The Rev. Canon Michael Wyatt, Ph.D.
The passage we heard today from Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Corinth is a small portion of a long and careful attempt to interpret the meaning of resurrection for them. Unfortunately, this fifteenth chapter of this letter is too long ever to be read entire in a church service, so we only hear sections that hardly make sense in isolation. We would rarely hear the entire chapter read even in sequential fragments. This is why I will dwell in this chapter today, because Paul is right: this is the heart of the matter.
Paul had heard that a faction of the Corinthian Church claimed that there is no resurrection from the dead, some even scoffingly asking what kind of body the risen dead could possibly have or need. In the fifteenth chapter of the letter, he takes those matters up, constructing a lengthy and elegantly framed reply in three sections. I urge you to read the whole chapter when you can, but let me sketch it out for you. First, he reviews the proclamation of the church; then he responds to both concerns in turn. Both times, he points out the dead-end of the Corinthian claim, follows that with a proclamation of the victory we have in Christ, and concludes with brief reflections on the practical implications of this triumph in which God has empowered us to live. What we heard today is the beginning of Paul’s reply to those who claim there is no resurrection, in which he points down the catastrophic cul-de-sac they have entered.
Scholars are baffled by what precisely was going on in the Corinthian Church. Various things seems possible. First, they might have claimed, given their charismatic Spirit-filled congregation, that the resurrection had already taken place in their conversion and baptism, that in the Spirit, speaking in tongues and having ecstatic experiences, they were already living the resurrected life, so a resurrection of the dead could be bypassed as irrelevant. Or, they might have thought, given their Hellenistic context, that life after death is the escape of the soul from the prison and cesspit of the body, therefore no resurrection is needed or even desirable; why bind the free-soaring soul back to its limitations? This last perspective is also expressed in their skepticism about a resurrected body: once the soul is free after death, why encase and entangle it again? Surely such a contaminated spirituality cannot be essential to the Christian proclamation?
Now, my dear brothers and sisters, we are once again in Corinth. From our perspective, two thousand years later, resurrection once again has become something about which we, at best, reserve judgment, and the matter of a resurrected body either a dangerous delusion or a pretty picture, but not something we can affirm. Paul is utterly on target here. If we remove the lynchpin of resurrection, the structure of Christian faith falls apart. That you cannot resolve it concretely is why we say that this is faith, not science. But if you refuse to posit it all, then faith in a Christian mode becomes impossible for you. Not only can you then no longer give public assent to the central proclamation of the Church, but the subjective dynamic, the joyful hurling of yourself towards your future, unafraid and forgiven, the courage and confidence to affirm as your foundation what you hope for, guiding yourself by the evidence of good things not seen, the life-altering conviction that God makes life from death—all this life becomes impossible for you, if you deny the Resurrection. You will live by faith, because human beings must—that is how we are made—it simply won’t be Christian faith. You will not be at one with the reckless lovely Jesus, who was endlessly interested in all he met and invited them to know God as he did, and who was raised from the dead. The Christian claim is that death is no barrier to God—not that death is a delusion, as the philosophers of the Eastern religions claim, but that God has received and overcome death. This is why we say the Risen One has the scars of his execution by the occupying forces of his country on his body, because death is not denied but overturned; and this life, this embodied existence, even in its horror and brutality, even in its grief and desolation, is proclaimed as good by the One who created it and sustains it and who made God one with it irrevocably and indissolubly.
So Paul adopts two strategies here. First, he says, this is what all Christians, and even I, Paul, the least of the apostles, have received and proclaimed. Resurrection is not an eccentric, fanciful, marginal claim. Paul says, “I passed on to you what I also received, that Jesus died, and was raised, and appeared”—and he writes this a scant twenty years after the fact proclaimed. So the first question is simply, “how can you deny now the proclamation that empowered you when you received it, by which you received the Spirit that you now think makes that proclamation obsolete?”
Second, he shows them the slippery slope they are on: if there is no such thing as resurrection, then Jesus could not have been raised either. But that makes the entire proclamation void, because Resurrection is the beating heart of everything proclaimed. And if the proclamation is void, then their faith is a delusion; they are self-deceived, not forgiven, nor empowered, nor restored. If risen life is untrue, then we have lied about God, not only claiming about God something we think God did not do, but also, in that fundamental bad faith, believing that there is a limit to God’s power, which cannot be true. If the dead remain dead, then all the Christian dead are gone forever. If there is no resurrection, then our pathetic chirpings on the brink of the pit about Christ and hope are pitiful and pointless. Even Christian love, whether ours or that of Jesus, becomes the bailing of a boat already breached beyond repair and awash with deadly brine, if God abandoned Jesus in that borrowed tomb.
Let me be clear. What Paul is doing at this point is not bringing evidence or arguing for resurrection. We can tell, and Paul would know, that these are not valid demonstrations of something to be proved. Instead, Paul is tugging violently on the one strand of the fabric that the Corinthians are willing to remove, to show them how much of what is woven together begins to tremble and would fall apart if they pull this one thread out.
