The Epistle: 1 Corinthians 15:35-50
But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ 36Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
39Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. 41There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.
42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is* from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will* also bear the image of the man of heaven.
50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
You can listen here. Trigger: this post mentions domestic violence and sexual assault.
I trust that there is a God because it is the only thing which makes sense of the world that I know. I cannot believe that I, and that we, are just some bunch of chemicals in a strange cosmic accident which just happened to be. There is too much glory, too much complexity, and too much beauty and joy for such a thing to be true. To say it is all accidental, all just chemicals, would be to deny everything I experience in the world.
To be clear, the fact of God... doesn't answer any of my problems with the world. It says nothing about the savagery, nothing about the evil, and nothing about the horror. To say that God has a lot to answer for, is to state the truth. But the horror of things do not mean there is no-God. If we were just chemicals, just bodies, why and how would we recognise horror? What would it matter?
The old hymn says "eternal life hath God implanted in the soul." The fact that we can even consider such things as our existence, and our pain, along with our joys, is itself the sign of God. It is the witness of something more than mere matter. It is the first fruits of eternal life, a completely different way of seeing the world and living within it.
I would hold to my trust in God even if I knew for sure that there is no resurrection from the dead. If in some unlikely way we could know that life ends with the death of our body— I once believed this to be so— even the death of my body does not negate the glory of God. It doesn't negate the aching sublime beauty of the creation and the life I have known. Even with all its struggles.
When it comes to life after death, my sense is that we are not some spark of life which has evolved out of matter. I think it is more the case that matter gathers (or is gathered) around consciousness, around soul... if you like, and that for whatever reason, that which we call God has chosen to give us our consciousness within the restriction and bounds of a material body. If the thing which is us is not created out of matter, evolved from matter; if matter is simply where it is, rather than that from which it originates, then why should there not be life after death?
In fact, I have begun to wonder if my denial of life after death, and even my doubts, may have been a very convenient way to avoid the implication of the existence of God, which is that God owns me, and I am not my own. I wonder if a part of me, despite my fear of dying, was looking forward to the escape from God, and from life, that death would give me!2
Paul, in the reading from Corinthians is very specific about what life raised from the dead might be like... and yet also quite open ended.
He did not believe that we were to be raised in some kind of ethereal form without bodies. Bodies counted. Jewish people understood that all1 creation is good. God loves all people just the same, and that God loves all... of each one of us. God loves the Andrew who has arthritis and bung feet— all of Andrew. God loves John who is in a wheel-chair— all of John. God loves the body that we have always felt is... ugly. God loves the body that someone else abused— God loves it always and forever. God loves the whole of us, and heals the whole of us. Bodies are important.
Now someone in Corinth said to Paul, "How are the dead raised?" Perhaps they were wondering who would get to have the carbon atoms in my left foot; me, or the person who had them first, and whose body decomposed and was converted into mulch under someone else's wheat farm... and then I ate the flour? We're full of recycled atoms that used to belong to other people.
Paul is quite impatient with that idea.
Can't you see that the way we are raised means that the new body— he calls it spiritual— will be quite different; just like the plant seems completely different from the grain that it comes from?
Our culture thinks of spiritual... as meaning not body.
For Paul, spiritual means a real body fully connected to God;
a body raised, redeemed, completed;
a body who is a person who is at home in the world, at one in creation, and finally... in touch with God.
A person who no longer has glimpses of God, and aches to be closer to God
and yet fears what that reality might be, and how overwhelming it might be,
but a person who can bear to be in the full light of God, and who shines like the sun.
Do we need to argue about this stuff in church? Does it matter?
Because when people say it's just the mind that is 'us,' if that's the essence of us...
when it's just our "soul," if you like, that God cares about...
we humans (Christians and others) eventually seem to end up devaluing the body,
and then... we devalue the people in the body; the people who are the body.
