Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sermon: The Power of Christ’s Resurrection

Lectionary, Year A, Second Sunday of Easter

What is the power of the resurrection
and why is it important for Christians today?

This is a sermon given at the First Presbyterian Church in Petersburg, AK on April 27, 2014. The sermon explores topics of sin, fear, gospel, and the bodily resurrection. I give some reasons why I believe the disciples’ fears turned to joy when they saw that Jesus was resurrected bodily, and why this is the central piece of the apostles’ proclamation of the gospel.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Essay 5—Resurrection—(4) Nature of the Resurrected Body

Outline: 030-E5.4-Resurrection-Nature of Body
Passage: 1 Corinthians 15:35-50
Discussion Audio (42m)

The Resurrection is not primarily about an afterlife,
but about the process of transformation
that begins in the present time.

The Corinthian Christians were so appalled by the idea of rotting corpses coming to life (known today as “zombies”) that they were on the verge of rejecting the doctrine of the resurrection altogether. Part of it had to do with the Greek philosophy of dualism of spirit and body, in which the spirit was good and the body, evil. Where one of the reasons for this life was to shed the evil body to release the “good” spirit. The Corinthian Christians were likely influenced by this philosophy.

Paul argues throughout in 1 Corinthians 15 that there is no existence apart from a body. There is no “spirit” that continues apart from a body. In vv. 35-50 Paul further explains the nature of bodies and more specifically, the nature of the resurrected body.

Paul employs a variety of parables (or analogies) to show that there are a variety of bodies: plants, animals, humans, and celestial bodies. Through these analogies he shows that the “body” is not synonymous with “flesh”. He shows that the “body” is not evil. He explains that at the present time, human bodies are composed of “flesh” that is perishable, but that it is still not evil. He explains that the nature of bodies change from one type of existence to another (the parable of the seed and plant). He explains that Christian bodies will be changed from one form (perishable flesh) to another (imperishable, spiritual bodies). But in all cases, there will be a body – a body that is most suitable to each type of existence, as determined by God.

Paul uses the analogies of the two Adams to further explain the two different types of human bodies: one is for the present, earthly existence; and a different one for the eternal, spiritual existence. The spiritual existence is not immaterial and ethereal, but just like the resurrected Christ’s it will be substantial and physical – just not perishable flesh. Just as Christ’s death and resurrection transformed the nature of his body, a Christian experiences transformation of the body at the resurrection.

Paul explains in v. 49 that the process of resurrection is primarily about transformation. The Resurrection of Christ is the evidence of the power of God to transform people in mind, spirit, and finally, body. Christians are participating in the Resurrection in their present lives, in their present bodies as their mind and spirit are being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Resurrection does not necessarily require a physical death, as v. 51 will show. But a transformation is necessary. A transformation of being is necessary so that when Christ returns, the perishable body can be replaced by an imperishable one. Christ is the life-giver who gives a new body to all who belong to him.

Christians participate in the work of Christ’s Resurrection as they allow themselves to be transformed by Christ’s Spirit, and as they bring the power of transformation to the people and the world around them. The kingdom of God, eternal life, begins today.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Essay 5—Resurrection—(3) Ethics

Outline: 029-E5.3-Resurrection-Ethics
Passage: 1 Corinthians 15:29-34
Discussion Audio (58m)

The proof of a resurrected life in a Christian
is whether or not their lives contribute
to the improvement of lives around them.

In the heart of Essay Five Paul discusses aspects of the ethics of a Christian life. He utilizes ad hominem argumentation to demonstrate the absurdity that results if the Corinthian position is assumed to be true.

There are at least two issues as we deal with this passage. The first is that verse 29 (baptism for the dead) is one of the most unusual and difficult texts to interpret. I’ve read that there are anywhere from a couple of dozen to over two-hundred different interpretations that have been suggested for this verse. The second issue is that the specific problems and applications of ethics given are far removed from 21st century American life. How are we to take what Paul has written and understand it as something meaningful in our Christian lives?

The two most viable explanations (in my mind) that have been offered in regards to verse 29 both understand the “baptism for the dead” to NOT mean “someone being baptized vicariously on the behalf of someone who has died.” In the first explanation the “dead” refers to the physical body that symbolically “dies” during the baptism ritual.

So understood, a translation might read, "Otherwise [i.e., if there is not a future resurrection] what will those being baptized accomplish for the corpses? If corpses are not raised at all, why are they being baptized for them?" Here, in agreement with the Greek fathers, corpses refer to the bodies of the people being baptized. If in baptism one's body is immersed in water (dying and being buried with Christ) in hope of being united with Christ in a resurrection like his, if there is no future resurrection, then what is the point of the baptismal liturgy? The common Christian experience of baptism demands belief in a future resurrection.[1]

The second explanation does mean the “dead” to refer to someone (e.g., a family member) who has died, but explains “baptized for the dead” to mean that the person being baptized is doing so (going through conversion) in the hope of becoming reunited with their loved ones at Christ’s return.[2]

The absurdity Paul points out then is that if there is no (bodily) resurrection, as the Corinthians assert, then there is no point to baptism, because first, the ritual of baptism assumes a bodily resurrection. Second, if people are converting to Christianity in the hopes of becoming reunited with their dead loved ones, if there is no resurrection, there is no point in the conversion. Paul has already argued that if there is no bodily resurrection, there is no Christianity – it is all a lie. So the very act of going through baptism proclaims the reality of a future, bodily resurrection.

The next point is that the very fact that Paul and the apostles are willing to subject themselves to privations and sufferings is proof that the resurrection is fact. Paul argues that if it were not, why would he place himself in danger, face the reality of death every day, and do battle with “beasts”? (The “beasts” should be understood metaphorically as those who oppose Christian teachings.) It is because he believes in the gospel: the death, burial, and most of all, the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

If the resurrection is false or even merely metaphorical, then there is no hope. Sin and death have won the victory at the Cross. God has lost. Evil has triumphed over good. Self-centeredness has overcome self-sacrificing love. Jesus should have accepted Satan’s deal (at the Temptation). People should live each day doing their best to drown out despair and sorrow, because that’s all there is.

But the resurrection is true. Life has overcome Death. Love has overcome self-preservation. Good will triumph over all evil. God has won. This is the gospel. This is why Paul is able to endure and find joy, even when he is harassed and placed in danger and harmed.

Because Paul believes in the victory at the Resurrection, he is able to believe in the destruction of death at the end of time. Because Paul believes good will triumph over evil, he does not succumb to despair and hopelessness. Instead he works with all his might to bring the gospel and be an agent of hopeful change to all he reaches. He is willing to take on the character of God, in spite of all the problems and dangers that brings, to show the world what genuine strength looks like.

Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians is for them to live in the same way: to look out for the good of one another and to be agents of good in the present time. Resurrection has both present and future components. Redemption begins here and now. Christian life, eternal life, is not only about the future, but about the present; in fact, there is no future life if it does not being now, in this world, in this physical body.

Probably because most people have had such a difficult time knowing what to do with v.29, there has been a strange silence in the church with regard to this paragraph. Yet it stands as one of the more significant texts pointing to a genuine relationship between what one believes about the future and how one behaves in the present (c.f. 2 Pet. 2-3). This is not to say that the future is the only motivation for correct behavior, but it is to plead that it is a proper one because it ultimately has to do with the nature and character of God. We should be living in this world as those whose confidence in the final vindication of Christ through our own resurrection determines the present.[3]

What kind of lives are we living today? Is it merely motions of Christian rituals? Or are we putting in our best efforts to improve the lives of all those around us?

[1] Reading the New Testament: Corinthians, entry for 1 Cor. 15:20-32.

[2] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, quoting Thiselton; location 5319.

