Resurrection and Other Things that Don't Make Sense
Sermon for November 23, 2008 (1 Corinthians 15:20-28)
Resurrection and Other Things That Don’t Make Sense
Our meditation this morning is based on the Epistle lesson you heard a few minutes ago from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. We’re going to focus specifically on the opening verse of this lesson, a verse that reads as follows: But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Approximately 1,600 years ago Saint Augustine, one of the great early church fathers whose writings were often quoted by Martin Luther, wrote that “no doctrine of the Christian faith is so vehemently and so obstinately opposed as the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh.”
It had been that way from the very day of Christ’s resurrection. When the empty tomb was discovered on Easter morning, Matthew chapter 28 tells us that some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.
As Christianity spread beyond the city of Jerusalem and the borders of Israel, the idea of resurrection was mocked and ridiculed. Greek philosophers like Plato considered the body to be the prison of the soul, so the very idea of a bodily resurrection was considered to be nothing more than an ignorant superstition – an ignorant, vulgar superstition. The Greeks also believed in the power of human reason, and for them, if something was unreasonable, it was also unbelievable.
This was just one of the issues that St. Paul was facing when he wrote his 1st letter to the Corinthian church. Corinth was a Greek city of over a half million people that Paul had first visited in the year 52 A.D. during his second missionary journey. In the Book of Acts we read that Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth, establishing a large and influential church of believers in Christ. But by the year 55 A.D., Paul was hearing about some disturbing problems in the Corinthian church. There were problems with immorality among some of the members, there were problems with members of the church arguing and even suing one another, there were problems with false teaching. And there was a growing problem that some members of the congregation – people who claimed to be Christians – were denying the resurrection of the dead.
I suppose that if you look at it from a totally rational point of view – from the logic that we can understand with our own human brains – then the concept of resurrection of the dead doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It is a scientific fact that when we die our bodies immediately start to decay. That process of decay continues until there is – literally – nothing left. Occasionally archeologists may find some traces of a human body – perhaps some hair, perhaps some teeth, perhaps even some fragments of bone – but for the most part, the grave or tomb slowly erases all evidence that this man or that woman ever lived and died on this earth. How can a body be resurrected if it no longer exists? Resurrection just doesn’t make sense.
Today’s Epistle reading begins with these words: “But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead.” The “fact” that Paul refers to is a historical fact, a verified historical event. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are recorded and witnessed historical facts. On Good Friday, Jesus died and numerous witnesses could attest to that fact. His lifeless body was placed in a tomb – again witnessed by many people. Roman soldiers were placed outside the tomb to make sure that no one could steal Jesus’ body – a historical fact. The living, breathing, eating, resurrected Jesus was seen by witnesses on Easter and was seen repeatedly by hundreds of witnesses until he ascended to Heaven forty days after His resurrection. Paul goes to great length to recount these eyewitness accounts in verses three to seven of 1 Corinthians chapter 15, setting the stage for these words of verse 20: “But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead.”
Although cynics will scoff that these so-called witnesses were merely followers of Jesus who can’t be trusted or believed, one independent historical document does exist. In 93 A.D. the respected Jewish historian Josephus wrote a book entitled Antiquities of the Jews, a history of the Jewish people that includes these five interesting sentences: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
After establishing the fact of Christ’s resurrection, Paul tells us that Jesus is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Firstfruits is an Old Testament type of word, a word that goes back to the time when the first crops harvested represented a reason for thanksgiving. During the Jewish Feast of Harvest the priest would wave a sheaf of grain before the Lord, signifying that the harvest represents a gift from God that belongs entirely to God. And the one small sheaf held by the priest signified that God would provide an even greater harvest – entirely out of His loving kindness and goodness.
So when Paul refers to Jesus as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” he is talking about the relationship between Christ and His believers. Paul is saying that Christ’s resurrection points to many, many more resurrections that will follow. When Jesus was raised from the dead, it was God’s assurance to us that we shall also be raised from the dead as part of that future harvest of all believers.
Let me read verse 20 to you again. “But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Here Paul makes a subtle but tremendously important distinction in how the Christian views death. Although Paul specifically states that Jesus rose from the dead, he says that those who will rise after Christ’s resurrection have “fallen asleep.” From what I can tell, Martin Luther may have been the first one to pick up on this distinction, and since he describes it far better than I can, I’d like to read you his explanation:
“For what was a true and eternal death prior to this and without Christ is now, since Christ has passed from death to life and has arisen, no longer death; now it has become merely a sleep. And so the Christians who lie in the ground are no longer called dead, but sleepers, people who will surely also arise again. For when we say that people are asleep, we refer to those who are lying down but will wake up and rise again, not those who are lying down bereft of all hope of rising again. Of the latter we do not say that they are sleeping but that they are inanimate corpses. Therefore by that very word ‘asleep’ Scripture indicates the future resurrection.”
