For the winter months at St Peter's we've been working our way through Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth and as we come into spring we have almost come to the end of this great epistle. Like a good movie or a good book, there has been tension and stress, Paul was writing to a group that was split and squabbling over which leader was the best, over what constituted Christian morality, differing views on how they related to the culture round them, how you treated each other when they gathered for worship, over who was more spiritual and what did that mean in the first place. And like a good movie or a good book as we come to the end we come to the climax. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul tackles the core problem at Corinth and he does it by going to the core of the gospel. Behind all the symptoms of disunity and unloving behaviour comes a false understanding of how the resurrection of Jesus Christ is experienced in our lives now and its future ultimate reality. How we view the resurrection and what it means for us effects how we live our lives as God’s New People in Christ.
The problem that Paul addresses in this chapter is that some did not believe in the resurrection from the dead. Gordon Fee says that there were cultural and theological factors that contributed to some at Corinth not believing.
Culturally, most of the believers at Corinth had come to faith from a pagan background; they had grown up with a Greek Philosophical understanding of the world: An understanding that, like our western worldview today did not believe in a bodily resurrection. For the Greeks there was a dualism between the spiritual and the physical, the body and the soul or spirit. The body was seen as the inferior, it was the soul that mattered. Their understanding of an afterlife was some shadowy existence of that part of us known as the soul. In this life we were embodied spirits; in any afterlife we became disembodied. You can still see some of that thinking today when people talk about being human in terms of body mind and spirit and a hangover in our Christian faith with people talking about saving souls. This understanding impacted on how people lived as well with either an indulging of all the bodies desires with no through of consequence, because it did not have an impact on our soul, or a denying of the body a stoic aestheticism. You can see elements of this in all the issues that plagued the church at Corinth.
The theological factor came with the “spiritual ones” thinking that they had arrived, that they experienced in this life the fullness of God. They thought that in Christ they had become like angels, and for them being spiritual meant a final ditching of the body, not because it was evil but because it was inferior and beneath them. They had what is technically called an over-realised eschatology. Eschatology means the study of the last things and realised eschatology means people believe the kingdom of God had come in all its fullness, that there is no future consummation at all.
OK Lets turn to look at how Paul addresses that issue.
He starts by pointing them back to the gospel that he preached to them and which they believed, a gospel based on an actual event in history, the death and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without which, says Paul, their faith is in vain.
With the same introduction Paul had used about the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper, he shares with them what is seen as one of the most ancient creeds of the Church.
Christ died for our sins
According to scripture
He was buried
and he rose again on the third day
according to scripture
And was seen.
It places this central event of the gospel in its context in God’s plans and purposes because all was done according to scripture and it anchors it in a ‘historical reality.’ He was buried’ affirms the fact that Jesus actually died. ‘He was seen’ is an affirmation of an empty tomb. Jesus rose and was seen, touched and encountered by people.
Like a detective story or a court room drama, Paul calls forth witnesses. He lists the people that had met the risen Christ. Cephas was known and respected by the Church at Corinth, James the brother of Jesus may have been considered a hostile witness as he did not believe in Jesus before the resurrection, but now had become the head of the Church in Jerusalem. This forensic nature of this list may be why Paul does not name the women who had the privilege of being the first to see Jesus risen. In the Jewish legal system of the time women were not able to be witnesses.
He protects the chain of evidence by saying that many of these people were still alive, and by putting himself on the list of those who had seen the risen Christ. Paul believed his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road was the last of these encounters. The people at Corinth had heard from an eye witness.
He says that he was like someone untimely born. But the power of that encounter cannot be denied, as Paul digresses to say that he was the least of the apostles. It may be here that Paul is using a play on his name and stature as Paulus means little one. But also Paul here is saying that he did not deserve God’s grace as he persecuted the church. The meeting with Christ turned his life around. Now he works hard for the sake of the gospel… but even then he says that all this was done by grace.
Paul does this to affirm the fact that the Christian faith is based on the bodily resurrection of Christ. This passage is often used as an apologetic for non-believers, but the key point Paul is making serves as a reaffirmation to believers of the truth of what they already believed. The church may have been split into various factions following various leaders but says Paul we all proclaim this Gospel. It speaks to us as much today as to the people of Corinth. Given the scientific materialistic world view of our own culture, there are those who would want to see the resurrection as nothing more than a myth, a way that simple first century people explained the sense of Christ’s presence with them after he had died. Paul’s argument is as much a challenge to this as it was to the Church at Corinth.
