Easter Morning – 2019 LSB #457
Text – 1 Corinthians 15:20 (NET)
But now Christ was raised from the dead, the 1st in the harvest of those who have fallen asleep.
GOD’S WILL FOR THE NEW CREATION
Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!) As we celebrate the physical resurrection of the corpse of Jesus, the apostle Paul points us to the End of the resurrection story, to the fulfillment of God’s ultimate will & purpose for His creation:
“…In Christ all will be made alive. But each one in his own turn: Christ, the Firstfruit; then, when He comes, those who belong to Christ. Then the End will come…” (1 Corinthians 15:22-24 NET) So along with our traditional Easter greeting, we add another acclamation of the Church: Christ has died; Christ is risen; (Christ will come again! Alleluia!)
That’s how the resurrection story ends; that’s my future & your future. It is what’s in store for all who belong to Jesus. Christ has died; Christ is risen; (Christ will come again! Alleluia!) But we’re not there yet.
Oh, Jesus has won the victory; the ultimate sting of death & the power of the law have been removed. The grave no longer holds terror for those baptized into the death of Jesus, & therefore also united to the physical resurrection of Jesus. And yet, the final, ultimate victory has not happened – at least not fully.
People who belong to Jesus still struggle with sin. People who belong to Jesus still get into arguments. People who belong to Jesus still get sick & eventually die. And if there is one thing Paul wants to make perfectly clear to the Church, it is this: as long as even a single human body is still in a grave, Jesus is not done bringing the New Creation.
Only when every gravestone is obsolete & every Christian corpse stands redeemed & restored, joined again with a redeemed & restored soul – soul & body, the way God intended it to be – only then will we see Yahweh’s ultimate will for His creation. Only then will the resurrection story of Jesus reach its crowning chapter. Christ has died; Christ is risen; (Christ will come again! Alleluia!) But we’re not there yet, so while we’re waiting, Paul wants to clear up a couple of misunderstandings about coming back from the dead.
Paul was writing to the church in the Greek city of Corinth. In their mythology, everyone knew that once you die, only your soul made the trip across the River Styx into the underworld. No bodies were allowed. They dragged down & hindered the soul. So it’s likely the culture of Corinth would have been very skeptical of the idea of bodily resurrection from the dead.
One famous Greek playwright wrote: “When the dust hath drained the blood of a man, once he is slain, there is no resurrection.” (Aeschylus, Eumenides, 647-48; ca. 458 B.C.) Dead is dead. Period. End of story. Even if some thought the soul lived on in a kind of vague afterlife, no one but no one thought something as vulgar as a corpse had a promising future.
Their narrow hope for a vague kind of life after death did not include a body. And some Greek philosophers suggested there was no hope for your soul, either: when you died, there was no resurrection, no afterworld, no existence, nothing at all. Their skepticism led to a nagging doubt that this life is all there is. There ain’t no more.
No wonder the church in Corinth had drifted a bit from Paul’s original message. The Corinthians combined narrow hope & nagging doubt with the message of Jesus. They were bringing the basic presuppositions of their culture, their theater, their philosophy & entertainment with them in to the Church. Do you see anything like that in our culture?
The result? It sounds like some Corinthian Christians were suggesting we should be content with the life we have in the here & now, rather than imagining some mythological life beyond death. Others seem to have looked forward to a happy future for their souls without regard for their rather embarrassingly physical bodies. St. Paul said that kind of thinking is just not compatible with faith in Jesus. What at least some of the Corinthian Christians believed isn’t the Gospel anymore. It’s fake news, fake news about our body, fake news about our soul, fake news about our future, fake news about the Good News.
It might make sense in the story our culture tells, but that kind of thinking does not make sense in light of the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection. To help them see the light, almost like a programmer cranking out code, Paul takes us through a string of IF-THEN statements:
IF physical corpses are not raised THEN Christ is not raised. IF Jesus is not raised THEN your faith in Him is worthless. IF your faith is worthless THEN you are stuck with your sins, & the dead people you love are just dead. IF you’re stuck with your sins, & dead people are just dead THEN this religion is a lie, & Christians are pitiful, delusional suckers.
If you don’t have the actual resurrection of the body, Paul says, then you don’t have a Savior from sin. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead! That is Paul’s basic message in 1 Corinthians 15! Your faith is NOT worthless; you are NOT stuck in sin; the people you love, even if they are dead, are MORE than just a corpse; YOU have a strong & powerful HOPE.
Because Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!) And more than that, Christ has died; Christ is risen; (Christ will come again! Alleluia!) In fact, you have a concrete, tangible sign of that truth. You have the resurrected body of Jesus, what Paul calls the “firstfruit” of those who have fallen asleep.
Firstfruits are the 1st evidence of more to come, like the blossoms of spring. We’ve begun to see them, but they’re far from finished. In fits & starts the air has been getting warmer, but we still awoke to snow last Monday morning. Firstfruits are only part of the whole that is still coming. Like a SOLO that begins a symphony, the firstfruits come at the beginning, yet they also belong to the rest that is coming after. Think of Rhapsody in Blue, the piece by George Gershwin. It starts out with a haunting clarinet solo. Then the piano comes in, & then the whole orchestra. The theme you hear 1st in the clarinet gets picked up by other instruments, expanded & explored. The solo comes 1st, but it’s part of the whole that is still coming after.
To experience the firstfruits is to already experience what the entire harvest will be like. Maybe you like to plant tomatoes, & you long for that very 1st red one on the vine. The smell, the feel, the taste, the experience of that 1st ripe tomato tells you what the rest of the harvest is going to be like.
