I can’t begin to tell you how often well-meaning and not so well-meaning “Christians” quote to me the 15thchapter of Paul’s first letter to the followers of Jesus’ Way in Corinth. I say quote to be polite, which is generally not the way these “Christians” impart these words of Scripture to me. Some will hurl the text at me in ways which communicate their anger, their disgust, and in some cases their hatred of me. While others deliver the words in boldface type punctuated with lots of exclamation points. So, when I was preparing for this worship service, I confess I was tempted to leave out the reading from 1st Corinthians 15 which is prescribed for this particular Sunday by the Revised Common Lectionary. But then I looked at the readings assigned for next Sunday and discovered that, yet another section of 1st Corinthians 15 is included. So, rather than side-step the subject of resurrection, I decided to include both readings today. Even though I know full well that by doing so, I will undoubtedly open myself up to the wrath of those who would have me confess and repent the error of my ways.
So, let me get to the point, so that those who like nothing better than to use the Bible to bludgeon anyone who dares to stray from their narrow understanding of the text, they can simply hit ALL CAPS in their keyboards, without having to read any further. Let me say it right up front: “Yes, I do deny the resurrection!” I deny the resurrection. Furthermore, I suspect that you do to.
In my sacred imagination, I can see the Apostle Paul smiling and nodding. You see Paul was skilled in the ancient art of rhetoric and would recognize my own rhetoric for what it is. Inflammatory rhetoric is a method of speaking designed to capture the attention of those upon whom it is inflicted. Listen for yourself to the skilled rhetorician Paul, who employs the tactic well in the reading assigned for this Sunday, by the powers behind the Church’s Revised Common Lectionary. Paul addresses the squabbling Followers of the Way in Corinth this way: “Tell me, if we proclaim that CHRIST was raised from the dead, how is it that some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead then not even CHRIST has been raised. And if CHRIST has not been raised, then all of our preaching has been meaningless—and everything you’ve believed has been just as meaningless. Indeed, we are shown to be false witnesses of God, for we solemnly swore that God raised Christ from the dead—which did not happen if in fact the dead are not raised. Because if the dead are not raised, then Christ is not raised, and if Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ are the deadest of the dead. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiful of all the human race. But as it is, Christ has in fact been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Ah Paul, you sure know what you’re doing! Rile em up! Get their attention and then, deliver your point! Your rhetoric is sublime! I take my hat off to the master. Alas Paul, if you’d been there when the Church was cutting up your letters to be delivered in snippets on Sunday mornings, I can only imagine what you might have said, when they decided to cut you off in mid-stream. Why they decided to cut your off before you made your point, well that’s a sermon for another day. My point is Paul was just warming up. But if all you hear is, this reading, then surely, my denial of the resurrection numbers me among, as Paul would say, “the most pitiful of all the human race.”
So, let’s skip ahead to next weeks reading, when Paul makes his point. Listen carefully. You don’t want to miss Paul when he’s worked himself up to his point. Ready: “Perhaps some will ask, “How are the dead to be raised up? What kind of body will they have?” What a stupid question! The seed you sow does not germinate unless it dies. When you sow, you do not sow the full-blown plant but a kernel of wheat or some other grain. Then it is given the body designed for it—with each kind of seed getting its own kind of body. Not all flesh is the same. Human beings have one kind, animals have another, birds another, and fish another. Then there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. Heavenly bodies have a beauty of their own, and earthly bodies have a beauty of their own. The sun has one kind of brightness, the moon another, and the stars another. And star differs from star in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is a perishable body, what is raised is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what is raised is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength is raised up. A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up. If there is a natural body, then there is also a spiritual body.”
There’s more, lots more, but let’s just stop and catch ou breath. “Perhaps someone will ask, “How are the dead to be raised up? What kind of body will they have?” What a stupid question!” My oh, my, oh my… In my sacred imagination, I can see Paul sitting up from his letter writing and nodding as if to say, “there that out to stop those endless arguments about the resuscitation of a corpse.”
Alas, the power of Paul’s rhetoric has waned over the centuries. The irony of having Paul’s rhetoric used as a bludgeon by those who insist on a physical resuscitation of Jesus corpse, well the irony is lost on most Bible thumping fundamentalists who have engaged me with their own brand of humourless rhetoric.
Let me attempt to be kinder than the Apostle, whose willingness to call his opponents “stupid”, I do not share. The Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the followers of Jesus’ Way in Corinth, about 20 years after Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. Scholars tell us that the letter was written between the years 53 and 57. That’s at least 20 years before the Gospel according to Mark, 30 to 40 years before the gospels according to Matthew and Luke and probably nearly 50 years before the Gospel according to John. The writings of the Apostle Paul contain the earliest writings that we have on the subject of the Resurrection. Paul’s understanding of resurrection was good enough for those early followers of Jesus’ way. Paul’s description of resurrection does not conflict with our 21st century inability to accept the suspension of the natural order of the Cosmos.
The Apostle Paul denies that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual physical resurrection. As a Pharisee, Paul believed in the resurrection of the dead and certainly he believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But as for our question about an actual physical body, Paul insists that this is simply a stupid question. For heaven’s sake, when you sow a seed into the ground and it bursts forth into new life, that new life doesn’t come in the form of a seed, it comes to life as a plant! Not all bodies are the same! The Apostle Paul did not need there to be an actual physical resuscitation of a corpse in order to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. To ask the question of whether the resurrection is true, and to mean by this that only a resurrected corpse constitutes such proof, is to impose the standards of the modern mind upon a pre-scientific culture of myth and magic.
The dualism of body and soul was a Greek idea, for the Jews there could be no resurrection without a resurrection of the body. After all, could one rise without a body to rise in? What we refer to as the soul was a foreign concept to first century Jews. So the question about the kind of body the risen Jesus had was, as Paul puts it, quite simply, stupid. “There are heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies.” Not all bodies are the same. The question of a physical body makes no sense to the ancients. Christ was alive to those early followers.