Look at the way we treat people who are disabled, or old, or sick, or another colour, and whose body frightens us. If we truly believed that God loves the whole person, body and soul, would we treat them the way we do?
I can imagine one of my friends who is an atheist saying I have no proof of any of this. I must say he has a highly inflated sense of what he can prove, ... J
but he's correct. As Rev Bill Loader says, our hope for the future "rests ultimately on God and who God is. Arguably, all else is imagination." My expectation of resurrection rests on the sense of a God who loves me through all things, and who will not abandon me in death. How that will work out on the ground, as it were— perhaps I should say, in the ground— is anyone's guess. If we have learned anything about us and about God, what actually happens— the specific details— will exclude no one, and will love all people just the same... and one other thing which is implicit in Paul's words and his image of the seed.
And that's the sense that we imagine far too little.
Our God is too small.
We imagine God is just like us, only a bit bigger.
We are like small grains of wheat, so we imagine that we will become— be raised up— as small grains of wheat.
Paul understands that the wheat, which must die, has no concept of the glory that it will become... that plant which is so much more than a seed.
It's not about whether our imagination of what might be is correct.
It's whether our imagination is too small, and too limited.
And whether it diminishes the people God loves, or raises them up, then and now.
Can an eternity playing golf, to name one common image of heaven which I hear from people at funerals— can an eternity of playing golf do any justice to the longings and to the glimpses of glory that we experience? The perfect sculpting of a new baby's fingers, and the flood of jacaranda purple in any ordinary street, cry out to us that God is much greater than we can imagine, much greater than we can even bear to imagine...
But how can I know? As I grow older, how can I believe all this?
The sort of trust and peace we seek in life and death is not something we can manufacture. It is given to us. And it's given to us as we trust God in the smaller things of life.
In recent years, I have begun to relax in life. I'm at home in life! I have weeks at a time when I love living. That's a very big change for me, and I'm pretty sure it's not something I've achieved. It's been... done... given... to me. I think that I have been able to accept this gift because I have tried to be compassionate toward other people, and not to count the cost. I've tried to live out some of the things in the gospel reading for today, for example. I did that out of grim obedience, in my depression and hopelessness, thinking that at least I could do something so other people could enjoy life even though I could not.
And I found that this kind of living, even when we do it as imperfectly, or as desperately, as I did it, opens us. It's as though we somehow accidently let down our defences so that God can come in. And death begins to lose its sting. And then one day, we think, "Actually, I think this life after death thing is true. Where did that come from!?"
It's all gift. Insist on an intellectual answer or a complete conviction about death before you trust God, and nothing much happens except frustration and disillusionment. Trust the giver in the smaller things, and life begins to take shape and become clear. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also at One Man's Web
Imagining Resurrection (2017) This post, which I had forgotten about, contains background that's shown up in the sermon!
1 Genesis 1:31: God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
2 I am quoting from Love and Death: Consumed, burned, or possessed:
It is a change about which I sometimes feel great ambivalence. I said that we can accept "our own death as a ruthless gift which strips away all our sentimentality, wistful thinking, and self-deception, and places us naked and trembling before what is." I am not quite able to put into words what has been happening to me, but I find that to stand "naked and trembling before what is," seems not to be standing before death, after all. Not in the way I expected.
I find instead, that I stand naked and trembling before life. I am finding that what frightens me most of all in my journey is not the dying, but the lack of dying. I want oblivion, but I can no longer imagine death as oblivion. Oblivion would be at least be a relief from the burden of living, and the cost of love, but it seems to have been taken off the table.
I feel as though I have been ambushed by resurrection. I have no desire to argue for "life after death." Coming from my background, it's an embarrassment. Yet I find a sense of something, beyond the current physically bound life that I know, which is intruding as an unbidden, and somewhat unwelcome, part of my reality. For a moment I can feel some momentary relief from the anxiety around dying, but then find the greater terror, which is that I have to live. To live is to give up the final refuge from life, which is the hope of oblivion.