Easter Day: 31 March 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
I wonder how many people would agree with Paul's opening statement. It would be an interesting divide. The reasonably well off could hardly agree. We ought to listen very carefully to those who would agree; otherwise we will always have difficulty knowing some of the basic assumptions and stances of our Christian faith - or at least its origins. It is a kind of mirror to Jesus' statement: "Happy are you poor for yours is the kingdom of God; Happy are you who hunger now; for you shall be filled" (Luke 6:21). Without that hope they are miserable, even if they are believers. So the notion of hope - meaning change! - is quite fundamental to our faith.
How do you think and dream hope? Easter for Paul is a symbol and basis for hope. Christ's resurrection is to be celebrated not because now people can believe in resurrection. Most of them believed in some kind of resurrection, anyway - at least, the Pharisees did. Christ's resurrection is to be celebrated according to Paul because it is the first of many to come. Part of the hopelessness which 15:19 envisages is the belief that death is the end of everything. That is why he goes on in 15:20 to speak of Christ as the first fruits.
In 15:21 he introduces a line of thought which will see further development in Romans 5. Christ is like Adam. He starts something new, as Adam did. Paul assumes that Adam was literally our first parent and assumes that Adam's sin infected the whole race and led to death (physical and spiritual). Now that is reversed: there is new life, physical and spiritual. Paul has mapped it out in his mind. In the new order of humanity the first resurrection, Christ's, has occurred. The others will take place when Christ returns, which at this stage in Paul's thought will be during his lifetime (15:51-52). 15:22 indicates that all died and all will be made alive. Paul appears not to assume that all will be raised from the dead, but that all could be. He sees resurrection as part of the reward, not as something universal after which there is a universal judgement of all, as we find in some other early Christian writings (e.g. Matthew).
In 15:24 Paul tells us more about how he had mapped out the future pattern of events. From the following verses, based on Psalm 110:1 and Psalm 8:7 we can see that Paul understands Christ's resurrection as the moment when God sat him at his right hand. This idea, which still comes through in the later creeds, derives from Psalm 110:1 which describes some of the ritual of coronation. A servant states that God the Lord spoke to his lord and told him to sit at his right hand until all his enemies had been subjugated.
Originally this was quite concrete and political and may even have related to the position of the king's throne. It is very likely that when people looked for a future king (like David), an Anointed Royal Messiah, they similarly thought of God enthroning the Messiah as his right hand. Certainly when Christians began to reflect on the meaning of Christ's resurrection, they quickly identified the act as an enthronement and maybe originally as God taking Christ to himself in order to set him on a throne some time very soon in the future. Paul shares this heritage of hope. Already in his time the hope has moved away from its more concrete origins in hope for liberated Israel to something more universal. It also seems to have moved to something more ethereal. Christ is already enthroned - in God's presence.
Psalm 8 was originally about human beings: literally, "What is man that you are mindful of him or the son of man that you care about him?" I keep the non-inclusive form, because it makes it clearer how some Christians could re-read it as a reference not to every human being, but to one special human being, namely Jesus. Thus Hebrews 2:5-10, takes the Psalm to refer to Jesus. Already 20-30 years earlier Paul was doing the same and seems to be reflecting a wider trend. Thus 15:27-28 discuss the meaning of "You have put all things beneath his feet" as a reference to the enthroned Christ, whereas originally it referred to every human being. It concludes that ultimately everything will go back into God's control (15:28), which was what Paul set out to say in 15:24. All things will be subject to him and ultimately God, including death. Later in the chapter he will speak of death in relation to sin and the law (15:56). Ultimately people will be liberated from the Law, from sin, and therefore death. And ultimately God will be all in all (15:28).
Paul is reflecting what must have been a widespread vision of the future at his time. As we read it, we make choices. We can reaffirm what Paul says to the letter; we can abandon it; or we can appropriate for ourselves and our day what speaks to us and makes sense in the light of the wider context of scripture and Christian reflection. We clearly do not share his view that the process would reach its conclusion in his life time; there are signs in 2 Corinthians that he changed his mind about that. It is also clear that not all biblical writers saw it the same way. Leaving aside Ecclesiastes, which pours cold water on the whole idea of death as being anything other than the end, and the Old Testament which, with the exception of Daniel, has no promise of an individual resurrection, there are differences within the New Testament.
What are the constants and what are the variables? One constant is belief in the resurrection. Jesus' death was not the end of the matter. God did not remain silent. Faith affirms God took him to himself, raised him from death. This is a defiant statement of hope. Paul's understanding of that resurrection is that it was embodied, but with a spiritual body. He would have assumed also that the spiritual body was not a second body, but one which transformed the physical body into something new without remainder. He appears not to know stories about an empty tomb, but he must have imagined something like that. The gospel writers similarly speak of a body which has shape and visibility, but which can just as quickly dematerialise. Not all will imagine Christ's risen life that way, but it is clear that they did and that they interpreted it as evidence that what they had hoped for would become real.
What happened to Jesus became then the foundation symbol of hope. He was not left for dead. So we will not be left for dead. People will not be left for dead. In our passage we can see a reworking of one of the hopes which inspired Jesus and the early Christian movement. That was the hope for a new king and kingdom of justice and peace. However it is expressed, the hope for radical change remains a constant. It is very hard to believe in hope when you face starvation or are trapped in networks of injustice. The hope to which these earlier statements of faith give voice was not a hope for self-indulgence, but a hope for righteousness and justice, best defined by what we see in Jesus. So it was not a hope without contemporary engagement - certainly not in the case of Jesus. In fact it is a hope which emerges from the hope of love encountering and engaged with human need and human hopelessness, not promising pie in the sky while washing one's hands of responsibility, but joining with the cries of people and desperately believing there must be more.
The language of thrones and handovers which Paul uses may not be imagery which means a lot to us today. We may also have difficulty thinking about future embodiments. But we find another constant in 15:28 where Paul's mapping ends: God being all in all. That is a rather Stoic way of talking about Jesus' hope of the kingdom of God. Perhaps Paul's way is easier for us to think and say. Whatever we cannot know about the future, we can be sure of one detail: in the end, God. Perhaps that's the only detail we need? That, too, only really makes sense when we also believe God is already here with us, already in the Gethsemanes and the Good Fridays of human existence. Easter is a defiant hope against the grain. It cannot be proved. It can only be tried.
Gospel: Easter Day: 31 March Luke 24:1-12 or Easter Day: 31 March John 20:1-18