A Provocation: Easter Sunday: April 21, 2019: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

1 Corinthians 15:19-26
15:19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are of all people most to be pitied.

15:20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,
the first fruits of those who have died.

15:21 For since death came through a human being,
the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;

15:22 for as all die in Adam,
so all will be made alive in Christ.

15:23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits,
then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

15:24 Then comes the end,
when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father,
after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.

15:25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.

15:26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.1

Three years ago I explored Luke’s story of the resurrection, including especially the impact of the women in the scene. You can find that Provocation at http://tinyurl.com/ProvocationEaster2016

This year, I chose to explore 1 Corinthians 15 and Paul’s understanding of resurrection.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is death the last enemy?
  • What are the consequences of a theology that treats mortality as an enemy? (Include good and bad consequences.)

Some Longer Reflections:

“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” This is a Christian argument, but Paul learned it because he was a Pharisee. Look back at verse 16. Note the order of his argument: If the dead (in general) are not raised to life, then Christ (in particular) is also not raised. Not the other way around. The argument is NOT that the resurrection of the Christ makes resurrection possible for the rest of Creation. That would be a customary enough Christian argument. But Paul was a Pharisee, and as such he holds that resurrection, along with the singularity of God, are the core of proper theology and all of life.

And it’s not about resurrection as a circus trick. It’s not about the ultimate Houdini escape from actual death. For the Pharisees, resurrection was not magic, or even a miracle. It was a design feature of the Universe. For Paul, as for the Pharisees (and for Jesus, while we’re at it), resurrection sets the universe in the context of God’s Justice.

This theological understanding is a strange mix of ultimate hope and ultimate despair. The hope is easy enough to see, I suppose. All enemies, specifically including death, will be put under the feet of Messiah, who comes to turn the world right-side-up. According to this ultimate hope, justice is also a design feature of the Universe. Justice is not a pretty little daydream, not an adolescent imagining, nor is it a project for absolutists and other terrorists who aim to impose their idea of justice even if they have to kill the world to do it. The ultimate hope of resurrection which raises Jesus to life, not because he was messiah but because he was part of Creation makes justice real and inevitable because it is God who made the world so that death ends nothing. This is ultimately and supremely hopeful.

But this is ultimately desperate, and for the same reasons. Locating justice on the other side of death implies (strongly) that it can’t find real lodging on this side of death and eternity.

It is easy enough at this point to bring Karl Marx and his religious opiate onto the scene at this point, and then people can either love him or hate him. That is too easy.

Religion funds both revolution and reaction, restoration and repression. It will not do to pretend otherwise.

But the real problem is that the crimes that demand justice are both solvable and not. A proper theology of resurrection increases our awareness of the necessity of justice on this side of death, and it does this by revealing to us that we would much rather leave it all for heaven. If justice is only enacted after resurrection, our privilege is left fully in place until then. But any serious effort to carry out justice now faces us with complications that confuse us. We begin our effort to make justice a design feature of the Universe and find ourselves with questionable allies and compromised outcomes.

Make a list of situations that call for justice. Make it a serious list. Include geopolitical meat-grinders: alliances with known dictators (think FDR and Stalin against Hitler), peoples locked in vicious stalemates (think Palestinians and Israelis). Include historical assaults that have left marks that cannot be erased, wounds that do not heal: think genocidal slaughter of Native American nations; think the systematic enslavement of people stolen from Africa. Reparation and resurrection have to be wound around each other, or all we have left of Easter is bunnies and eggs. Alleluia.

So, reflect on resurrection and reflect on the real world. Paul wrote: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” True enough. But his argument implies also a corollary: “If only for the next life we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most useless.” Neither state prepares us to answer to Justice on the other side of resurrection.

Alleluia.

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