A Needed Reminder
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
“The whole place is a mess. We want you to go in there & clean it up.”
The chairman of the board of directors was appointing a new president, & giving him his marching orders. The company had been in bad shape for a while, & the time had come to sort it out, to put everything in proper order. There are times when companies can be allowed to develop unchecked, to go free & see what happens; & then there are times when someone has to take things firmly in hand & get them back in shape.
The resurrection of Jesus was the moment when the one true God appointed the man through whom the whole cosmos would be brought back into proper order. A human being had gotten it into this mess; a human being would get it out again. The story of Genesis 1-3 – that strange, haunting tale of a wonderful world spoiled by the rebellion of God’s image-bearing creatures – is in Paul’s mind throughout this long chapter. But his more pressing concern is with the job that the Messiah has been given to do. This passage is near the heart of Paul’s understanding of J, God, history & the world. It is near the heart of what Jesus himself spent his short public career talking about, too. It is about the coming of God’s kingdom.
God’s kingdom was what many Jews of Paul’s day longed for, & we are right to assume that he grew up longing for it too. They imagined that God would become king over the whole world, restoring Israel to glory, defeating the nations that had oppressed God’s people for so long, & raising all the righteous dead to share in the new world. Now, how this would all happen was seldom clear; but that it would have to happen, if God really was God, there could be no doubt. And the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth had revealed to Paul that it had happened at last, though not at all in the way he had imagined.
Instead of all God’s people being raised at the end of history, one person has been raised in the middle of history. That was the shocking, totally unexpected thing. But this meant that the coming of God’s kingdom was happening in 2 phases. When Paul talks about things happening in the right order in verse 23, he has 2 things in mind: the order of events, & the eventual order, the putting-into-shape, that God intends to bring to the world.
The order of events is explained first. Jesus, following his resurrection, is already the Lord of the world, already ruling as king. Verse 25 is as clear a statement as anywhere in Paul of what he means when calling Jesus the Christ, or Messiah: he is God’s anointed king, already installed as the world’s true Lord. Paul understands the present time as the time when Jesus is already reigning. But the purpose of his reign – to defeat all the enemies that have defaced, oppressed & spoiled God’s magnificent world, & his human creatures in particular – has not yet been accomplished. One day this task will be complete; the final enemy, death itself, will be defeated, & God will be all in all as he puts it in verse 28. The world will have been put back to its original perfection.
That brings us to the ordering of God’s final putting-into-shape of the world. In that final ordering, the Son (this is the first time Paul has called Jesus the Son in this passage, but it fits with the clear implication of what he has been saying all along) will be placed in order under the Father. Paul never used the word Trinity, but at several points in his writing he says things which point toward what later theologians would say. Jesus remains the Son, intimately related to the Father but subordinate to him. The Father shares his unique glory with Jesus. In Philippians 2:9-11, Paul wrote: God highly honored him & gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, & under the earth might bow & every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. If the Father is the one from whom everything comes, the Son is the one through whom it comes. 1 Corinthians 8:6 reads: There is one God the Father. All things come from him, & we belong to him. And there is one Lord Jesus Christ. All things exist through him, & we live through him. Paul envisions the entire cosmos sorted out at last, put into the shape the creator intended; & part of that shaping is the status of Jesus himself, revealed as the Father’s true & only Son.
Into this picture, of a world restored to its original perfection, Paul has woven several strands taken from the Old Testament. He quotes 2 psalms which were often used in the early church to speak of Jesus’ messianic rule. Psalm 110, quoted in verse 25, is about the king whom God will place at his right hand until all his enemies are brought into subjection. This, Paul declares, is now being fulfilled in Jesus. Psalm 8, quoted immediately after our reading, is extremely close to this, speaking of God putting all things under control under his feet. But instead of talking about the Messiah, as Psalm 110 does, Psalm 8 talks about the human being. This role, of being under God & over the world, is not just the task of the Messiah; it is what God had in mind from the very start when he created humanity in his own image. This is how Paul ties the passage tightly together: the achievement of the Messiah, & his present reign in which he is bringing the world back into order, is the fulfillment of what God intended humans to do. Verse 21: Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too. The story told in Genesis is completed by the story told in the Psalms.
At the center of this story is a point which remains central to all Jewish & Christian thinking, spirituality, & hope. Death is the enemy!
This is blindingly obvious to anyone who has recently been bereaved – though some, thinking it to be kind, have often tried to soften the blow by pretending death doesn’t really matter that much, which is utter blasphemous nonsense. To say that death is anything other than the enemy is to deny the goodness, beauty & power of God’s good creation. And the point of resurrection is that it is the defeat of death. It is not a way of saying that death isn’t so bad after all. It certainly is not a way of saying that after death we go into some other realm, perhaps called “heaven” – notice that Paul never mentions heaven throughout this passage. The only thing Paul says here about where people are after they die is that they belong to Christ, as in verse 18 he had spoken of people who had died in Christ.
No; resurrection is not the immediate future for those who die; it is what happens at the subsequent moment, the moment when Jesus reappears as king. That is what at Jesus’ coming refers to, picking up the language of the emperor coming back to Rome after being away. At that final moment, death itself will be conquered. And, since death is the unmaking of God’s creation, resurrection will be its remaking. That, & nothing less, is the Christian hope.
And so we gather in the spring of each year to be reminded of the greatest event in history, the event that has completely changed history. We gather to remember what Jesus’ resurrection means. Because with all the death & destruction we see daily throughout the year, Easter is a needed reminder.