If the theological locus for this Sunday is how enemies of God are reconciled to Him and how Christians ought, like God, to show mercy even to their enemies, 1 Corinthians 15:21-26 30-42 may seem to be a strange selection for the Epistle. St. Paul is not teaching us to love death or to be reconciled to death. In fact, the very opposite is true. The resurrection is the shout of “No!” in the face of death. The resurrection of Christ is not God’s way of loving the last enemy (15:26). He despises it; defeats it. He makes such a mockery of it that it loses its name among Christians. Death is dead and can no longer be called death, but merely sleep, just a sweet and momentary sleep until the living Christ’s parousia (v. 23).
The ramifications of death’s death and life’s life are now at work among us. Paul argues in vv. 30-34 that the resurrection causes Christians to defy death every day, because of the hope within us. Death in these few verses (30-34) is the denial of one’s self and the daily crucifixion of the flesh by repentance and faith in God’s promise made in Holy Baptism (note the baptismal context). The baptized live and long for the completion of their Baptism, namely, the resurrection of their bodies, from perishable to imperishable. They are therefore ready to put to death the sinful flesh.
To use the words of Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, “Either get busy living or get busy dying.” There’s no neutral ground. And Christians are busy with life. And because we are busy with life and we hope in the resurrection we are always in conflict with a dying world. We therefore die daily. Paul’s contrast between death and life, and between Adam and Christ provides preachers with a powerful way to approach faithfully some more pressing cultural issues of our day (abortion, suicide, euthanasia, physician assisted suicide, sexual promiscuity, birth control, hedonism, materialism, etc.). Paul’s powerful rhetoric runs all of life, morality, suffering, etc., through the resurrection: “If there’s no resurrection, why did I stick out my neck in Ephesus? Why did I resist evil and suffer? If there is no resurrection, why would I discipline my body (1 Cor. 9), and beat back my flesh? Why wouldn’t I become a complete hedonist and take what I can now?” Or for our people, “If there is no resurrection, why would I suffer needlessly of cancer when I could just end my life? What’s the point of chemo, if it’s just going to hurt and maybe never work? If there is no resurrection, why would I care to have children, who cause parents so much sorrow and cost so much money? And why suffer for some far-off hope, when we can eat and drink now? And why not avoid our enemies since they’ll only hurt us?” Without the resurrection, there is no ‘strange and dreadful strife’ between death and life, but only pleasure and pain until death.
Paul is well aware that the Corinthians were imbibing from the philosophies of their day. You may want to consider how our people today are tempted to live in the world as if there is no resurrection. We must, like Paul, preach this to our peoples’ shame.
I have the sense that there is not a lot of controversy concerning the kind of heavenly body that we will have in the resurrection among our people. I’m not sure how much attention you will need to give to 35-42, since Paul is dealing with a particular question about the kind of body we will have at the resurrection: a fool’s question! If you have been struggling with some overly materialistic or gnostic views of the resurrection in your congregation, you may want to do some catechesis on the nature of the resurrection. But I should hope that our preaching in Easter and at Christian funerals would do this sufficiently.
What caught my eye the most for preaching this text is the marvelous arrangement of the resurrection: First Christ, the firstfruits, then us who are baptized into Him, and then the τέλος, when Christ hands over (παραδιδῷ) the kingdom to God the Father. This promise is profound, because it’s not about my preparedness to enter the kingdom, as in what I’ve done to the least of my brethren, etc. It’s about Christ who, as John Donne says, breaks us and makes us, enemies of God, into sons and places us into His Father’s hands. It’s about the God who knows that we would be His enemies if He didn’t break, blow, burn, and make us new Himself. For those unfamiliar with Donne’s Holy Sonnets, here is sonnet XVI, about which this military language concerning Christ’s conquest and destruction of His enemies made me think, for your devotions this week.
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. I, like an usurped town, to another due, Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end. Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captived, and proves weak or untrue. Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain, But am betrothed unto your enemy Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
The battle for St. Paul is both cosmic and personal. I would recommend exploring the battle imagery for the sermon and the various ways we can preach on the second and third articles of the creed from this text.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching I Corinthians 15:21-26, 30-42.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach I Corinthians 15:21-26, 30-42.