In the OT, firstfruits are part of the prescribed offering to God. To set them aside as holy to the LORD acknowledges the God from whom the harvest came. Yet, it is also a statement of trust: hail or lighting or locusts or war could destroy the harvest at any moment. To offer the firstfruits is to express your dependence on God for the rest of the harvest.
The image of firstfruits brings all those thoughts together, & Paul says Jesus is like that – He’s the 1st evidence of more to come. His corpse is the 1st permanent, physical, New Creation resurrection in history, & it is not going to be the last! He is the 1st blossom, the opening solo, of the New Creation: His resurrected body is part of the New Creation ahead of all the others.
If you want to know what the New Creation is like, look to Jesus & His living body that eats & walks & talks & loves & shares with those He loves. He is the firstfruits offering, set aside as holy to God even as we, God’s people, depend on Him for the rest of the harvest that is still to come. Christ’s resurrection is the 1st installment of our inheritance:
“…In Christ all will be made alive. But each one in his own turn: Christ, the Firstfruit; then, when He comes, those who belong to Christ. Then the End will come…” (1 Corinthians 15:22-24 NET) It’s clear what Paul wants us to believe, to believe firmly, without a doubt. And it’s clear that believing firmly, without a doubt is no easier for us than for the Corinthians. Like them, we bring the presuppositions of our own culture, our theater, our philosophy & our entertainment with us into the Church. In our culture & in our church, we have a narrow hope.
We tend to imagine our souls after death as the life force of Obi-Wan Kenobi & Yoda after they died, a kind of glowing version of our physical selves. Remember how neither Yoda nor Obi-Wan left behind an embarrassing corpse after they died?
In entertainment for young & old, we Americans seem to be content with the soul living on without a body (if it’s a family movie), or souls living on in dead bodies (if it’s a zombie movie). We just don’t imagine something as vulgar as a corpse having much of a future. That narrow hope for a vague kind of life-after-death-without-your-body has affected the Church.
There’s a children’s book written by good, Christian people, intended to be read by good, Christian parents to their good, Christian children, that is all about going to heaven when you die. You get wings like angels, you get to run & play, all is perfect & peaceful, & there’s absolutely no hint, no hope, no need for a bodily resurrection from the dead.
The soul’s spiritual existence apart from the body is good enough for a children’s book. And the soul’s spiritual existence apart from the body is good enough for much of our American Christian experience. If the narrow hope typical of our culture has infiltrated the Church, then so has a nagging doubt that this life is all there is – there ain’t no more.
That doubt arises from the skepticism seeming to characterize our age like no other. A basic tenet of Post-Modernism, the philosophy permeating our culture, is that all our understanding of truth is shaped by our human culture, our human language, & the way our human brains work in our human bodies. And you know Post-Moderns are right, up to a point.
I can’t think of the world apart from the way my human brain works. I can use only the
tools I have, whether it’s reason or emotion, faith or imagination, I have no direct, disembodied access to objective truth. That fundamental principle – that I’m undeniably shaped by my human culture, human language, & human body – can lead to the nagging doubt that all religious claims about absolute spiritual truth are the product of a human brain, just doing what human brains do.
So if I have no objective, disembodied access to ultimate Truth, how can I be sure any such truth exists? That’s why the physical resurrection of the corpse is important. Paul doesn’t ask skeptics to trust in some abstract, objective truth. You aren’t supposed to agree to a disembodied access to ultimate reality. Quite the contrary!
God is aware that you & I have no unmediated access to ultimate truth, so the Ultimate Truth enters into human culture, where He can be seen & heard & touched; where He can be mocked & tortured & crucified; where He can be raised from death & held onto; where you can put your finger in His nail marks, & your hand in His side.
Jesus speaks God’s eternal Word in human language, with all the beauty & difficulty that entails. You aren’t supposed to have disembodied access to ultimate truth: the only way you’re going to find truth is through the flesh & blood presence of Jesus, who is the Truth.
The foundation of the faith Paul wants you to cling to is not an abstract principle, but a human body: the human body of Jesus, that once was a corpse, but now is alive forever more. So take your narrow hope & your nagging doubts to Christ. He is the 1st evidence of more to come. His resurrected corpse is the 1st installment, the opening solo of the New Creation symphony!
Your resurrection life is the more to come foreshadowed by the resurrected Jesus. He is the firstfruits offering, set aside as holy to God even as we, His people, depend on Him for the rest of the harvest that is still to come. Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!) is not just a slogan. It is the objective truth which changed world & eternal history. There is more to come: “…In Christ all will be made alive. But each one in his own turn: Christ, the Firstfruit; then, when He comes, those who belong to Christ. Then the End will come…” (1 Corinthians 15:22-24 NET) That ultimate End is Jesus, the battlefield champion, placing His resurrected foot on the neck of the final enemy, Death, declaring total victory forever & ever.
That, Paul says, is the End of the resurrection story. That is Yahweh’s ultimate will for His creation. But we’re not there yet. People who belong to Jesus still struggle with sin. People who belong to Jesus still get into arguments. People who belong to Jesus still get sick & eventually die.
As long as death holds captive even one physical body belonging to Jesus, He isn’t finished with His victory work. Only when every gravestone is obsolete & every Christian corpse stands full grown into a New Creation, only then will we see God’s ultimate will for His creation. Only then will the resurrection event of Jesus reach its crowning chapter.
Christ has died; Christ is risen; (Christ will come again! Alleluia!) Amen.
Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia! Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia! Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia! Suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia! Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia! Unto Christ our heavenly King, Alleluia! Who endured the cross & grave, Alleluia! Sinners to redeem & save. Alleluia! Amen. LSB 457:1-2.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet