Grace Presbyterian Church
February 20, 2022, Epiphany 7C
In the Blinking of an Eye
Before we get into this final message from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, in which the apostle by turns chides, rebukes, encourages, and sometimes rhetorically shakes his head at the Corinthians and their missteps of word and deed, I have a confession to make. There are times when I can, if not necessarily agree with the missteps of those followers, at least understand where they come from, and even on some occasions find some measure of sympathy for them and their processes of thought and feeling by which those missteps come.
This week was one of those times.
Some of you, particularly those of a certain age, know the experience of which I speak. A day of “preparation” that involves drinking the foulest concoction imaginable, followed by a particular variation of “emptying yourself” that is not likely the type contemplated in scripture or theology. Then you go to your local medical facility and get sedated while they stick cameras in you to see if anything bad is happening in your intestines. Some of you know.
(The good news is they found nothing wrong. The bad news is that next time, in two or three years, I get to spend two days prepping.)
After a week like that, all of that culminating just a couple of days before I turned a Heinz steak sauce number of years old, I can understand why the Corinthians would be icked out by the idea of our physical bodies being resurrected. By Wednesday night I didn’t really want much to do with my body anymore either.
Paul’s continuing instruction on resurrection probably wasn’t inspired by any particular physical experience, but one could see the dissatisfaction with our physical bodies resonating with what Paul offers up here. The intervening material since last week’s reading speaks of our physical bodies with such descriptions as “perishable” (v.42), “dishonor” (43), and “weakness” (43). At last in verse 50 Paul summarizes this rather convoluted discussion with the assertion that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” This would, on the surface, seem to present a problem for Paul’s whole claim of resurrection for us because of Christ’s resurrection.
Of course, Paul knows that, and knows what he’s about to add. With a bit of dramatic flourish – “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!” — Paul makes clear that the body that rises won’t remain in this precarious physical state. Perishability will be replaced with imperishability, mortal will give way to immortal. Paul even gets a little rhapsodic, borrowing from Isaiah and Hosea to celebrate how “death has been swallowed up in victory,” and taunting with “where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?“
Again, some of the in-between material is helpful here. In verses 36-38 Paul summoned up the highly apt image of sowing seeds and reaping, well, something other than seeds. The seed that is planted in the ground looks nothing like what grows out of the ground. And we expect this when we are planting and harvesting or designing a garden. We’d be mighty disappointed if we planted seed and later harvested … nothing but more seed. That wouldn’t make much of a garden either.
So as that seed is greatly transformed as it germinates in the earth, the “seed” of the physical body is greatly transformed as it “germinates” in the earth after death. And what is raised is, like the bloom that grows from the seed, very different. It is sown small and indistinct; it is raised grand and beautiful.
All of this is quite poetic in its way, and the passage has gained a great deal of popularity as a text for funeral services (or Service of Witness to the Resurrection, to be all Presbyterian about it). But for all of this effect, for all of this sense of comfort or reassurance, this is not really Paul’s point to this whole discussion stretching across this whole fifteenth chapter. Paul saves that last point for the final verse. You can guess that Paul’s big statement is coming when he breaks out the Greek word Ωστε (oste), which we generally translate as “therefore.”
And what’s the big “therefore” point? It’s pretty simple:
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
“Be steadfast.” Stand strong. Hang on. Keep at it. Keep doing the work. And that last encouragement – “you know that in the Lord your work is not in vain.”
All of this talk of resurrection and eternal union with God in Christ and transformed bodies and all of this isn’t about what is yet to come; it’s about what we do now with the lives we are given to live here on earth, in union with one another in the body of Christ, in obedience to our God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It’s about not giving up, not deciding it’s pointless or hopeless, not falling away or giving up or wavering, but keeping on and going about the work and remaining resolutely about doing that work.
Sometimes it helps for some people to peek ahead to the end of a particularly intense novel, just to be reassured that there’s a good ending ahead. (I’d never do that, but I’m told some folks do.) That’s kinda what Paul has given the Corinthians here: a peek ahead, something to hold on to in the face of seeming hopelessness or pointlessness.
We don’t lose hope because of the opposition of sworn enemies of God, or the opposition of God’s most zealous defenders (and these days it’s hard to tell the difference between the two). We don’t get resigned to the ways of this world because of, well, the ways of this world. We don’t despair in the face of bleak hopelessness all around or in what seems like a complete lack of progress. We don’t even despair over our own broken-down, impossible-to-maintain physical bodies that find new ways to betray us every week. We remain steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, our work is not in vain.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #369, Blessing and Honor; #—, Thanks Be to God; #750, Goodness is Stronger than Evil.