A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian in Boise
May 8, 2016
1 Cor 15:1-26, 51-58
As Ruth mentioned last week, the church in Corinth had some struggles. Some different ways of interpreting things that were leading to division. Paul called them to love. Paul reminded them that nothing else mattered if they couldn’t remember to love.
We’re now a few chapters later, and Paul is continuing to talk the Corinthians through the disagreements that lead to division. In this case, he tells them about the Resurrection. And more than calling them to agree and be agreeable, he is correcting them. Differences of opinion are fine over what food you put on the table. Differences of opinion about doctrine are slightly different.
And while we’re not exactly sure what the bad doctrine folks were teaching, it seems, from Paul’s writings, that at least some of them were very Joel Osteen-ish, peddling a message of success and positive thinking. They seemed to be telling the people that since resurrection has already happened for Jesus, that it has already happened for them, so all they have to do is live their best life now, and watch the prosperity roll in as they deserve, pretending to ignore death that they see around them.
Paul says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died…. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
For Paul, Jesus’ resurrection opens the door to and assures the resurrection of the dead. The already of Jesus’ resurrection goes along with the not yet of our own. It means we’re living in an in between time, when one man has defeated death, even as we still face it every day.
We are called to hope.
As Charlie Cousar, one of my favorite seminary professors said, “To discover that Jesus has been raised from the dead and is the ‘firstfruits’ of the entire harvest is to be given a promise. The assurance that there is something more, even though the ‘more’ defies description…provides fresh energy for the task.”
(p 101 A Theology of the Cross)
And so, in the face of death, in the pain of loss, we keep our eyes open for miracle and new life.
A little later in the chapter, Paul says, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!”
Paul, one of the greatest minds of the early church, doesn’t try to explain resurrection. He offers to tell them a mystery. Something to hold on to and to ponder and wonder.
If Paul won’t explain resurrection in three easy steps, I promise I won’t try either.
I will tell you a mystery though.
Death is something we have all experienced. We’ve all lost people we loved. Our language about death, though, reveals our reticence to acknowledge it. I just used the word “lost” to describe death, but that’s not quite right, is it? Our loved ones are not misplaced. We speak about the loss of death as passing on, crossing over, going home, crossing the rainbow bridge, joining the choir triumphant, or even pining for the fjords (if you’re a Monty Python fan). We hesitate to say the word “dead”.
And we also experience death in ways other than physical death at the end of life. We face the death of relationships, the death of what you thought were the plans for the future, or the death of possibility. All of those can be reasons to mourn as well.
Because, in fact, death means a real ending.
And this is where resurrection comes in.
We don’t have to get hung up on the intricacies of Paul’s argument here. Or fully know and explain resurrection. We just have to listen for a mystery.
After a death, when we’re standing literally or metaphorically at a tomb, we discover that we are in a new world. We cannot go back to the way things were. There is nothing we can do that would return us to our old reality. Opening the door of the tomb will not return us. We are changed.
Paul says “We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,…”
And this is where I’ve seen resurrection. In those moments where there is no choice but to be transformed, to live into a new world, one that didn’t exist for you before the death. In those twinkling of an eye moments where life changes course.
Resurrection transforms us. But often, we don’t want to be changed. We liked things just fine the way they were. Living into the truth and mystery of resurrection is not easy and rarely something we would have chosen on our own. Resurrection is often something we are dragged into, kicking and screaming the whole way, until we discover the transformation can’t be undone. And so life goes on—new, different, the same, tragic and yet still beautiful.
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.’
Paul refers to what follows after death as victory. That can be hard to see. My experience with death and loss has rarely felt like victory. At first. If Paul is right that the change happens in a blink of an eye, our ability to see the victory may take a little longer. And I hope we can be kind to ourselves and to others as we take the time it needs for our vision to adjust to the way in which death turns into victory.
I’m sure many of you are wondering why in the world a pastor would choose this passage for Mother’s Day. Even, especially, this pastor who doesn’t celebrate mother’s day as a religious holiday. I could use the excuse that it is the assigned text in the Narrative Lectionary, through which we have been reading this year. And that’s true.
But Mother’s Day is a complicated day, for many of us. Our relationships to our own mothers. Our relationship to being or not being mothers/parents in a world where women are rewarded for fertility and punished for its absence. This is a day of celebration for many of us. At the same time, it can be a day of grief and loss.
I think I push back against the Hallmark notion of Mother’s Day, where only happiness and flowers are allowed, because the reality of death and resurrection requires more nuance.
As Gretchen Schmelzer wrote in an article I read this week:
“So let’s work to create a different celebration that would support a woman to hold her joy and her sorrows. Her joys as a mother and her losses as a mother. Her joys of her mother and her losses of a mother. Let’s work to support a woman to hold the love she has of her children with the sorrows of the children that couldn’t be. Let’s create a different celebration that doesn’t ask a woman to hold only one side of her story about mothers and motherhood on Mother’s Day. Let’s create a different celebration that allows her to hold all of her experience so that she may weave them gratefully into a single cloth. Let’s make the celebrations and conversations as big as the hearts of the women we are celebrating.”
Mother’s Day perfectly lifts up the contradictions of living in the already/not yet world of the resurrection. Through the earthly love of parents, we catch a glimpse of the perfect love of God. And because of the earthly nature of death, we experience how love both transcends death and is broken up and devastated by death.
Linda Dahlstrom Anderson is the mother of two boys. One of them is 9. His older brother was 7 months old when he died of bacterial meningitis. She writes about how she celebrates and lifts up both of her kids on Mother’s Day, even though only one of her sons is still with her. She writes:
“He was the boy who made me a mother — and then taught me that even death is no barrier to the love between a parent and child. It goes on forever.”
What Paul is calling the Corinthians to do is to claim the power of resurrection in a world that pretends death has more power than it does. John Donne picks up Paul’s language from this passage in Holy Sonnet 10, more commonly known as “Death, be not proud”.
Death, be not proud (Holy Sonnet 10)
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy’ or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
My teachers had me read that poem in high school. I’m not sure I’d experienced enough life at that point to get it. I see it now. I get why we call death Mighty and Dreadful. I also now know of the love that transcends grief, loss, and death, making death seem a stop on the journey.
In the church calendar, we are still in the season of Easter. And the story of Easter is a story of discovery, of learning that death is not what we thought it was. Easter is a story of being offered hope in the presence of an ending.
At our Sabbath Service, this next weekend, we’ll celebrate Pentecost, when the Spirit came to the early church, and we’ll move into a new season in the life of the church. Easter is one season we never quite leave, though. We are always Easter people, living into the promise of Life. And so, as Paul writes, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
May it be so.