damascus road.
Paul writes about it here – he writes how he was most unworthy receive this grace, and yet grace finds him and changes him completely.
In the church in Corinth there was apparently some question about what resurrection really meant, what it meant for the dead to be resurrected.
And Paul writes to them to say, if we believe that Christ was raised from the dead – and he makes it clear that this is still a recent memory for close to 500 people – then really anything is possible.
But if Christ was not raised from the dead, all is lost – our faith in in vain, we are still in our sins, and those who have died are lost forever.
When Paul uses the word lost here, he is not using lost like, “I lost my keys but they are somewhere in this house.” He means, utterly lost, destroyed, no longer in existence – like the destruction of a priceless artifact which was been turned to dust.
So we see, that for Paul, the resurrection changes everything.
Imagine lifting off in a rocket, hurtling through the atmosphere, reaching the soundless immensity of space, and looking back down on where you’ve come from – this fragile, solitary, small, pale planet.
From this distance all the things that divide nations and peoples are invisible. From this shift in perspective, nothing has actually changed, and yet for you everything has changed and you are transformed.
And you will spend the rest of your life trying to convince people to lay aside their conflicts and hatred and distrust and join together to protect and care for this small ball of life and for one another.
The name for this change in perspective is called the Overview Effect and it is a real, documented cognitive shift, it is has changed the lives of a number of astronauts.
We see in the writing of Paul this kind of transformation, this kind of complete change in perspective – an Overview Effect caused not by a trip into space, but by Jesus being raised by God from the dead.
Paul tells us that the resurrection is the singular, life-giving event, where Death dies, and all the enemies of God are destroyed, and all that was broken can be made whole, and God’s kingdom is revealed.
Without the resurrection, we have disillusioned followers of Jesus who huddle together to remember that he said some good things and did some good things – who thought he was a great rabbi and who thought he was going to overthrow the political powers that oppressed them, and retake the throne of David, and drive out Israel’s enemies. Without the resurrection the story ends there. It is because of the resurrection that we are worshipping here together today.
Shirley Guthrie, who authored the bestselling theology text, “Christian Doctrine” which we used as our guide in the Theology 101 class, writes about the resurrection: “Without faith in a risen and living Christ there would be no Christianity. It was not Jesus’ ethical teaching and example or his noble death that gave birth to the Christian church and made it spread; it was the news of his resurrection. We have seen that it was only because they first believed in a risen Christ that the first Christians looked back to ask about the meaning of his birth, life and death.”
On Easter we called to one another “Christ is Risen” and replied “He is Risen Indeed” but why does it matter?
It means that every enemy has been defeated –
the things that terrify us,
the things that keep us awake at night,
the shame or remorse we feel,
all our doubts and uncertainties,
our anger or our mourning,
the voices in our heads that tell us we have failed and that we are not good enough – none of these things has the final victory –
none of these things is more powerful than God’s power to bring life and hope and peace.
Nothing, not even death, the final enemy of God, none of these things will win.
So how do we live differently because of this?
In all aspects of life, in parenting, in family, in friendships, we hold onto grace and resurrection.
We hold onto the truth that God makes all things new, that God brings dead things to life, that there is nothing more powerful than God, and the resurrection changes us now, even as we hope for the future that God has in store.