However, there is a legitimate logical move here. When Paul says, “if Christ is not raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith has been in vain,” this is the one moment in his argument when Paul points to concrete experience. We cannot know if God is misrepresented or if the dead have in fact perished; but we can know whether or not Paul’s preaching or our faith is in vain. We can know whether or not we were transformed by what was proclaimed. We have the fact that contradicts the conclusion; and if we know the conclusion is false, then we can suspect the premise is false as well. Paul gives as a premise that “Christ is not raised,” and he claims that a conclusion of that premise is that his preaching and our faith are vain. As soon as we can say, “but I know your conclusion is not true; your preaching was not in vain, because it unleashed God’s power in our life, and my faith is not in vain, because I continue to go from strength to strength, loving beyond my own power, hoping beyond evidence, and accomplishing God’s reconciling work”—as soon as we can show that the conclusion is false, we have given evidence that the premise is false also. Paul is counting on that.
However, you must have the experience of new life to know that resurrected life is not only possible, but factual. We might even say that, rather than affirm the Resurrection in order to have a transformed life, it is more likely that our restored and transformed life leads us to recognize, as the template and empowerment of all new life, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and, in that, our own security beyond death.
My dear sisters and brothers, as I have served in the Church over time, believing myself committed to the empowerment of all God’s people for ministry, I have become convinced that our confusion about transcendence and our fear of it, our fundamental disbelief as we face the claims of the Gospel, are the primary spiritual crisis of contemporary Christians. We do not know what to make of what we have received. The claims simply sound supernatural to us, and therefore incredible and outmoded—no more than quaint pictures from a credulous age. So we in our own time implicitly deny the Resurrection, and in doing so have ended up with a shredded fabric in which we cannot wrap ourselves against the cold.
Paul is right: if you can’t show, from the evidence of your daily habits and decisions, a life lived for the sake of reconciliation, lifted out of calculation and self-preservation, a life lived without fear of loss, lived for the sake of bringing all humanity to feast at the abundance of God’s joyful table, then you have no evidence to contradict the denial of Resurrection. In fact, you do not know the Resurrection. You might even agree that Resurrection is an unlikely thing. If that is true of you, but you are in church Sunday after Sunday, moaning doleful hymns and daydreaming through the prayers, then you are, of all people, the most to be pitied. Paul is right.
Because, you see, the issue is not simply language and worldview. The heart of the matter is experiential: whether or not we have undergone the interruption of New Life, to convict, transform, and empower the old. Those to whom the Risen Christ appeared did not consider that a matter of course, slipping easily into their routine. They spoke about it—no, they proclaimed it!—in ways that caused mockery and offense; why do we insist we must appear cool and rational, unless we are trying to escape its power? They acted on it—no, they gave themselves to it!—in ways that turned the world upside down; how can we consider that a few dollars and some words chanted in unison are our share of God’s mighty acts to restore the world?
Resurrection is the physical conviction that death is not the ultimate gravitational pull on our existence. I say a physical conviction because this is more than an idea, but rather the bodily intuition, even palpable sensation, of being held in life intentionally by what is greater than our self. For some people, that is accompanied by energy, clarity of purpose, and an ordering of priorities that extend beyond personal goals. For others, it is an awareness of unassailable repose and security beneath the deepest levels of the soul. For others, it is the dissipation of the fog of cowardice or dominance. For others, it is the heart-breaking comprehension that we, you and I and those we allow to suffer or starve to death around the globe, are one.
These are merely the present intuitions of Resurrection, not the thing itself. They are powerful and transforming, but evanescent. But we know they are intuitions of Resurrection, the palping of the real thing, because they share these two characteristics: the fear of death is overcome, and the bondage of the self, the binding of petty self-regard, is released and left behind. That is what Resurrection is all about: the triumph over death and the escape from the claustrophobic narrow finality of the self. It is the revelation of our transcendent unity, humanity and all creation, in all its glorious particularity, received and recreated in God’s delight. To live in the faith of the Resurrection is to live affirming that for us also, by the grace of God, death is not our boundary, not our limit, not what defines us. Death is our acknowledgement that we are creatures, yes; but to the extent that it has come to be shared and transformed by the enfleshed Word of God, it is no longer the cancellation of our self.
This is the realm of faith—not what is asserted against reason as an act of will, but what lifts us into just and compassionate strength when reason can take us no further. This is the realm of hope—not what is wished for to escape our sullen despair, but what is affirmed as even now becoming true before we perceive it. This is the realm of love—not what is bartered in the marketplace of personal desire, but the promotion and protection of each other far beyond mere justice, whose cost to our self is not even noticed in our good will and active delight in all God’s cherished and fragile creatures.
Of course we cannot know the fullness of this directly in the body we have, using its calibrations and clumsy equipment. Of course our only hope of entering fully into the joy of the new life we know in Christ is our total transformation. Our body is always our horizon, and marks off the limits of what we can comprehend, but it is at the horizon that we see the dawn. And, as Paul says, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who had fallen asleep. May we, God’s later harvest, join him in Resurrection and rejoice forever in the life of the glorious Trinity, whom we praise today.