1 Corinthians 15:21-26, 30-42
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Knowing the end changes how you read the story. Growing up, I always loved to read. One of my favorite authors was Agatha Christie, most famous for her murder mysteries. Whether it was Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence, you knew that by the end, no matter how complex the crime, they would figure it out and justice would be served. I was always tempted to skip ahead to the last few pages and see how the whole thing worked out. One time I did just that. I was so caught up in the story, so intrigued by the puzzle, so excited by the plot that I just could help myself. I read the last chapter. I learned who did it, how they did it, and why they did it. And it changed how I read the rest of the story.
If you know who’s alive at the end of the story, the seemingly dangerous situations along the way lose their worry. If you know who the killer is, every action he or she takes along the way is highlighted for special attention. Words take on a double meaning. You know who’s suspicious and who to ignore. You know where to be, when to be there, and if you need to pack an umbrella because of the weather. When you know how the story ends, you know the deeper meaning to everything that happens along the way. Your clarity is heightened and you see things the way they really are. As much as the story may be spoiled, all your worries are relieved and you’re given an incredible amount of peace.
Knowing the end changes how you read the story. We pick up Paul’s letter to the Corinthians just as he’s unpacking the crime. In spite of all the distractions and side issues along the way, this is the truth of what’s happened. This is what really matters. This is how the story ends. The main bulk of 1 Corinthians has been building up until this chapter. The Corinthian Christians were dealing with a host of complex issues. They were fighting over which apostle they followed, over sexually objectionable practices, over what religious foods they could or couldn’t eat, even over spiritual gifts. Time after time in this letter, Paul corrects and condemns, teaches and tears down. But when we get to chapter 15, we realize that all their problems are just symptoms of a much larger issue. The Corinthians have lost their focus. They’re stumbling around as if they don’t know they truth. They’ve forgotten how the story ends.
The Corinthians were living as if there were no hope for the future, no resurrection from the dead. All their bickering and squabbling was because they lost sight of the end. They had lost the resurrection on the last day and were living out the consequences of that loss. Paul’s evidence is laid out like this: If the dead are not raised, then Christ did not rise. If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is worthless and you are still in your sins. And if that’s the case, you might as well go headlong into hedonism, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow, we die.” It’s exactly how the Corinthians were living! They were the only ones that mattered. It was all about me over you, I get what I want, I do what I want, and forget you entirely. What mattered for the Corinthians was the here-and-now. They had hope, but for this life only. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” We know how the story ends. Christ has been raised from the dead, and we too will rise. Christ is the “firstfruits,” the beginning of the harvest. If His resurrection is just the beginning, there are more to follow. By this man, the resurrection of the dead has come to all believers in Christ. You want to know how the story ends? Christ has risen, then “at His coming” all “those who belong to Christ,” that means you and me, will be made alive. “Then comes the end,” when death itself will be defeated and Christ will deliver over His reign and rule to the Father.
How will all this play out? What exactly is it going to be like? With what kind of bodies will be be raised? Sadly, we don’t have all the details we’d like. Instead, we get two truths that stand in tension: there will be continuity and there will be transformation. God will raise these bodies from the dead, but they will be changed, as God intends them to be. Like a seed that grows and transforms into a full plant, so our bodies will be raised. The same, but different. Still who we are, yet also who God wants us to be.
Knowing the end changes how you read the story. The Corinthians had lost sight of the end. They had it at one point. But somewhere along the way their focus shifted. It shifted away from the Word proclaimed and onto the one proclaiming the Word. They took their eyes off of Christ and they were suffering as a result. But with this reminder, with their eyes focused on Christ and the end, their lives will change. Paul says in v. 34 of today’s reading, “Wake up from your drunken stupor and do not go on sinning. Some of you don’t know a thing about God.” And he ends this chapter with these words, “Therefore, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Because Christ has been raised, and because you too will be raised, your faith is not in vain, your works are not in vain, and your bodies are not in vain. They take on new meaning and purpose to lead you from one day to the next. There is hope even of these broken bodies.
Knowing the end changes how you read the story. We know the end. So how do you live? How do you read your story? Each one of you is different, with various experiences in life that give you a unique outlook on life. But one thing you all have in common is baptism. You were brought to the baptismal font, many of you right over there. The pastor held you in his arms while pouring water over your head and saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” To all outward appearances, not much happened. Maybe you got a little fussy, maybe you cried, maybe you just slept through the whole thing. But there’s more going on than meets the eye. You know the rest of the story.
All of you who have been baptized have been baptized into Christ’s death. You have died with Christ in baptism and have been raised to new life. The old Adam, your sinful nature, has been drowned and God has brought you back to life. Baptism is the first resurrection. That’s when eternal life began for you. In this life, between that first resurrection and the resurrection yet to come, you and I have to fight against that sinful nature, that old Adam who brings only death. Day after day, temptation after temptation, sin after sin, we must put this old way of life to death.
This all comes into focus at a funeral, both for the person who’s died and for the people who attend. Yesterday, I talked with a good friend of mine from both college and seminary. He’s a pastor down in Ohio and told me about a funeral he led a few months ago. One of his members died at 99 years old. His one request was to buried with a copy of his baptismal certificate. That man knew when his eternal life began. He knew how the story ends. And he did all that he could to make sure those attending his funeral knew it too. Take a look around at the next funeral you attend, and you’ll be able to see who knows the end of the story. You’ll see the grief and the pain on many faces because their loved one is gone. But you’ll also see hope in the eyes of those who believe in Christ. Death is evil. Death is wrong. Death is nothing less than a punishment for sin that we deserve. But it’s also not the end of the story.
Christ is risen and you too will rise. That’s the end of the story. Hold to that end. Look to Christ, and live in the light of that resurrection. That’s my prayer for you today, and in fact, it’s what we’ll all sing about at the end of the service. The last verse of “Jesus Christ, My Sure Defense” lays out the road map for believers on how to live, how to read, in light of the end. Knowing the end changes how you read the story. I’ll leave you with those words:
“O, then, draw away your hearts from all pleasures base and hollow; Strive to share what He imparts while you here His footsteps follow. As you now still wait to rise, fix your hearts beyond the skies.”
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell