We shall all be changed

Resurrrection is not a surface change but a deep-down thorough transformation, made possible because Jesus rose from the dead for us.

Full Text: 

We shall all be changed

May 8, 2016 – I Corinthians 15:1-20 (21-58)

 

            This week on Facebook, a colleague posted her favorite church nursery sign:

            We shall not all sleep; but we shall all be changed. (I Corinthians 15:51, RSV)

            In the context of the nursery, this has a very down to earth meaning – babies do not always sleep.  They do not always sleep when we want them, too.  They are not all sweetness and softness and cooing and cuddling.  That means also that sometimes parents – certainly, mothers – who “shall not all sleep” either.  And the need for changing is continual.  It also is not according to schedule, but is a constant reality of taking care of babies and toddlers.

            Although a very much different context, in I Corinthians 15, this verse also has very down to earth meaning.  Paul is indeed expressing the great hope we have in Christ.  Death is not the end.  Neither is death a separation of the body from the soul.  Our hope is resurrection and resurrection is the amazing and utter transformation of body and soul.

            And, for Paul, this is not merely a future hope.  It is not only a hope we have for some time in the future.  It transforms the way we live now.

 

            This is really what I Corinthians is about – how the death and resurrection of Jesus changes everything.

            In the first chapter, Paul speaks of the cross of Jesus: For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

            The death of the Messiah is complete foolishness.  It is incomprehensible.  How could a Messiah who could not save himself possibly save anyone?  Not only that, how could a man crucified in weakness have the power to save the world?

            It is because, Paul says, this is the way God works.  The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.  The cross confounds the shortsightedness of human wisdom and the cross exposes the limitations of human power.  That is how the cross shows us God and brings us to God.

            Then, for the next 13 chapters, Paul talks about how this cross is played out in Christian community.  The Christians in Corinth are having a great deal of trouble getting along with each other.  They are having trouble making sense of the Christian life.  So, Paul addresses their questions, particularly about spiritual gifts.

            It culminates in I Corinthians 13, the great hymn to love.  Paul begins it by saying: But strive for the greater gifts and I will show you a still more excellent way.  He ends it by saying: Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

            And you’d think that Paul would have nothing more to say, that he would end it right there.  But he doesn’t.  He goes on to address the great hope that we have because of the resurrection of Jesus.

 

            In I Corinthians 15, Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians of the message he preached to them, the message that they received and took hold of, the message which is the basis of their faith and their life in this world.

            That Jesus the Messiah died for us, according to the Scriptures; that he was buried, again, according to the Scriptures; that he appeared to Peter and to the inner circle of disciples; then he appeared to a much larger circle of 500 disciples; then he appeared to James and to all the apostles; and finally, at long last, he appeared to Paul

            This message then was not something that Paul made up or that he heard about from someone else, but it is grounded in the Scriptures, acknowledged by all the leaders of the church, and, perhaps most important of all, was experienced by Paul himself.

            And this experience was a matter of grace.  Paul, as you remember, was a persecutor of the followers of Jesus, was doing everything he could to wipe the Jesus movement of the face of the earth.  Paul gave Jesus no reason whatsoever to appear to him.  Yet he did.  It was a matter of grace.

And, not only that, this resurrection is a matter of grace for all of us.  We have done nothing to deserve it, nothing to achieve it, and it is not in the natural functioning of the world.  It is something God has done for us in Jesus – resurrection from the dead.

 

Now, here’s the problem: There are those at Corinth who do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus.  They say that Christ has not been raised.  Yet if Jesus has not been raised, then we will not be raised.  And if we will not be raised, then Christ has not been raised.  And nothing has changed!  Nothing has changed in regard to God.  Nothing has changed in regard to the world.  Nothing has changed in regard to our life either now or in eternity. Nothing has changed!  And that means that our suffering is for nothing, our work is for nothing – and no one has suffered more or worked harder than Paul – and our faith is for nothing.

But, in fact – and this is the fact that we are dealing with – Christ has been raised from the dead!  You can see how nicely this lines up, Paul goes on.  Death entered the world through one man.  Now resurrection from death comes through one man.  Everyone dies in Adam; everyone is made alive in Christ.  But all in their proper order, because there is still work to be done – work that Christ will do in defeating evil and subjecting all the powers of heaven and earth to himself, before final subjecting himself to God, who is all in all.

So, without the resurrection, we may as well just say – Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die!  With the resurrection, though, our lives are full of meaning, not just for the life to come but for the life right now.

 

But there seems to be another question as well, among the Corinthians: How exactly does this work?  Are our bodies raised or not?  And what will those bodies be like? How can this body as it is – so temporal, so vulnerable to decay and change – how can it be resurrected?

Paul considers this question to be absurd.  There are no diagrams or manuals for the resurrection.  But there is a parallel experience from gardening. 

If you hold a seed in your hand, there is no way you can tell what the plant is going to look like.  Unless you’ve been schooled, of course, or are a very experienced gardener, and all you have is the bare seed in your hand, there is no way you can tell, no way you can even imagine, what the plant is going to look like.

And, even though he doesn’t mention it, Paul speaks from experience.  He has met the risen Jesus.  He has seen for himself, or – since it left him blind – experienced first-hand the resurrected body.  And Paul seems at a loss to describe it.  He can only say – the plant is nothing like the seed; so also the resurrected body is nothing like the mortal body.

Yet, God made this body. God created it and has cared for it and loves it.  God wants to redeem this body as well.  God wants to redeem this earth as well.

 

It is, in the end, a great mystery.  Paul himself admits as much.  It is something he will never completely understand – We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.  In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, the dead will be raised, we will all be changed.

Now, I admit, I have my own questions about the way Paul talks about what is to come.  Yes, the resurrection of Jesus is a fact, as is the hope of our resurrection.  But, for Paul’s original readers and hearers, they have in fact all fallen asleep – Paul included – as have generations of Christians ever since.

But this much I do agree with: There will a great transformation.  And it will not just be our souls; it will be our bodies as well.  Resurrection is not a diaper change.  It is not a matter of shucking off the external wrapping and whatever we have left in it.  No, it will all be changed, even what we have deposited, even what we would like to get rid of.

That’s how much God loves us.  Even the part of ourselves that we dislike, that we disagree with, that is dishonorable, that we detest, God will redeem.  God will redeem and transform even the lowliest part of our bodies and our natures and our lives.

I do not know when this will happen.  I do not know how this will happen.  I do not know why this will happen.  It is a mystery.  Because all I can say is – it’s God’s grace – and with God’s grace there really isn’t a why, just as with true love, there really is no why.  With God’s love and grace, there is only death and resurrection.

That’s the mystery of God.  That’s the power of God. That’s the grace of God – the amazing grace of God for us in Jesus.