This is another example of where nonbelievers will tell us that Christianity doesn’t make sense. After all, we may go to a funeral home and politely say that the dearly departed “looks like he’s fallen asleep,” but we know differently, don’t we? Dead is dead. You can talk and plead and scream and cry all you want, but that person in the casket is never going to wake up. He’s dead and he’s going to stay dead. Anything else is just crazy talk. Anything else just doesn’t make sense.
Here’s something else about this whole resurrection idea that just doesn’t make sense. What, exactly, does a resurrected body look like? My eyes are pretty bad – so will I still have to wear glasses after my body is resurrected? Will I still be bald? A friend of mine back in Fort Wayne lost two fingers in an accident with a power saw – will his resurrected body still be missing those fingers? Will our resurrected bodies be put back together just the way they were before we died?
Well, apparently not. In Philippians chapter 3 Paul tells the Corinthians that our resurrected bodies will be different. He says that this resurrected body will by physical, but also be spiritual. He says that it will be imperishable, that it will be raised in glory, that it will be raised in power. Paul even writes that Christ will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.
I have to admit that all of this sounds really good. I like the idea of having a perfect body – no glasses, no paunch around the middle, no aches and pains, maybe even some hair on my head again. I like the idea of having a body that is perfect and immortal, that can never wear out, can never grow old, can never have high blood pressure – that can never ever die. But since I do wear glasses and I am too heavy and I don’t have much hair on my head, it’s kinda hard to imagine how this body – even a resurrected body – could ever be perfect.
We also know that our resurrected bodies will still be recognizable as us. After Jesus’ resurrection, His glorified body was fully, entirely recognizable – no one who saw him had the slightest doubt that they were actually seeing Jesus. The same will be true of us. Our resurrected bodies will be perfect but will still look like us. Just try to figure that one out.
And here’s another thing that doesn’t make sense. When you stop and think about it – when you genuinely, seriously think about it – why would God want to bring sinners back to life anyway? Why would He even think about raising our bodies from the dead? Where’s the sense in that? Haven’t we caused God enough trouble already? After all, we’re sinners. We do sinful things and think sinful thoughts all of the time. Each and every one of our sins is a rebellion against the God who created us. If we really believe Paul’s words from Romans chapter 6 that the wages of sin is death or his words from Romans chapter 3 that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God or the words from 1st John chapter 1 that if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us – if we truly believe these and so many other words of Scripture, then why would an almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing God ever want to raise us from the dead? Why?
To answer that question, we need to make sure that we pay attention to everything that God tells us in the words of Scripture. When Paul writes in Romans 6 that the wages of sin is death, the next words that he writes are these: but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Yes, Romans 3 says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but the very next words tell us that we are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. After we read in 1 John 1:8 that if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, we need to keep reading the words that follow: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
And if you’re going to talk about things that don’t make sense, how about the real biggie, the one that’s absolutely impossible to explain? I’m talking here about faith. The word faith is often defined as “a state of certainty with regard to belief.” The definition of the original Greek word for faith is “a state of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one who is trusted.” As Christians, our faith is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that faith makes absolutely no sense to someone who does not know Jesus – or those who flatout reject him. As St. Paul wrote, we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.
So does any of this make sense? Does it make sense that God would send his precious and holy son to suffer and die for our sins? Does it make sense that our death here on this earth is not a true death – but only a blissful sleep until we are awaked on the last day by Christ’s triumphant return? Does it make sense that Christ rose from the dead – and that our broken-down human bodies will be raised from the dead and to become perfect glorious bodies? Does it make sense to have faith, to believe – as we Christians so firmly and publicly believe – in the resurrection of the dead? And if we’re going to have the crazy ideas, then we’d better keep them to ourselves – right?
No, it doesn’t make sense to us. Our feeble human minds can’t understand these things, and our sinful human reason tells us that the resurrection of the body – a perfect, glorious, eternal body – is just plain crazy. If we’re going to have these crazy ideas, then we’d better keep them to ourselves
But in the unknowable wisdom of the God who created us, who watches over us, who cares for us and loves us more than we can ever imagine, every bit of this makes perfect sense. As St. Paul tells us in the 1st chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians, in Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Paul also writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So perhaps evangelism telling people about this crazy faith of ours – isn’t so crazy after all.
As Jesus Himself said in John chapter three: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
That’s what God tells us. That’s what God did. That is our faith. And now matter how many people tell us that none of this makes sense – it’s all they we will ever need.
And now may the peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.