[3] New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, entry for 15:34.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Essay 5—Resurrection—(2) The End of All Things

Outline: 028-E5.2-Resurrection-End of All Things
Passage: 1 Corinthians 15:21-28
Discussion Audio (1h21m)

The Resurrection is the gospel.
Everything else is secondary.

Paul continues the discussion of the centrality of Christ’s bodily Resurrection, witnessed by hundreds of human eyes, to Christianity. It is the one event that distinguishes Christianity from all other belief systems and philosophies. Many martyrs have died. But only one has risen. Death does not define Christianity. Life does.

For Paul, the Time of the End begins with Christ’s resurrection. It assures him that Death has been defeated and it is in the process of being destroyed, along with all earthly rule, powers, and authorities. When Christ returns, the destruction of death will be complete, never to return. The resurrection of all who have died “in Christ” is its visible proof that death has given up its dead.

Readers need to be careful to note that Paul does not address the question of what happens to those who have died prior to Christ, or who have died without knowing Christ. His audience is the Corinthian believers who hold in common the knowledge about and resurrection of Christ. To use this passage to teach that only those who are Christians will be saved misses the point.

It must be noted at the outset that the general resurrection of the dead is not Paul's concern, neither here nor elsewhere in the argument.[1]

Another point to note is that Paul’s focus is not eschatological chronology, but the logical process of eschatology. In other words, the Christ’s resurrection as the firstfruit logically guarantees that all who have died in Christ must be resurrected. And the resurrection of believers is logical proof that death and all powers logically resulting from death have been destroyed.

The crucifixion of Christ shows the power of sin and death. If it ended there, sin and death could claim victory over God, life, and love. That’s why the resurrection, and not the cross, is the center of Christianity. That’s why the resurrection, and not the cross, is the focus of the gospel. The resurrection is the power of God at work to destroy sin and death.

Paul is thereby saying to his readers, “If Christ is not raised, then this vision of the end of all things is a lie. But Christ is raised, and we the apostles have seen him. If you deny him as the reigning Lord, you are the losers.”[2]

The Resurrection is about more than just Easter.

Christians and Christian Churches should perhaps consider focusing more on the Resurrection and less on the Cross. The Christian faith should focus more on life and less on death. Easter should be celebrated far more often than just on Easter Sunday.

This is one of the great passages in the NT… in terms of the true significance of Easter. It is therefore unfortunate that at times this powerful demonstration of the certainty of our own resurrection is overlooked in favor of an apologetic of trying to prove the resurrection to unbelievers. First of all, that is not what Paul is trying to do. What he has going for him is the common ground of their common faith in the resurrection of Christ. There is a place for apologetics, that is, the defense of Christianity to the unconverted; but Easter is not that place. Easter, which should be celebrated more frequently in the church, and not just at the Easter season, calls for our reaffirming the faith to the converted. The resurrection of Christ has determined our existence for all time and eternity. We do not merely live out our length of days and then have the hope of resurrection as an addendum; rather, as Paul makes plain in this passage, Christ's resurrection has set in motion a chain of inexorable events that absolutely determines our present and our future.[3]

[1] New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, entry for 15:21-22.

[2] Bailey, location 5289.

[3] NICNT, entry for 15:28.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Essay 5—Resurrection—(1) Message and Validity of Faith

Outline: 027-E5.1-Resurrection-Faith
Passage: 1 Corinthians 15:1-20
Discussion Audio (1h14m)

Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus,
nothing else in Christianity makes sense --
Not even the Cross.

Paul is addressing yet another problem and misunderstanding within the Christian believers of Corinth. Partly based on their disdain for the physical body (body-spirit dualism from Greek philosophy) they accepted the idea of a resurrection, but rejected a resurrection into a physical body. And possibly based on their overrealized eschatology, they may have believed that they were already “spiritually resurrected” with their baptism.

