To believe the impossible – 1 Corinthians 15.

It has been a bit of a lark – this dash through first Corinthians. Not that I consider this frivolous, but that I realize, here at the end of the ‘project’, I have not devoted nearly enough time to properly examine the intricacies of Paul’s arguments, and their significance to the church of our generation.

I’ve intentionally worked around the biggest problems in this letter; the supposed “silence” of women, Paul’s inclination to moralize his arguments; his absolute insistence that his words are to be considered genuine revelation (on his authority)…except in those places where he says “this is only my opinion”…

The most famous section of this letter – chapter 13 – I leave to the wedding liturgy; that’s where we want to hear it. It is about more than “love” as we understand it, of course; – love is the word we use in modern translations because we can’t think of a better way to translate the Greek word AGAPE. Paul was concerned that the believers, eager for recognition of their Spiritual Gifts (seen as indicators of their righteousness), had forgotten the principles that first bound the disciples to Jesus – and which Jesus encouraged in all who sought the promise and peace of the kingdom in their lives. Out of concern, Paul counsels love (agape) in, with and for one another as the lasting and most effective mode of being what we now call the church – what Paul called the body of Christ. So it is that at the end of his rant on the passing nature of spiritual gifts (and following a very Presbyterian sounding plea for things to be done “decently and in order”1 ) Paul returns to the basics of the gospel.

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received…”2 Paul is among those who have come to believe; not an eyewitness, but a committed convert to the revelation in Jesus. It is a fantastic story, and the magnitude of it still astounds him. He is still trying to affirm his authority with them; still working hard “harder than any of them…” and it is clear that he knows that this is only the beginning of much rhetoric, and dissension. The last section of the letter deals with his assertion of the impossible; resurrection from the dead.

The gospel is not just resurrection – but without resurrection, the story of Jesus is nothing more than just news; love the Lord your God; love your neighbour; judge not lest ye be judgedthese are all sound ideas upon which to build a just society, but the GOOD NEWS makes demands on our logic. The Gospel of Jesus Christ proposes certain impossible assertions. And it is the business of religion to affirm those impossible assertions. That has made religious groups the source of suspicion and ridicule in this thoroughly modern age. But it seems to me that the test of faith should not be “can you prove it?” Faith should provoke human imagination.

If, on the testimony of Paul, and Peter and others, we can imagine a world in which love can raise the dead – then faith has made the world a better place. If the story of Jesus comes to us with the conviction of faith, and with the support of a tradition of reverence and devotion, but without statistical support, is it any less true? Yet Paul makes claims, and tradition and the churches statements of faith support him, that not only is Christ raised from the dead (our Easter miracle), but so too will all the faithful, then, at the end, the Kingdom entire (all enemies having been defeated). In short, Our hope in in an incredible series of events and battles fought for, by and among the living AND the once dead.3 The real strength of Paul’s argument and ultimately, the power of the gospel of Christ, is that death will not just lose its power over us; it will be rendered completely irrelevant in the kingdom of God! That is more than a bold statement; it is something impossible to imagine.

Think of it – an existence without death, but more than that, without fear of death – without the pain of parting, without any of the misery that we associate with our mortality. THAT is good news, and that is what Paul has discovered in Jesus, and then been bold to share with everyone he meets. Whatever else you learn from Paul; whether you revere him or scratch you head at his logical brilliance, Paul, in his correspondence, has put the miraculous on centre stage. His encounter with the impossible has changed the way he sees the world, and he invites us all to be changed with him.

I’ll admit, it is a difficult thing to consider faith in new ways. We no longer live in a world of ‘mandatory’ church attendance. Parents prefer other entertainments for their children; Scripture is, for many, just another ancient book with no modern meaning; many who do still consider church an important part of their lives are hard pressed to remember why it means so much to them – the magic / the mystery is gone, or assumed, or so deeply buried in our history and tradition, they can no longer sense the excitement of it. But for Paul, the mystery remained fresh and amazing until the very end. Christ is risen, he says, and you can imagine him jumping for joy or punching the air with his fists in triumph – because this improbable statement changes everything for him, and for us. Listen again to his enthusiasm – his amazement – his faith…

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. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 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.’

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. 4

Amen, and amen.

 

 

11 Cor 14: 40 (NRSV)

21 Cor 15: 3 (NRSV)

3Apostles Creed: “and then he shall come to judge the living (the quick) and the dead”

41 Cor 15:50-58 (NRSV)

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One Response to “To believe the impossible – 1 Corinthians 15.”

  1. James, brother of Jesus Says:

    These are some very interesting insights. I’ve been looking at 1 Corinthians for its historical implications as sort of a snapshot of belief at the time. Don’t know if you might find that interesting. Let me stress that I am not writing from a faith-based perspective. Rather, I’m reading this as one would read, say, Josephus. I’m not sure if this puts me in the category of those who think the Bible is just another ancient book; I don’t think so, since I take it seriously enough to examine from what I believe is a fresh perspective, but others may not agree.

    http://commentingonthebible.wordpress.com/

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