Paul then takes up two contradictory positions. He takes the Corinthians position that there is no resurrection from the dead, and shows how it causes the whole of the faith to collapse like a pack of cards. If there is no resurrection from the dead then Christ did not rise. Our preaching is in vain. It’s worse than that; we are calling God a liar. We are still dead in our sins. There is no hope of eternal life. We are just following another dead religious person and we are to be pitied.
Then he contrasts that with the reality of Christ’s resurrection. He says it is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. He talks of the resurrection in terms of God’s new creation, Just as death had come into the world through one man Adam, so life and new creation has come through one man Jesus Christ. Death and decay and sin have lost. However the fulfilment of that for us is still a future reality. God’s kingdom has come, Christ reigns, but we live between its inauguration and consummation. Christ is restoring all creation to life and the last enemy to be defeated will b death.
Perhaps the best way to explain that is to talk about engagement. Kris and I got engaged while we were both students at the Bible College of New Zealand, which is now Laidlaw College. We’d known each other for almost two years and being going out for over a year. We’d been for a walk and sat down on a broken down trailer full of garden rubbish. Romantic setting, right? Kris of Course focuses on the apple orchard we were looking at the sunset over the Waitakere rangers. We’d been talking about weddings and being the smooth romantic guy that I am I said so we’ve been talking about weddings do you think we should think about ours? Kris replied ‘Are you asking me to marry you?’ To which I replied ‘ If I did would you say Yes? She stopped for a long moment then smiled and said yes. So I asked her, and she said yes. Now Bible College was jokingly called bridal college and there were a few of us engaged guys living on the men’s side. Being good theology students we called ourselves the inaugurated eschatology club. For us it meant already but not yet. We were committed, life had totally changed, but it would have to wait to be consummated. This is the reality that Paul wants to get across to the Corinthians. Yes Jesus has risen from the dead, Yes we experience the new creation and new life happening in our lives, but there will come a time when Christ returns and the dead will be raised. That is a future reality.
Paul then goes on to show the futility of a lot of things if there was no resurrection from the dead. We don’t really know what the practice Paul is talking about when he says “baptism for the dead” it was a practice that was known to the Church at Corinth, and if they didn't believe in the resurrection from the dead, then it seemed absurd that they would do it. Why says Paul should I bother risking my life for the sake of the gospel. If there is nothing after this then why put up with the things that he had put up with, he had been mistreated in Ephesus and you tell the depth of his feeling by the way he uses the metaphor of wild beasts. If this is all there is says Paul why bother Wouldn't it make more sense to go the way of despair and eat and drink whatever you like? But because of the assurance he has in the resurrection from the dead, because Christ was raised to life, he encourages the Church at Corinth to turn from their sins and to live in a different way.
Ok, So how does this connect with where we are here and now. How does it impact on us as God’s new people?
Firstly there is the affirmation of the resurrection. Even when it runs in the face of our cultural understanding. We are a people of hope and new life because Christ is alive. Gordon Fe asserts that “ 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”. Christ has been raised from the dead, the new creation has started, you and I can experience that in our lives, forgiveness, healing, wholeness, communion with God, engrafting into God’s people.
Secondly, You've heard the saying “all heavenly minded and no earthly use’, living in the resurrection reality says Paul is to be all heavenly minded but that should work its self out in being of great earthly use. In Colossians 3 Paul tells the church that as we have this new life in Christ we should put of the old life, and he lists a whole lot of negative behavior, and calls those who are God’s new creation to put on the new life. This resurrection reality is to be lived out now in how we love, act and react to one another. That’s been at the core of what Paul had been having to encourage and teach the Corinthians to do all the way through his letter. Being Spiritual isn't ditching this existence its infusing it with resurrection realty.
Secondly, The Christian understanding of what it is to be human comes out of the Jewish understanding of a human, which is one in keeping in with what we might call a holistic view. It’s based on the fact that we are made in the image of God. Some people have wanted to quantify that in terms of things we would identify with the soul or spirit, but the biblical narrative does not support that. The whole of who we are matters to God. What we do and what is done to us in our bodies matters to God. The whole of who we are as individuals matters to God. How we are treated by others and how we treat each other matters to God.
Lastly, we haven’t arrived, this is not the end. We live with the tension between ‘already’ and ‘not yet’. Yes we have new life in Christ but we still live in a world affected by the fall so we suffer; there is disease and death. But God’s kingdom does not give us a way out rather it invites us to enter into and bring (by the spirit and by grace) God’s reign and God’s new life into these hard situations. We do this with the knowledge that, because of the death and resurrection of Christ, God is able to speak into those situations with new life and healing and restoration. The ultimate fulfillment of that however will have to wait until Christ returns. Then we will be raised to life? What form will that take… well we’ll have to wait to next week.