Easter Day: 1 April 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Paul has just been talking about spiritual gifts and the need for order in the community in 1 Corinthians 14, or, better, in 1 Corinthians 12 - 14. He had significantly planted his statement about love in the middle of the discussion: 1 Corinthians 13. It has the effect of providing some grounding for the discussion and obviating the tendency which often arises to turn religion into the pursuit of the wondersome and extraordinary. In 1 Corinthians 15 he turns to a new topic, but he is still speaking to the same people.
The issue does not really emerge until 15:12, "How can some say there is no resurrection of the dead?" The problem does not appear to have been scepticism about such a possibility, but rather a different understanding of the future. They were convinced of life after death, but they did not find the idea of a future resurrection of the dead attractive or convincing. Some might have thought of salvation as one day being free from the encumbrage of the human body; who wants another one?! Perhaps their vision of the future was to ascend to be with Christ after death - maybe very close to what has become a common belief in much of Christianity: the hope is to go to heaven (and not to hell) when I die.
Paul sees this as incompatible with what he had been teaching and what needs to be believed. Paul's starting point and background is the Jewish hope that looked to a future transformation which would not entail only individuals but the whole creation. It was part of the great vision of peace and reconciliation. For him it was inconceivable that it would not entail embodiedness. Paul appears to see a disembodied state (a soul without a body) as at most an interim benefit (as he contemplates being with Christ after his death), but not the real thing. Hope is not to be rescued from creation (the body and human reality) but to participate in its transformation.
Paul will go on to make some concessions which he could make because he would have shared what many other Jews believed. That included the belief that a future resurrection of the dead would not simply be a repeat of the present embodiedness, as though it means a future reconstitution of dissipated human remains. Rather it would mean a transformation so that those remains would be transfigured into a spiritual body, as he calls it (15:35-49). Daniel 12 spoke of the righteous becoming shining beings like angels. Jesus' transfiguration illustrates what people envisaged. So Paul can go some way to meet the argument of those Corinthians that the idea of resurrection is preposterous. We can see how Paul envisages this new state when we hear what he says about those who will not have died when Christ comes again and the resurrection of the dead occurs. We will, he says (because he is contemplating he will be there!), be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye (15:51-54).
Paul's main argument, however, is based on the account of Jesus' death and resurrection. Here he cites a summary which, he tells us, was passed on to him. It is foundational for faith. It asserts Christ's resurrection. Before considering it, we can already see why Paul cites it. For Paul belief in a future resurrection and belief in Christ's resurrection belong together. They are the same event, except that Christ's resurrection has been brought forward (see 15:20). For Paul you can't believe in the one without believing in the other. The hope for Christ is a statement of the hope for us all. The Corinthians who denied such future resurrection were in effect declaring the resurrection of Christ irrelevant.
Paul tells us at least as much about Christ's resurrection in this chapter as any other writing in the New Testament including the gospels. He links Christ's and our resurrection together and thinks about them in the same way. Christ's resurrection was also not a reconstitution or in his case, with the corpse still fresh, a resuscitation. It was a transformation of that corpse into something at a different level of reality: a spiritual body. As such it/he could appear and disappear. The early tradition reported that Christ appeared in this spiritually embodied state to Peter and then to the twelve, then to the apostles and then to over 500, and last of all to Paul himself. Paul's vision on the Damascus Road tells us what these appearances were like. Paul clearly did not believe in a resuscitated corpse which then came to life so that the risen Jesus rejoined Palestine's population living his way through a normal life in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
Paul's humility does not disguise the major claim which this event legitimated for Paul. It was his source of authority. He is now exercising this authority to challenge the thinking of the Corinthians and does so in part by appealing to common tradition. This very old tradition finds its echoes elsewhere in later writings. Peter keeps featuring as the first to be encountered by the risen Jesus (Mark 16:7; Luke 24:34; see also 22:32). Later stories tell of Mary Magdalene and some think this encounter was in fact the first but was glossed over by male writers. This is certainly possible. Alternatively the story of the empty tomb on which the story of Mary depends is not so early (Paul shows no knowledge of it) and was developed by some who were endeavouring to imagine what must have happened. There must have been an empty tomb, because the common understanding of resurrection was that the new form of existence did not replace the old, but was produced by a transformation of the old.
Not all today will share this understanding of resurrection. Some will prefer a replacement model, which would leave the remains of the original body in the dust. This is probably how most Christians today contemplate their own future. Some Christians would have more in common with the way of thinking of those in Corinth. Affirming that God raised Jesus from the dead (whether with a transformation model or a replacement model) is foundational for reading the story of Jesus as paradigmatic for us all: there is death and there is hope! In our baptism we are symbolically joined to this story.
Slimming the hope down to my soul entering heaven (and not hell) when I die hardly does justice to the message of Jesus for which he then died and in recognition of which we affirm God vindicated him by resurrection. The vision Jesus announced of God's reign included much, much more than a promise of heaven, if it even features at all. Rather it envisaged community, justice, reconciliation, an inclusive meal, a transformed world. It was capable of taking shape already in the here and now, both as an agenda and as a reality beginning to be enacted. Cut loose from its moorings in this wider hope the notion of resurrection (whose ever it may be) easily collapses into individualism. It belongs to this wider hope which we set forth in the eucharist. The latter is much, much more than medicine of immortality; it is a celebration and commitment to live out a vision nourished by the compassion represented in a broken body and poured out life. We may not share Paul's credulity that such a future resurrection would take place at the sound of a trumpet and in our life time, but he was holding onto something which still needs to be there: the hope has to be larger than just my soul. Only then is it good news for the world - including ours.
Gospel: Easter Day: 1 April John 20:1-18
Easter Day: 1 April Mark 16:1-8
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