1 Corinthians 15:1-26
I was the second Disciple to attend my seminary. The first was actually a transplant from the United Church of Christ, much more recently than I had been transplanted from the American Baptist Church.
A great many of my classmates were from the conservative end of the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition; they were Free Methodists and Nazarenes and members of the Evangelical Church in North America (which began when some members of the old Evangelical United Brethren chose not to be part of the merger between the EUB and the Methodist Episcopal Church into the United Methodist Church). Since our school had become part of a university affiliated with the Quakers, there were a few Quakers here and there, as well as a couple folks from our sister tradition, the church of Christ. (One of the church of Christ students ended up becoming a Disciple before he graduated and was ordained in the Christian Church. He has served Disciples churches in Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, and Kentucky.)
But Ted Gillette was the first Disciple, and I was the second.
Most of my classmates had very little knowledge of who Disciples are or how we do business. “Disciples don’t believe in anything,” some of them told me. Others said, “You teach that it doesn’t matter what people believe.”
I had to figure out how to answer them, because of course neither of those statements is accurate. And of course we Disciples do believe certain things: We believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and we proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world. We believe that Christ is present at the Communion Table, and that we are invited to join him there weekly—all of us.
We believe the congregation is the final authority on matters of faith and practice—in other words, the Regional and General churches may set policies that affect Regional and General church matters, and they can advise us on how we conduct our business as a congregation; but they do not get to tell us that we must believe or act in any certain way.
And we believe that individual Christians have the freedom and the responsibility to study the Bible for ourselves and determine what we believe about all matters other than the Good Confession, which I quoted a moment ago and which we all affirm before being baptized or when we transfer our membership from one congregation to another. (This last is why, I think, my classmates kept saying we don’t believe in anything or we teach that it doesn’t matter what we believe. No, we just value our freedom not to have anyone dictate to us what we must believe. And we teach that, whatever we believe with regard to nonessentials—which I understand as anything other than the Good Confession and coming to the Lord’s Table weekly—we are to treat one another as brothers and sisters in one Lord, Jesus Christ.) It’s not that we don’t believe anything; it’s that our culture as a church does not allow for denomination-wide statements of faith, which every member and every pastor must agree to or they’re out, like some other churches have. It’s not what Disciples do.
Having said that, though, we have to acknowledge that what we believe affects how we act. If you believe that Jesus calls us to help the poor, for instance, then there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to do that, in one way or another.
This is part of the argument Paul is making in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians: What we believe about resurrection makes a difference in how we act.
It appears that the Corinthians believed in the resurrection of Jesus, but didn’t believe in their own resurrection. There are a couple possible reasons for that.
One is that they were Greeks, with Greek ways of thinking, and the Greek world held to a matter-spirit dualism that really can’t be found in the Bible. Taken to an extreme, this dualism led to severe mortification of the flesh—with the goal being to destroy the body and release the spirit which the body has held prisoner, so it might be eternally united with the Divine. The Greek point of view was that the physical was bad, corrupt, evil; and the spiritual was pure and good and eternal. Once your eternal spirit was released from its bodily prison, why would you even consider the possibility that your body might be resurrected and your spirit might have to go back in?
That’s one possible explanation for the Corinthians’ denial of resurrection of the body. Another is that the Corinthians tended to view themselves as having “arrived” at great spiritual heights. They had eternal life in Christ, and thus a resurrection later wasn’t really necessary.
I’m not sure how they would have explained it when some of their group died, though—and it’s clear from other places in the letter that this has happened by the time Paul wrote this letter.
But Paul said, look, if you don’t believe in your own resurrection, then you can’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection, either, because he was the first fruits—the earliest fruit that signals the harvest to come. And if you don’t believe in resurrection, either Jesus’ or your own, then we’re all wasting our time here, and we deserve the world’s pity for serving a lie.
What we believe about resurrection matters, and it matters in a very big way.
Even though the Christian Church has only a very few “essentials” of belief, I think one of them ought to be in resurrection, both the resurrection of Jesus and our own resurrections to come. If we don’t believe we will be raised, as Christ was raised, then this life is all we have, and we will fight death with every possible resource. We seek out the best medical technology money can buy. We spend a fortune on anti-aging products and plastic surgery.
And once we actually do die—because, let’s face it, we all will—or a loved one dies, it shows in how we deal with death, or how we don’t deal with it, as the case may be. If death is the end of us, then it makes total sense for us to spend a small fortune on our loved ones’ caskets and burials. It’s the absolute last thing we can do for them.
If there’s nothing else but this life, then, as the old song says, we might as well just break out the booze and have a ball. Or, worse yet, we give in to despair, a grief that is untempered by hope, because death is the end.
If you read Paul’s writing for very long at all, you’ll notice that whenever he spends time explaining some point of theology, it’s followed by a “Therefore…” That word marks the place where indicative meets imperative, where theology meets life.
It shows up toward the end of 1 Corinthians 15, after Paul explains why he thinks it’s essential that we believe in resurrection and attempts to describe—using human language and imagery, which inevitably falls short—what our resurrection bodies will be like. He’s saying that once we’re clear what we believe, it’s time to put it into practice.
What we believe affects how we live—and that is especially true when we are talking about resurrection. It’s not just about what happens when we face the death of a loved one, although it certainly is about that.
The gathering we have when someone has died is not simply a service of remembrance. We might tell stories about the person who has died, and that’s right and good; but there is something even more important going on. We are placing him or her into God’s care—and we do this because we know, because of what happened on Easter morning, that God will one day defeat that last enemy, death, and our loved one will—we all will—be raised and never again taste death.
But like I said, what we believe about resurrection isn’t just relevant when we are at the funeral of someone we love, or when we’re staring the inevitability of our own funeral in the face. It affects how we live our lives before the funeral.
If we believe that because Christ has been raised, we will also be raised, and we believe that Christ’s resurrection was the moment when death’s ultimate defeat was assured, then we’re going to live differently from the way a person who doesn’t believe in resurrection lives. We don’t have to fear death—because death has already lost the war. Yes, we are all going to die, but that won’t be the end of us. And if we don’t have to fear death, then we don’t have to fear any of the little deaths that are an inevitable part of life: loss of a job, loss of our economic or social standing, rejection by friends or even by family.
If actual death, still a very real force in our lives, but one whose defeat has already begun, can’t finish us off, then why would we need to be afraid of any of these things? Paul’s “Therefore” is for us, too.
Since—not if—Christ has been raised and we also will be raised, let us, as Paul says toward the end of 1 Corinthians 15, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord. Live faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and let the chips fall where they may; because the end of this life is not the end of us.
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Christ Jesus our Lord.