This is a passage that modern English readers can misinterpret due to our assumption that “how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (15:12b) means that there is no resurrection at all. But that is not what the Corinthians meant and not what Paul would have heard. What they meant was that “there is no bodily, physical resurrection of the dead.” The Corinthians still believed in at least the concept of a resurrection and some kind of existence after death. It is the nature of the resurrection and existence that was in question.

Paul’s first defense of the bodily resurrection is that all the apostles teach it. He reminds the Corinthians that when he first came to them, this is the gospel that he taught them and that one that they accepted and believed.

His second defense of the bodily resurrection is that if it is not true, then nothing about Christianity is true, because it all rises or falls on the veracity of the hundreds of witness accounts of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Here is another mistake modern Christians make with this passage. It is used as an apologetics for the resurrection against unbelievers. That is not the point of this passage. Paul writes with the assumption that there is a resurrection. He does not try to prove it. His argument is with the nature of the resurrection.

… Paul will next turn to a direct confrontation with the Corinthians over their denial of the resurrection of the dead. The nature of that argument makes it plain that the purpose of this opening paragraph is not to prove Christ’s resurrection but to reestablish that fundamental premise as the common denominator from which to argue with them… The reason for the catalogue of witnesses is therefore not to prove that Jesus rose but to emphasize that the resurrection of Christ, which they believed, had objective reality…

On the other hand, there are those who use this passage to try to prove the Resurrection to unbelievers. What they fail to recognize is that such “proofs” are valid only to those who believe.[1]

Paul explains the “essential” of the gospel in 15:3b-5a. It is the death, burial, resurrection of Jesus and the many witnesses to the events. The focus of the gospel is the resurrection, not the death. The focus of the gospel is not payment for sins, punishment for sins, or satisfying the “wrath of God,” but in the power of God to overcome and destroy the power of Sin, i.e., Death.

(See my previous post on why Paul does not teach the penal-substitution theory of the atonement.)

Kenneth Bailey writes:

This is another case where the third-party substitutionary theory of the atonement, with its focus on penalty, can lead astray. Imagine a scenario in which God takes Jesus to heaven seconds after the great cry, “It is finished.” Had that happened, would there be any salvation for believers? If the focus is on penalty, then of course there is salvation because “Jesus paid it all…” Does that not mean that the great work of salvation is completed? Not for Paul. For him, without the resurrection all faith is futile and believers are still in their sins. As noted, the central focus is rescue, not penalty. Without the resurrection the death of Jesus is like the death of John the Baptist. If there is no resurrection, Jesus is one more rabbi who tried to renew Israel and failed…

The resurrection affirms that sin and death do not have the last word. At the cross the finest religion of the ancient world (Judaism), and the finest system of justice of the ancient world (Rome), joined to torture this good man to death. These were not evil forces. They were the best institutions the ancient world had to offer, and yet together they produced the cross. But that was not the end. After the cross came the victory of resurrection…[2]

Rev. Russell Rathbun writes in his lectionary discussion on Lazarus’ resurrection (“When Resurrections Go Bad,” posted March 30, 2014; John 11:1-45):

The core of the Christian faith is the proclamation that, Christ has risen. It is way different when Jesus does it. Jesus defeats death—death no longer has power. Jesus ushers in the fullness of life for all. Jesus returns from the dead not to punish his murderers, but to redeem them. Jesus’ resurrection brings a new life. This is the gospel. [Emphasis mine.]

I’ve often felt that too much of modern Christianity is obsessed with the death of Christ, with sins, with the so-called payment for sins, with satisfying some kind of demand placed by the wrath of God, with hell and punishment. First Corinthians 15 and Paul’s writings should be seen in their proper light. The gospel is not about the cross, but about the resurrection. It is not about death, but victory over death. Humankind, fallen under the power of Sin and Death, killed Jesus, and tried to kill God. But the good news – the gospel – is that the power of God is greater than the power of Sin. The resurrection is proof of that power.

[1] New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, entry for 1 Cor. 15:11.

[2] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, location 5203-5212.