Epiphany 5: 7 February 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
One may wonder why Paul suddenly interrupts his concerns with spiritual gifts which he has been expounding since chapter 12 to speak about resurrection. The answer becomes clear when we look at the whole chapter and at the whole letter. The reason for mentioning the tradition about Christ's resurrection was not because the Corinthians were denying it. It was rather that they were denying a future resurrection of believers and apparently making do with a "more acceptable" view of individual immortality. One didn't need Paul's concept of a resurrection. People lived on after death in the splendid relationship with God they already had in the present. The Corinthians' view is still more popular than Paul's. What is at stake?
For Paul a lot is at stake and we may do well to reflect on the deficiencies of the Corinthian kind of hope. Paul had a vision of a transformed creation and a new community. Like most Jews of his time he would have had difficulty imagining a meaningful existence that was not embodied. He does not operate with the assumption that the body is something we have or which holds us captive. We are our bodies, according to Paul, and our embodiment belongs to the essence of our being and our ability to express ourselves. Future hope for Paul has to envisage embodied, communicating people. It could not make much sense of private disembodied hope.
The opposing views have implications not only for the future but also for the present. If future hope is a private affair of the immortal soul, then faith easily retreats to become a concern only of the soul and the individual. Much of western Christianity has surrendered to this notion. Any concerns that are not focused on the individual soul and its salvation are seen as distractions from the faith. Notions of social justice or the state of the environment are of little concern for such Christians, because they look to a heavenly world. Growth in faith is not about community and relationships, except in a very abstract sense of reinforcing one's belief that one is among the saved and should get others saved, too. Progress is measured not in the expansion of love, but in the exhilaration of religious experience and in special wisdom and knowledge. We are then not far from the Corinthians, because they showed similar trends on the basis of a similar understanding of what faith and hope were about.
Paul has a big boulder to budge. The Corinthians seem to be revelling in their kind of spirituality. It would take a lot to change it. So Paul takes them back to the beginnings. Having challenged them in 15:1-2 to wake up, he reminds them of what he passed on to them as gospel, which, before that, he had received as a tradition from others (15:3-5). Paul often calls people back to established traditions (he does so with the eucharist in 1 Cor 11:22-25). The opening summary, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, was buried and then raised again on the third day according to the scriptures and appeared to Cephas, sound like a very old summary of what some saw as the heart of the gospel. Not all streams of Christianity made Christ's dying for sins so central, but those who taught Paul did and, just as important, they assured him of Christ's resurrection and that the total event was in fulfilment of the scriptures. This already indicates considerable reflection on the events.
The aspect Paul wants to emphasise here is the resurrection. Unlike the gospels he does not cite the empty tomb as part of his proof. Perhaps he did not know the story, although we must assume he would have not been surprised. Nor does he mention the women, perhaps for the same reason. He mentions that Christ appeared to Peter and this may indicate that he thinks this appearance lies at the foundation (the rock) of the tradition, a view reflected elsewhere, but he does not stop there. He mentions others, including the twelve, James and the apostles. The list will have been part of the information he received; it uses categories which otherwise play no role in Paul's writings (like the 12) or which are understood differently (like the apostles). These appearances are nearly always associated with a claim to authority and a commission. All these people were leaders.
Paul then lines himself up but puts himself last and somewhat shockingly describes himself as something like an aborted fetus. The self deprecation (though one may well ask why such disrespect for such a fetus) reflects Paul's regret for being a persecutor, but also forms the basis for his acclamation of the amazing love of God. Luke retells the story of Paul's experience on the Damascus road three times in Acts, so impressed is he. It is difficult to quarry the texts to find out what kinds of experiences these were. Luke pictures a visionary encounter. Gospel writers portray such appearances as more physical, though not in the usual sense, because Jesus appears and then disappears. Paul's point in 1 Corinthians is that this was a resurrected Jesus, embodied, even though not with a physical body in the usual sense, as he goes on to explain later in the chapter. It was certainly not just a soul, according to Paul.
So Paul cites all this evidence for the resurrection of Jesus because he wants to assert that Christian hope envisages an embodied, fully human existence. Human existence and human community are to be taken seriously both for the future and for the present, unlike at Corinth. Paul imagines, indeed, that this Jesus will reappear and take those alive on earth, like himself, and raise others who have died, bringing them all to be with him. All this will happen at the sound of a trumpet and in the twinkling of an eye. In 2 Corinthians Paul seems to contemplate that maybe he won't last the distance and may die before the great event.
All this leaves us in a quandary, because Paul was clearly wrong on one count, as he later realised. 2000 years have confirmed his growing realisation. Does the notion of an impending end have to give way to more realistic notions of time, in the same way the assumptions of a flat earth crowned with the dome of the sky had to give way to notions of an endless universe? Does it make any sense to hope for Paul's trumpet sound? What would such a resurrection mean? Already Paul's impending sense of mortality encouraged him to enjoy also the prospect of life after death in Christ's keeping. This could easily become a slippery slope where we end up not far from the Corinthians.
But if we might find it difficult to make it with Paul all the way, it remains something of a spiritual disaster if we retreat to the Corinthians. Perhaps Paul's counter arguments may not work so well for us, although there remains something defiantly central in the affirmation of Christ's resurrection which dares to assert hope beyond hope and to claim Christ's place and ours in the heart of God forever. Perhaps our way to prevent spirituality from retreating to the notion of the soul lies less in images of the far off future and more in images of the far off past, such as creation which affirms human embodiedness, human community, and the created world, and in understanding the mission of Jesus which both promised and enacted a vision of a transformed human community. Then the Corinthian spirituality will be exposed for the distraction it is. Our hope also feeds on an embodied vision of change, which gives our lives the creative tension of engagement for change and prevents our surrender to the spiritualities of peaceful non engagement. We are nourished by a life which meets us afresh in the eucharist, broken and poured out in love. In this our past and our present and our future become one.
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