Grace Presbyterian Church
February 13, 2022, Epiphany 6C
…if Christ has not been raised…
To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
–Shakespeare, Hamlet, III:1
These words from Hamlet’s famous “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, are of course broadly famous as a key moment of that character’s struggle with what to do in what he increasingly sees as a hopeless situation. So burdened is he that he is contemplating suicide.
This particular portion of the soliloquy contains a particular phrase that has taken on a life well beyond what Shakespeare might have imagined. The phrase “shuffle off this mortal coil” has become a commonplace slang reference to death, and especially death as a leaving behind of the physical life. Note that the soliloquy contemplates “what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil“; while the body is dead, evidently the spirit is still kicking, at least enough to be tormented by dreams.
Based on today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, we’d have to guess that the Apostle Paul would get pretty frustrated with this soliloquy, maybe even jumping up and exiting the theater in a huff. If anything is made clear in today’s verses, it is that resurrection is real, and it is not merely spiritual.
If you were wondering after last week’s reading why Paul was so adamant about providing that whole list of witnesses to the resurrected Christ, you now have your answer.
It seems that there were some among the Corinthian fellowship who were perhaps still under the influence of certain Greco-Roman ways of thinking about the relationship between the soul and the body. In much philosophy, particularly following Plato, soul and body were separate things. In short, much of that thought saw the body as a thing to be escaped; let the cludgy old flesh die and the spirit be set free upon death. Not all Greco-Roman thought accepted this – the Epicureans and Stoics were two such examples – but a good bit of such thought held that death was the chance for the soul to be free of the body, fulfilled at last.
It should be noted that such a philosophical bent doesn’t necessarily result in an outright skeptical or denialist position about physical life after death. It isn’t as if Corinthian objectors were necessarily getting all riled up about this talk of resurrection because it offended them intellectually; it’s also quite possible that they were offended emotionally by the whole idea. In other words, such an objection might be framed not as “that’s impossible” or “that’s ridiculous“; it might as easily have been framed as “oh, gross” or “why would you want that?” When one is conditioned intellectually or emotionally to see the body as an encumbrance, being taught that your body is part of the whole resurrection package can be a shock to the system.
It might be easy for us moderns to scoff at such thoughts or fears, but let’s check ourselves: are we that far from such attitudes about body and soul, really?
That line from Hamlet’s soliloquy, for example, and the evolved interpretation of it as being freed from the body, seems pretty Corinthian in some ways. Are our old gospel hymns and songs completely free from the whole idea of, say, our disembodied souls floating off to Heaven while our bodies remain in the grave or in whatever state they have been treated after death? Or take the whole idea of ghosts, for example – what is that spirit doing floating around all un-embodied? My current favorite TV show, a sitcom called Ghosts based on a British show, plays with all the old tropes about ghosts as disembodied – walking through walls (or even living people), can’t do things like open a door or press a button, all that. I get laughs from it, but the Apostle Paul would probably be irritated by it.
Or if we’re not making popular-culture fun with ghosts, as disembodied spirits, we’re making horror movies about “dis-emspirited” bodies, or zombies. For what it’s worth, that image of a body in, shall we say, really rough condition, wandering the earth creating terror, is probably not that far off from what those Corinthians might have thought about resurrected bodies.
I think, also, that there’s another way that the whole “being rid of the body” idea becomes particularly alluring: when those bodies suffer illness or pain. I know that many of you here in this sanctuary, and likely many of you on the live stream as well, have experienced that struggle, either for yourself or for a loved one or friend. We even acknowledge this struggle in the liturgy for the Service of Witness to the Resurrection, when we offer our thanks to God that for the deceased, “death is past and pain ended.” Being ready to be rid of the physical stuff isn’t that uncommon, when we think about it.
However we frame it, Paul is having none of it. And the biggest reason for Paul’s agitation is not any particular concern about disembodied spirits or dis-emspirited bodies or anything like that. No, for the apostle, the absolutely horrible thing about denying resurrection is that if you say there is no resurrection of the dead, then you are saying that Christ was not resurrected from the dead. And that Paul cannot accept.
“If Christ has not been raised,” all of Paul’s work has been in vain.
“If Christ has not been raised,” the faith of the Corinthians (such as it is) or of any of those to whom Paul has ministered is in vain.
“If Christ has not been raised,” Paul and his fellow laborers are liars. If the dead are not raised, somehow, some way, some time, then Christ is not raised. Paul and his fellow laborers have done all this work in proclaiming Christ raised from the dead, which can’t be so if the dead are not raised, he says.
“If Christ has not been raised,” the faith of the Corinthians, and for that matter your own faith, are not only in vain, but futile, even pointless. You are still hopelessly mired in sin with no redemption to be found.
“If Christ has not been raised,” the dead in Christ are not even that. They’re just dead.
“If Christ has not been raised,” if our hope in Christ was only about this walking-around human life, then (in one of the most heart-wrenching lines of all scripture) “we of all people are most to be pitied.”
But, as Paul reminds his readers, that’s not the case. But, as Paul reminds his readers, Christ has been raised. Here he comes up with the evocative phrase “the first fruits of those who have died” for Christ. And of course, if Christ is only the “first fruits,” we are led to believe there are more “fruits” to come. In case it’s not clear, that would be us, when our time comes.
Again, you have to tune in for one more week to get how Paul envisions all this working out. Verses 21-23 give some description:
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being. For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
We get just a little tease there of Paul’s “big finish,” speaking of the return of Christ. But for this point, we are reminded that as Christ was raised from the dead, the same will be true for those who die in Christ. It’s worth remembering that for readers of Paul’s own time, Christ’s death was in living memory, even if the Corinthians or other recipients of Paul’s letters and ministry weren’t there to see it. It’s a different challenge for us, nearly two thousand years after the fact, to hold on to that hope, but Paul is insistent that this is our hope.
We don’t live hopeless lives. We don’t live in vain. We are not cast off by God to be forgotten or to disappear into oblivion. Our future is with God. We have a future, our whole selves have a future, and our future is with God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #370, This Is My Father’s World; #360, Christ Is Coming!; #265, Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun
If Christ has not been raised…what’s the point?