First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 7

William Loader

Epiphany 7: 24 February  1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50

Hope rests ultimately on God and who God is. Arguably, all else is imagination. But how one imagines the future may reflect a value system and, indeed, project a value system back onto the present. If one sees the future as preferably bodiless, this may reflect alienation from embodiedness. A century later than Paul some would depict salvation as primarily the rescue of the soul from the body in whose material it has been trapped by an evil god. That would in turn lead to diminished valuing of human embodiedness.

Already in Paul's time, however, there were hierarchies of values which placed embodiedness very low on the scale, though not yet as the nasty trick of a wayward god. The innocent notion of a bodiless future, my soul going to heaven when I die, can lead to placing little value on the body. The effects can be various: seeing sex as something unsavoury; seeing the satisfaction of the body through food as either inappropriate or as not mattering, leading to over-indulgence. There are wider implications when some see no point in caring about the enrvironment, because one day it will allegedly be replaced by a new creation. Stop worrying about climate change! Who cares!

One of the special emphases of Jesus was that God cares, not just about a distant future, but also about the here and now. Reducing the gospel to a message about how one's soul can get to heaven loses so much of what were Jesus' concerns. They were not limited to the future destiny of individual souls, but embraced renewal and restoration already in the present, alongside a vision of good news for the poor, most often depicted as a great feast where even the despised and the disreputable could find a place. He spoke of hope as the coming of God's reign, the kingdom of God, fundamentally a communal concept where people would live in peace with one another and with God. His vision survives in truncated form - and often lost - in the celebration of the eucharist: an engagement in that vision in the present through the gift of God's grace which Jesus brought and brings.

For some of the believers at Corinth who were schooled in notions of the ideal of disembodied souls, Paul had to emphasies embodiedness. For him the acclamation that God had raised Jesus from the dead was a claim that God had said yes to Jesus, vindicating him, embracing him into his presence. It was, also, however, a template for the future. It is here that we see Paul's use of imaginative reconstructions which were emerging within his Jewish world. While that world sometimes emvisaged an ideal future where Rome had been dethroned and Israel's Messiah had disarmed its enemies and lived in peace under his rule, there were many who also wanted to find a place for those of the past who had died and others who saw this as also the time to bring all, the alive and the dead, to face God's judgement on their lives. Some went beyond this to the notion that the environment would also change, including the nature of embodied life.

Most who embraced such hopes envisaged not only a resurrection in which the faithful dead would rise and shine like the stars, but also that those who were alive would undergo a similar bodlily transformation. This understanding of resurrection helps us to see the story of Jesus' transfiguration as a kind of trailer of what would happen. It also helps us understand how they understood Jesus' resurrection: his body was transformed into a spiritual body which could appear and disappear. In our passage Paul envisages future embodiedness as our having a spiritual body like Jesus' resurrection body, including that those who would still be alive at his future coming - among whom Paul includes himself - would be transformed or transfigured in the twinkling of an eye also to be spiritual bodies to join with the resurrected ones. Earlier in the chapter he writes of Jesus as the first fruit of those who slept, those who had died, in other words, the first to be raised from the dead into a new kind of existence.

Paul justifies this understanding of a spiritual body by referring to the way seeds when sown, buried (as dead), spring to life in a new form. Such, he argues, would be the case with those who have died. Just as our physical bidoes follow the pattern of Adam, so our spiritual bodies will follow the template of the resurrected Jesus, understood as a second, superior Adam.

The passage takes us into an unfamilar world. On the one hand, it helps us see that popular understandings of Jesus' resurrection as a kind of resuscitation are misunderstandings. Their faith affirmed that God had transfigured him into a new embodiedness. Most of the story tellers had to imagine how that was, as they sought to affirm it as their faith. On the other hand, entering their world helps us see that they imagined a future that was not reduced to the fate of the individual soul and did not devalue human embodiedness or human community, neither in the future nor in the present. They sought to imagine what love in community might look like where God's love has its way. For us as for them, God is our hope. That defines our faith and sets our agenda for livimg.

Gospel: Epiphany 7: 24 February Luke 6:27-38

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