Paul insists that there are natural bodies, which he equates with earthly bodies what we would call physical bodies and there are spiritual bodies which Paul equates with heavenly bodies. According to Paul, the earthly body; the physical body must die in order for the heavenly or the spiritual body to be born. “A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up.” The spiritual resurrection which Paul describes gave birth to Christianity, within the Jewish context. It wasn’t until Christianity moved beyond Judaism that it came into direct conflict with the Greek understanding of reality, which insisted upon the dualism of body and soul. Faced with the task of communicating the gospel, the early followers of the risen Christ, began to articulate experiences of the risen Christ in ways that the Greek influenced Roman Empire could understand giving rise (pardon the pun), giving rise to the question of a physical resurrection.
At this point, we would do well to remember that CHRIST is not Jesus last name. Jesus existed within time whereas the CHRIST exists in and beyond time. Theologian Richard Rohr reminds us that “the CHRIST is the Christian code word for REALITY. Jesus reveals CHRIST. Resurrection is a statement of how reality works. Physics teaches us that nothing dies, everything is transformed. Jesus, the archetypal human, in which DIVINITY is embodied, confirms that human life, does not die, but is resurrected, transformed.
OK, if you’ve stuck with me this far, you are probably beginning to wonder how exactly you, or I deny the resurrection. You would be correct to conclude that I do believe in resurrection. I like the Apostle Paul, do not believe in the resuscitation of a corpse. So, how is it that I deny the resurrection. Well, I deny the resurrection in the very same way as I suspect you deny the resurrection. My friend and radical theologian Peter Rollin says it much better than I ever could. Pete said it this way, and I couldn’t agree with him more: “I deny the resurrection of CHRIST every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of CHRIST when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and the oppressed. Every time I do not serve my neighbour, every time I walk away from the poor. I deny the resurrection every time I participate in an unjust system. However,” Pete goes on, “there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm the resurrection when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, I affirm the resurrection when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, I affirm the resurrection, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed. I affirm the resurrection each and every time I look into your eyes and see the face of CHRIST.”
Pete’s words remind me over and over, and over again that Jesus lived and died embodying the CHRIST which is the DIVINE LOVE which rises in with through and beyond you and I, again, and again, and again.
Yes! I do deny the resurrection and I’m guessing that you do too! So, I’m trusting that it doesn’t much matter whether or not you or I or anyone believes or doesn’t believe in the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse. What a stupid argument. What matters is that LOVE rises. The LOVE which is the SACRED MYSTERY which is the LOVE that we call “GOD”.
By the way, there’s much more in Chapter 15 of Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus’ Way in Corinth. I proclaim these words from Paul’s conclusion to the chapter at every funeral I have ever presided over. When all the rhetoric is said, and done, I lean in close to the beloved ones who have gathered, and I proclaim the same truth which Paul proclaimed, and the science of REALITY confirms to us: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?””
Let us affirm the resurrection by living as Jesus lived, embodying the LOVE which IS the DIVINE MYSTERY. Let LOVE live in, us, through us, and beyond us, for now as always, LOVE lives, LOVE dies, and LOVE rises, again, and again, and again. Thanks be to ALL that is HOLY! Amen.
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Your sermons are always thought provoking. I also confess I love to see the whole service because the pictures of nature are so beautiful.
I have two questions
When and why did the “Church” come up with the doctrine of the trinity
When did it start worshiping Jesus instead of following the teachings of Jesus?
Hi Nancy: the doctrine of the Trinity did not become an official doctrine of the church until after the Council of Nicaea – when in 381 what we call the Nicene Creed became the Emperor Constantine’s attempt to end all the arguments over the nature and relationships of Jesus, the Spirit, and “GOD”. However, the church continues to discuss all sorts of options. I suspect that the conversations will continue forever. We are after all trying to put into words the nature of the MYSTERY. Most mainline denominations do not worship “Jesus” or at least their theologies don’t profess the worship of Jesus. However, popular practice often falls into this kind of idolitry. Jesus is to be followed, not worshipped.
re: “For heaven’s sake, when you sow a seed into the ground and it bursts forth into new life, that new life doesn’t come in the form of a seed, it comes to life as a plant!”
I find this confusing.
When you plant a seed, the seed BECOMES the plant, and in the process, the seed ceases to exist in the ground. It’s gone. Just go digging under any apple tree out there, and you’ll never find the seed. But, the seed didn’t just “rot away over time”. The reason the seed is gone is because it has BECOME something else – the apple tree.
The way you’re presenting the analogy, it’s like it’s skipping over that very real-life thing that happens with seeds – but I suspect any 11-year-old kid who has grown up in an agrarian society knows full well that seeds BECOME plants, and in doing so, they cease to exist as a seed in the ground.
I understand that you’re trying to say that Jesus’ corpse was put in the ground, and then a “resurrection” happened – but it happened completely apart from that which was put in the ground.
So Paul’s analogy is actually saying precisely the opposite of what you’re suggesting. Because a plant *doesn’t* “spring forth” APART from the seed: the seed BECOMES the plant. The seed has been transformed into the plant.
And – this isn’t just a matter of “interpreting” Paul’s metaphor. I’m just talking plainly about how seeds become plants, and the fact that plants don’t spring up apart from that seed.
Am I missing something here?
Darren: the quote is from Paul’s letter. I’m not saying Paul did and I am quoting Paul. I agree it is confusing. That’s the price we pay for reading someone’s mail. What my attempt at rhetoric was aimed at was the literal understanding of thought and ideas which are so removed from our reality. Alas, my attempts were as imprecise as Paul.