Feb 25, 2019
Key Reading : 1 Corinthians 15:35–38, 42–50, 57-58 (see also Lk 6:27-38.)
Some parts of Paul's letters are difficult to interpret. 1 Cor 15 is no exception especially when Paul starts talking about "physical" and "spiritual" bodies in the resurrection. When we are all raised to new life Paul says we will all have "spiritual" bodies and not "physical" bodies. But what does he mean? You can't have a non physical body any more than you can have hot ice. In the Greek language Paul wrote in he was saying something like we will not have "soulish" or mortal bodies. Instead we will be raised as Jesus was by the Spirit and have new and eternal bodies. The picture is always of recreation. Our old body is not done away with; it is like a seed that watered by the Spirit grows into something new. The key importance of this is that how we live in this life has eternal significance for the next. All the good that we do builds for the Kingdom.
In over 21 years of ministry I have conducted well over 200 funerals. My very first solo funeral was for a woman who depressed, had committed suicide. This woman had loved to dance, it was something she did regularly as part of the dance circuit in the Gladstone region. My views on life beyond death have become a little more fixed in recent years but by instinct I think I chose some of the right words on that occasion. I said these words:In over 21 years of ministry I have conducted well over 200 funerals. My very first solo funeral was for a woman who depressed, had committed suicide. This woman had loved to dance, it was something she did regularly as part of the dance circuit in the Gladstone region. My views on life beyond death have become a little more fixed in recent years but by instinct I think I chose some of the right words on that occasion. I said these words:
For the Christian faith, believes that when Jesus was born, Eternal, All Powerful, and All Knowing God became a human being. God became one of us. He was born like us, He grew up like us and he died like us. In Jesus God experienced everything that all humans experience. He experienced joy, the love of his family. He ate and drank. He got tired and slept. He got angry. And from the shortest and most powerful verse of the Bible, we know that just like us, Jesus felt deep and bitter grief. For when he learned of the death of his close friend Lazarus the Bible simply says "Jesus Wept" Two simple words "Jesus wept".
But it goes further than that. God not only knows the pain of the death of a loved one. God knows what it is to die. For just as all of us are born, all of us, sometime, will die. So from birth to death God knows all the joy and all the pain of living. It is no mistake that every one of the thousands of churches across the world has a cross in it. It is not there as a sign of death, or suffering it is there as a sign of God's presence with us. A sign that even in our darkest moments God does not let us go. For in this dark and terrible time Jesus goes with us.
So, in our pain we are not alone and we have hope, firstly, because we have each other and, also, because God is with us. But it goes deeper than that for there is great hope for “Jan” too. The same God who travels with us through our lives travelled with “Jan” too. One of the members of my congregation who knew “Jan” well told me how much she enjoyed dancing at the Social club. When “Jan” felt the Joy of dancing, Jesus felt that joy too and danced with her.
But Jesus not only knows our joys and the pain of grief, Jesus also knows the pain of deep despair. Before Jesus approached death he wept tears of blood and in the moments before his death he felt the black depression of abandonment. So when “Jan” faced her deep despair and black depression Jesus faced it with her. More than this, as “Jan” faced death Jesus also faced that with her right to the end.
I am glad that I said that Jesus danced with her, that he shared in her joy, but I wish I had gone further, particularly if I had known she was a person of faith. I did go on to say that:
The really good news is that Christians believe that Jesus not only became one of us, but that he came back to life. That there is hope beyond death and that this new life is a life free from pain and tears, suffering and depression.
But I wish I could have said what I have said in later years that as Christians we look forward to a time when all things are made new, when these weak bodies, that like seeds, are buried in the ground, will be raised to new and imperishable life. A life where there will be no more depression, or grief or anxiety. I wish had said that the Christian vision is of a new heaven and a new earth, and just as we now have bodies that can dance, and swim, sit across the table and enjoy a drink or a cuppa and a good yarn, in a very similar way we will have new bodies, bodies which will not decay and we still be able to do the same sorts of good things that we did on earth. No only did Jesus dance with “Jan” in the Social club, but he will dance with her in the new heaven and the new earth, and the shadow of death and depression will be no more.
Some of the things that Paul says in his letters are hard to follow and that is so in this passage and in a related area. We have all heard of the evils of the flesh. One example would be Galatians 5:19-21
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Because of passages like this sometimes Paul is accused of hating the body, and of believing that it is not our bodily selves but our spiritual selves which are important, but nothing could be further from the truth. His central image for what the church is, is a body. We are all members of the body of Christ. When he speaks of the evils of the flesh he is not saying our bodies are evil, he is saying that a body or a life which is not empowered by the Spirit and lives only for its own selfish desires is headed for destruction. No, Paul celebrates the body and the idea of resurrection from the dead is another example of this. Whatever else eternal life may be it is not disembodied.
The confusion in today’s passage arises because Paul talks about physical bodies and Spiritual bodies, but he is still talking about bodies. The term that is translated physical in this passage really means mortal, or bodies that can decay. The term that is translated Spiritual is the same root word used for the Holy Spirit. In other words these mortal bodies that get sick, get arthritis, are prone to things like dementia, heart disease and depression, will be remade into immortal bodies given life by the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.
Paul uses the analogy of a seed. Our current mortal bodies are like a seed that will one day be buried in the ground. But just as a seed really looks nothing like the plant that grows from it and yet is intimately related to it so our immortal bodies raised to new life by the Holy Spirit may not be like our old bodies in many ways and yet we will be truly ourselves, able to dance, able to have that cuppa, able to sing, able to embrace our loved ones. If Paul had lived in our era, he may have said our current bodies are merely the embryo, the DNA, of the person and the body that is to be. John 15 and our Children’s story used the imagery of a branch cut from one vine and grafted into something new, being transformed and bearing fruit.
As I said last week, I think all this is actually profoundly practical. It gives us a future hope especially in dark times, and because Jesus and the Spirit are active now, it gives us a hope here and now. More than this, if our current bodies, and our current world are the seeds of our immortal bodies and of the new heaven and the new earth, then all the good that we do now in our mortal bodies has eternal significance, since these mortal bodies will not be done away with, instead they are the seed or the embryo of what is to come.
If we take that seriously, then how we treat our neighbours, our enemies, our family, our church, our community, our work mates, our fellow students, our environment, all of that becomes profoundly significant, for it is the embryo of what will happen eternally.
We are not saved by the good things we do, any more than we ourselves can create that new heaven and new earth, but because we are saved, restored to friendship with God, made part of the body of Christ, the good things that we do for God and others have eternal significance.
It is for this reason that Paul ends 1 Corinthians 15 with these words. 1 Corinthians 15:57-58 (NRSV)“...thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”