Sermon/Devotion: 1 Corinthians 15:12-28
This year’s Easter,
Dear Sisters, Brothers and Children, is certainly different from all others before it, as it is characterised by all-round anxiety and fear not only in our own country but the world over, thanks to the global pandemic of the deadly respiratory virus commonly known as Covid-19. This year’s Easter is different because Believers, for the first time in recent history, are not able to come together in their usual places of worship owing to the ongoing three-week national lockdown in our country and elsewhere in the world. Specifically, today is DAY 17 of the twenty-one day lockdown and it is the third Sunday during the lockdown period, hopefully the last one, with the lockdown coming to an end this coming Thursday. The inconvenience and utter frustration of being confined at home, etc among people brought about by the lockdown is well documented. However, research has shown that the lockdown has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to slow down the otherwise rapid transmission of this virus death. We thank God though that, contrary to earlier misconception peddled in the media and elsewhere that Easter this year was cancelled, we as the followers of Christ are still able to mark it but from the comfort of our homes, as opposed to going to the usual centres of worship. Praise God for that!
Dear Sisters, Brothers and Children, our prescribed sermon text for today, is 1 Corinthians 15:12-18. The central theme in it is Paul’s firm belief in the bodily resurrection which, to him, is not optional. To him, it does not matter how scandalous it sounds. The scandal is part of the good news. Nonetheless, some of the Corinthians must have expressed discomfort at the idea of a God who raised corpses. Why would God want these bodies? Why can we not just believe that God is powerful and follow Jesus’s teaching to love one another? Do we really need to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? Do we really need to live in hope of Christ’s return? Paul does not budge. If there is no resurrection, there is no hope. If there is no resurrection, then everything we thought we knew about God is a lie. If there is no resurrection, then all we have is this life. And the so-called gospel is not really “good news” at all.
The text does not specify how Paul discovered that the Corinthians were doubting the resurrection, but the apostle does not sugar-coat his response. The word that Paul uses to describe what is being resurrected is nekros, a corpse. He does not say that the person’s spirit is resurrected or that the soul will go on and be with Jesus. He does not talk about loved ones looking down from heaven or floating around. The focus is on corpses.
The emphasis in this whole chapter of the letter is on a bodily resurrection. This is a God who cares about the physical stuff of the body. Though the text does not specify what the Corinthians’ concerns are, their main objection to the resurrection appeared to center around the body since that is the focus of Paul’s argument.
Dear Friends, there are many reasons why a first century audience might not find belief in a bodily resurrection appealing. Even in Greek culture, that celebrated the body in its art, there were still strands of philosophical thought that vilified the body and cautioned against giving into its desires. The body, after all, was corrupt, physical matter. According to Plutarch, death was simply the release of the soul from the body. Marcus Aurelius taught that at death the body goes to the earth and the soul to the atmosphere. The separation of the soul from the fleshly matter of the body was a widespread belief.
Biblical scholarship argue that if the soul, which was considered pure and heavenly or celestial in substance, longed to escape the corrupt body, why would this God raise corpses? This must have seemed counterintuitive to Corinthians who had thought of themselves as educated, sophisticated, and wise. Why couldn’t they place their hope in their souls going to be with the Lord?
Paul does not invent hope in the resurrection. Strands of Jewish thought hoped for resurrection. Paul was trained as a Pharisee and, according to the author of Acts, used the belief of resurrection to cause an uproar among the Jewish leaders who were considering his case (Acts 23:6-10). It was not hard to cause a disturbance over resurrection since the Sadducees, who were present at his trial, did not believe in the resurrection. Yet, like the Pharisees, many Jews maintained hope in resurrection.
Texts like 2 Maccabees 7 long for a bodily resurrection. Other Hellenistic Jewish literature hoped in a redeemed and renewed world (see, for example, 2 Baruch 44:12-14; 51:3; 57:1-3; 4 Ezra 7:9; Sibylline Oracles 3:767-795; see also Isaiah 11:6-8; 65:17-25). Paul shares this hope — that God will renew all of God’s creation.
Paul’s experience of seeing the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:8-11) changed his perspective on when and how God was renewing God’s creation. Paul’s hope for resurrection was no longer a distant future dream. God’s life-giving power had invaded the cosmos and conquered death by resurrecting Jesus. With this act, God declared certain victory over death.
