First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 6

William Loader

Epiphany 6: 17 February  1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Paul knows his argument only works because the Corinthians still believe Christ was raised from the dead. Otherwise it loses all its force. He is arguing: you believe in Christ's resurrection? Then you should also believe in the resurrection of all believers. As he indicates, some Corinthians did not believe in a future resurrection of the dead. It will not have been that they had no belief in an afterlife. They would probably have believed in life after death in the form of the soul going on to be with God. They would have seen the idea of a future resurrection as unnecessary and irrelevant. As we noted last week, this understanding may have gone along with an attitude to physical existence which saw it as just something to be put up with until we are released from it at death (that is very real, given some people's experiences!). That could also mean that they did not much care about themselves or others in relation to the physical side of life. Some probably shunned it; others may have done the opposite and argued that it didn't really matter what one did with the physical body. That could lead to abuse of others and oneself in a different sense.

So Paul is worried by what he has heard and brings out the big guns, as it were. He assumes they will not dispute the resurrection of Christ and so argues that to believe that one must also believe in the resurrection of believers. To understand what Paul is saying we need to understand the world in which such belief in resurrection originated. It began primarily as a hope for the future. For some, faced with the inequities of this life, where the wicked go unpunished and the good often get a very bad deal, it was difficult to believe in a God of justice and fairness. Surely one day the tables would be turned and the wicked would be held accountable. Surely one day there would be some reward and recognition of people who had done their best to be faithful and good throughout their lives.

The logic of such expectation led to the belief that there would indeed come a time of judgement. One could not expect judgement to be meted out in the here and now of history, as some ancient writers, including Deuteronomy and its associated histories, had thought. The Book of Job exposes the flaws in such reckoning. So there developed the belief that people would one day have to give account. For most Jews, who understood themselves as psychosomatic beings and not as souls inhabiting bodies, this meant that people would have to be raised from the dead for reward and punishment on a day of judgement. For other Jews the focus was less on injustices and more on hope and promise. People like Paul seem to have envisaged only the resurrection of the righteous.

This all fits together with the expectations which Jesus raised that one day God's reign would be fully established on earth. That would be good news for the poor and the hungry and many others. It is clear that Jesus saw this as something already beginning to happen during his ministry, but it would be a mistake to imagine that he supposed that that was all there was to it. He would have shared the common view among many Jews that a great day would come when finally God would triumph. Israel would be restored to what it ought to be. His choice of twelve disciples almost certainly reflects his expectation that such hope would entail a renewal  and revival of Israel and its tribes.

Within this bundle of ideas, which includes an image of a great feast and an outpouring of God's Spirit, one feature will have been resurrection, at least of the righteous. This makes sense of the disciple's explanation of what happened after his death. The intense expectation that the hope Jesus spoke about was not far away but "at hand" and just around the corner, led the disciples to interpret their experience of the risen Jesus (the experiences listed by Paul earlier in the chapter) as an indication that another element of the final chapter of history was beginning. It was the resurrection. They interpreted Jesus' resurrection, not as an isolated event, but as the first of many to follow soon. Sometimes we read of Jesus as "the first born from the dead". 15:20 speaks of first fruits.

In other words for Paul as for Christians before him, Jesus' resurrection only made sense because they saw it as the first of many more which were to come. This view becomes more difficult to hold, the longer the delay between the first and the rest. Paul is still imagining that he will be alive when the rest are raised and the event comes to its climax, as the rest of this chapter shows. Later writings indicate that he can contemplate that he, too, may die. For us the delay has blown out to 2000 years, which make it almost impossible for us to think of resurrection in the way that Paul did. But this is the background of his astonishment, that some at Corinth can imagine a different fate for us than what happened for Jesus. For Paul that simply could not make sense. Jesus' resurrection and believers' resurrections stand and fall together. If one collapses, both collapse. That is Paul's view.

It may not be our view or, at least, we may have difficulty thinking about it the way he doubtless did. Too much time has passed. Yet he leaves us with important challenges. Does it make any sense at all to speak of future hope if it is not embodied and social? Paul would be very uncomfortable with the popular Christian tendency to reduce future hope to the belief that our souls (whatever they are) go to heaven and that is all there is to it. In some sense he would have more sympathy for those who want to deny any such after-life. Paul is not basing his faith on what are beliefs about natural processes - that a soul leaves a body at death. For Paul hope in the future is much more theological. It depends on God doing something.

Paul also suggests that Christian faith cannot exist without belief in the resurrection of Jesus. While that must be read in the light of the context of thought about resurrection and while we need to recognise that Paul never understood Jesus' resurrection as a kind of divine resuscitation of a corpse, nevertheless Paul lays down the challenge that faith in Christ's resurrection is fundamental for faith. At one level, leaving aside the many historical questions raised by the accounts and by our different expectations of reality and philosophical presuppositions, Paul sees Christian faith as based in a defiant assertion that God is, and that in God is hope, that Jesus' life was not hopeless, and nor need ours be. The resurrection becomes a symbol of such defiance which dares to imagine ultimate goodness in the universe and so lives accordingly. For some, this seems to entail massive self-deceit, as though we must pretend life really is all positive. We are challenged to believe not because things go well, but because the horror of the cross, which keeps repeating itself, dares us to give up.

Gospel: Epiphany 6: 17 February Luke 6:17-26

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