We probably do not have too many Sadducees in our weekly worship services—people who follow the Law but do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. But I imagine we do have quite a few practical Sadducees—people who say they believe in the resurrection but disconnect the life of the world to come from the life of the world right now. Remove the promise of the bodily resurrection from the teaching of the Church and, for these practical Sadducees, nothing would change in the practice of their faith: They would pray the same, hope the same, think the same, expect the same, and believe the same. They do not deny the resurrection the way some of Paul’s audience did, but for all practical purposes, the resurrection of the body does not matter to the way they live.

Maybe you know people who, at times, have acted like that. Maybe you have acted like it at times, too. You can hear this in the final verses of our hymnody which end with the hope of dying and going to Heaven. You can hear it in funeral sermons which conclude with our loved ones at peace and with Jesus, but devoid of the promise that this body in the casket will one day rise to New Creation life. You can hear it in the way parishioners comfort each other with rest and reunion, but never resurrection. Both preachers and hearers are susceptible to a practical Sadduceeism which removes the proclamation and confidence of the bodily resurrection from the regular life of Christ’s Church.

Enter Paul.

Paul seems to think the bodily resurrection of the dead is a pretty big deal. If your body is not going to be raised, then Jesus was not raised, either; that is “Game Over” for Paul. While we might say that, without the “It is finished!” of Good Friday, you would be stuck in your sins, Paul pushes the foundation of our faith forward a couple of days. Without the “He is risen, just as He said!” of Easter, our faith is empty, and our sins remain.

To drive home his point, Paul uses a combination of logic and imagery (we find this combo often in Paul). He starts with an almost Boolean string of if/then statements I like to imagine as a kind of computer code:

{IF physical corpses are not raised, THEN Christ is not raised.}
{IF Christ is not raised, THEN your faith is worthless.}

{IF faith is worthless, THEN you are stuck with your sins, and the dead people you love are just dead.}

{IF you are stuck with your sins, and the dead people you love are just dead, THEN this religion is a lie, we have no hope, and followers of Jesus are pitiful, disillusioned suckers.}

If you don’t have the actual resurrection of the body, Paul says, then you don’t have Jesus. (Gregory Lockwood notes in his commentary that the word νεκρός, used by Paul 13 times in this chapter, but only here in 1 Corinthians, refers to actual dead bodies—corpses—rather than dead people in general. Paul has the resurrection of the corpse of Jesus specifically in mind.)

If you don’t have the actual resurrection of the body, Paul says, then you don’t have Jesus

While this logical argument is powerful and persuasive, Paul includes a robust image to shape the reasoning and imagination of his hearers (which is simply good preaching practice: Include a variety of methods of development to connect with a range of listeners).

Paul calls Jesus: “The firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” While the image of death as a kind of sleep warrants its own discussion—spoiler alert, we use that metaphor to mean people are lying down with their eyes closed and unavailable to us, while most of the biblical uses of the metaphor emphasize someone is about to wake up—the image of firstfruits carries several important connotations which are easy for us to miss.

Firstfruits are (1) the first evidence of more to come. They are like the first blossoms in spring. If you have ever grown peonies, you know what that looks like. Early in the season you usually get one flower in full bloom, surrounded by buds almost ready to pop. That blossom is the firstfruits evidence of more to come.

Firstfruits are also (2) part of the whole that is still coming. Like the first installment of an inheritance payment, or a solo which begins a symphony, the firstfruits come first, but belong to the rest that is coming after.

When I think of an opening solo, I immediate think of Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin. It starts out with this haunting clarinet solo. Then the piano comes in, and then the whole orchestra, and the theme you hear first in the clarinet gets picked up by other instruments and expanded and explored. The solo comes first, but it is part of the whole which is still coming.

To experience the firstfruits is to (3) already experience what the whole harvest will be like. There is always that first ripe apple which seems to win the race. All the other fruit is green, tinted with a little pink, but you find the single, deep red fruit. And when you take that first crisp bight, the tangy juice runs down your chin. The smell, the feel, the taste, the experience of that first, ripe apple tells you what the rest of the harvest is going to be like.

Finally, in the Old Testament, firstfruits are (4) part of the prescribed offering to God. Leviticus 23:9-11 says, when the first grain was ripe, on the first day after the first Sabbath after Passover, God’s Old Testament people would bring in the first of the harvest of grain to God’s house as an offering.

To set aside the firstfruits as holy to the LORD acknowledges the God from whom this harvest came. But it is also a statement of trust. Hail, lighting, locusts, or war could destroy the harvest at any minute. To bring in the firstfruits is to express your dependence on God for the rest of the harvest.

I personally thought a reference to the OT sacrificial system was probably a bit far afield for a letter to the Greek city of Corinth, until I did the math. Let us see, the first day, after the first Sabbath, after Passover... so that would be... the Sunday of the Resurrection! The day Jesus rose from the dead was the day of the Firstfruits Offering. I find it hard to believe such an awareness is not at least latent in Paul, even if not everyone in Corinth got the connection.

The image of firstfruits carries those complex connotations. And Paul says, Jesus is like that. Jesus is the first evidence of more to come. His corpse is the first permanent, physical, New Creation resurrection in history, but it is not going to be the last!