Paul does not care that the hope of a bodily resurrection might be repulsive. Christ’s resurrection is non-negotiable. It has to be, for Paul’s gospel to work. At the heart of this good news is the resurrection of Jesus. If God did not actually raise Jesus from the dead, then God is not stronger than death. Death, for Paul, is not a neutral force. Death is an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is an anti-God power that must be destroyed if creation is to experience abundant life (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). This is a God of life.
Paul’s gospel promises abundant life. How can there be a promise of abundant life if God is not stronger than Death? If God has not raised Jesus from the dead, then there is no hope that God will raise anyone else. Then, Paul’s preaching is in vain; the Corinthians faith is in vain (15:14). And all who have hoped in Christ are to be pitied (15:19). “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17). For Paul, the great enemy, “Death,” is the sidekick of sin. A little later in the chapter he writes that the sting of death is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56). Likewise, in Romans 6:23, Paul says that the wages of sin are death. According to Romans 5, sin has reigned from the time of Adam, and no one has been able to escape sin’s power. All have been enslaved to the superpower of Sin, with a capital “S.”
For God to defeat Death is the signal that God has defeated the power of Sin. God’s resurrection of Jesus is the surety, the first fruit, that God will defeat the powers of Death and Sin for all creation. It is the decisive act that has determined God’s ultimate victory. In an age where many churches are experiencing decline in attendance, some have intentionally decided to share only portions of the gospel that are “seeker-friendly.” In other words, advice that sounds like wise council for living, like being kind to one another and living peaceably, as opposed to less-attractive, mundane subjects such resurrection of the body. While these are worthy goals, the gospel demands more. At the core of the gospel is a God who refuses to abandon creation to the corrupting powers of sin and death. This is a God of life. And that is good news indeed.
God’s unparalleled ability to suddenly inject life into lifeless or dead bodies talks to his regenerating, rejuvenating and reviving power. This, no doubt, sets our omnipotent God apart not only from us, human beings, but also from all other deities out there. This unique divine ability then gives us hope that He is able to change and transform any dead and morbid situation into one of life and promise. Not only, does the omnipotent God change dead situations but he changes them for the better. This is exactly what Paul intimates later in this Chapter, when he says: “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable” (1 Cor 15:42) which is the text of the month of April. No doubt, Brothers and Sister and Children our depressive Covid-19 induced confinement, I know God will transform it into being a situation of better humanity that will appreciate all those small things like visiting friends, freedom to move around, etc that we often taken for granted. From this lockdown we will become more humble as humanity as we were reminded of our human limitation to avert or deal with such deadly outbreaks for which we need God. Specifically, if there is one major lesson that the current global pandemic is teaching us, it is the fact that we are mere helpless mortals that need God for our protection against such life-threatening plaques as the Coronavirus.
Indeed, Brothers, Sisters and Children, the message of Resurrection is all about hope of victory of life over death, victory of light over darkness, victory of health over disease and sickness. For the present gloomy situation in our country and around the globe regarding the Coronavirus global pandemic, hope therefore springs eternal for us that God will bring about the breakthrough we need in our fight against the scourge of Covid-19. The ever- rising curve of Covid-19 infections in our country, we hope, will be flattened and the number of infections drops and the number of recoveries will increase. For our current quagmire, we therefore invoke the spirit of resurrection, the spirit of victory over all adversities that our risen Lord, Jesus Christ had to face. Indeed, we invoke God’s all-conquering power over death, sin and evil which on display on Easter to help us through this dark tunnel we find ourselves in.
To all those bereaved families, dear Friends, we offer them the very words of hope by Paul where he says in verse 26 of this very Chapter: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” .As for all the departed souls who are casualties of the deadly virus in our own country and the world over, may their souls rest in peace and, in true resurrection spirit, rise in glory. Otherwise, our victorious Lamb, we firmly believe, will conquer the pandemic for us and for that we continue to follow Him. Indeed, victory is certain for us. The God of resurrection will, without doubt, transform our current nightmare of anxiety and fear because of this deadly virus into a joyous daybreak of renewed belief in his power and greatness and strengthening of the bonds of love among us as human beings. God bless South Africa, God bless Africa, and God bless our world!
By: S.N.N. Ngqakayi (Bishop)
On behalf of the Serving Bishops