His resurrected corpse is the first permanent, physical, New Creation resurrection in history, but it is not going to be the last!

Jesus is the first installment, the opening solo of the New Creation. His resurrected body is part of the New Creation even now, ahead of time.

And if you want to know what the New Creation is like, then look to Jesus and His living body which eats, and walks, and talks, and loves, and shares with those He loves. The New Creation looks, feels, smells, and tastes like Jesus. Jesus is the firstfruits offering, set aside as holy to God even as we, God’s people, depend on God for the rest of the harvest still to come.

All of that is good news for the people of Corinth as well as for the people in your pews who face a similar challenge to their faith, a practical Sadduceeism that makes the resurrection of the body both implausible and unnecessary. This connection between Paul’s audience and ours might make Wilson’s Four Pages a helpful way to shape your sermon.

Trouble in the Text: Narrow Hope and Nagging Doubt in Corinth. You could set up the context of how the Corinthians were bringing the basic presuppositions of their culture, their theater, their philosophy, and entertainment with them into the Church. In the Greek city of Corinth, everyone would have known that once you die, only your soul makes the trip across the River Styx into the underworld: No bodies allowed. And it is likely that the culture in the greater metropolitan Corinth area would have been very skeptical of the idea of resurrection. One famous Greek playwright, for example, wrote: “When the dust hath drained the blood of a man, once he is slain, there is no resurrection” (Aeschylus, Eumenides, 647-48; ca. 458 B.C.). Dead is dead. Period. End of the story.

Even if some thought the soul lived on in a kind of vague afterlife, no one but no one thought something as vulgar as a corpse had a promising future. If you offered a Greek ghost a body, they would probably turn you down... they would not have any need for it.

This narrow hope for a vague kind of life after death did not include your body. And some Greek philosophers suggested there was no hope for your soul either. When you died, there was no resurrection, no afterworld, no existence, nothing at all. Their skepticism led to the nagging doubt that this life is all there is, there ain’t no more.

Grace in the Text: Jesus’ Risen Corpse is the Firstfruits of the New Creation. Unpack Paul’s computer programming logic which demonstrates how a Christian faith without the bodily resurrection is not a Christian faith. Then unpack the multifaceted image of Christ as the Firstfruits.

Trouble in the World: Narrow Hope and Nagging Doubt in Our Lives. Describe how, like the Corinthians, we bring the presuppositions of our own culture, theater, philosophy, and entertainment with us into the Church. We tend to imagine our souls after death like the life force of Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda after they die, a kind of glowing version of our physical selves. Remember how neither Obi-Wan nor Yoda left an embarrassing corpse behind when they died? Neither did Master Oogway, from Kung-Fu Panda, for that matter. In fact, in entertainment for young and old, we Americans seem to be content with the soul living on without a body (if it is a family movie), or souls living on in dead bodies (if it is a zombie movie). But we do not image something as vulgar as a corpse has much of a future.

Offer an American ghost a body and they would probably turn you down too. We do not need a resurrection of physical bodies in our culture. This kind of narrow hope for a vague kind of life-after-death-without-your-body has affected the Church [insert your favorite personal example here].

If the narrow hope typical of our culture has infiltrated the Church, then so has a nagging doubt that this life is all there is, there ain’t no more. This doubt natural arises from the skepticism which seems to characterize our age like no other. One of the basic tenets of post-Modernism, the dominant philosophy in the air we breathe, is the idea that there is no perspective-free access to ultimate truth. If I have no objective, disembodied access to ultimate Truth, how can I be sure any such truth exists?

Grace in the World: The Embodied Truth of Jesus’ Body, Risen from the Dead. Invite your hearers to bring their practical Sadduceeism, with its narrow hope and nagging doubt, to Jesus.

Jesus speaks God’s eternal Word in human language, with all the beauty and difficulty that entails.

God knows we have no unmediated access to ultimate truth, so the Ultimate Truth enters into our human culture, where He can be seen and heard and touched, where He can be mocked and tortured and crucified, where He can be raised and handled and held onto, where you can put your finger in His nail marks and your hand in His side.

Jesus speaks God’s eternal Word in human language, with all the beauty and difficulty it entails. You are not supposed to have disembodied access to ultimate truth. The only way you are going to find actual truth is through the embodied presence of Jesus. The foundation of the faith Paul wants you to cling to is not an abstract principle, but a human body: The human body of Jesus, that once was a corpse, and now is alive forever more.

So, take your narrow hope and your nagging doubt to Jesus. He is the first evidence of more to come. His resurrected corpse is the first installment, the opening solo of the New Creation symphony. Your resurrection life looks, feels, smells, and tastes like Jesus. He is the firstfruits offering, set aside as holy to God even as we, God’s people, depend on God for the rest of the harvest still to come.

Christ has died. But that is not the end of the story. Christ is risen. But even this is not the end of the story. Christ will come again. And your physical corpse will rise as a glorious, New Creation body, part of an eternal harvest. In Jesus, we already have the firstfruits.

Note: You can hear a Wilson’s Four Pages design based on this text in this Easter sermon.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 1 Corinthians 15:(1–11) 12–20.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Corinthians 15:(1-11) 12-20.