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08.19.12 What Does The Resurrection Really Mean? 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, 12-20, 30-44, 50-58

by on August 28, 2012

It’s been said that fundamentalists and atheists make the same mistake in relationship to the Bible: both take it too literally. Paul’s teaching on the resurrection provides a helpful test case on how to read the Bible.

Summary Points

  • Our nature after resurrection: only similarities
  • Paul’s favorite metaphor operating on three levels
  • Four points about the significance of the resurrection
  • Questions for Discussion or Reflection

What is the nature of our resurrection? The example given by the New Testament is, of course, that of Christ, and I find the best way to answer this question is that there will be similarities between our lives on either side of our resurrection. “Similarities” implies differences with sameness, or if you prefer, sameness with differences.

Consider these observations in the case of Jesus’ resurrection. His appearance was changed such that his closest friends did not recognize him. On the morning of the resurrection, Mary mistook him for the gardener. That night Cleopas and his companion walked seven miles with Jesus teaching them without realizing his identity. Later his disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. In one of John’s accounts, Jesus appeared as just a guy on the lakeshore offering fishing advice. To Paul, the resurrected Christ came in a blinding vision and a voice addressed only to him. In none of these cases is Christ’s resurrected body immediately recognizable to his friends, disciples, or enemies. It is different.

But something of the same Christ remains. When Jesus wants to convince people of his identity, he offers them the “fruits of his life.” He had taught them that false prophets would be known by their fruits, implying true prophets could be likewise recognized. So the resurrected Christ appears with reminders of his fruits. For example, he presents his scars to his disciples. He shares meals with them. He bestows upon them the Spirit, enabling them to understand the scriptures and to proclaim his message of God’s kingdom. He recites his fundamental teaching, namely peace and forgiveness. In summary, all these fruits of Jesus life before the resurrection accompany him and are recognizable after the resurrection. And in the revelation of this enduring post-resurrection fruit, Jesus is revealed and confessed as Lord.

The metaphor Paul gives to help us understand the similarity—the difference with sameness—of our pre- and post-resurrection existence, is that of two bodies, illustrated by seeds and plants. The metaphor operates on three levels. On one level, we don’t know for sure what kind of seed we have until it grows and bears fruit. This relates to Jesus’ teaching above that, “by their fruit, you will know them.”

On a second level, the appearance of the plant compared to the seed is utterly unrecognizable. The seed is transformed into something similar. In this case, something quite different while bearing very little sameness. In the Greek, Paul contrasts the “soulish” pre-resurrection body to the “spiritual” post-resurrection body. The concept of the body manifests a sameness; what animates the body is different.

On a third level, the seed must die in order for the plant to live.

Applied to our understanding of the resurrection, then, we can say that we won’t really know until our lives have been fully revealed in the resurrection, with all the fruit of God’s kingdom manifest, what our resurrected existence will look like. Second, we trust it will be similar, that is, different, perhaps very different, while retaining some sameness. Finally, we have to die in order to experience resurrection.

On the requirement of death, let us turn to the significance of the resurrection. The fundamental thing Paul teaches is that in the resurrection, God has overcome ALL sin and death. He draws on another of his favorite metaphors, the comparison of the Old Adam with the New Adam (see Romans 5 and 8, and 2 Corinthians 5). In the Old Adam, all die; in the New Adam, all are made alive. This victory over sin and death can only be accomplished by God, and God is shown to have done it by resurrecting Christ from the dead.

A second significance of the resurrection is that hope and assurance that all who have faith can be faithful. This possibility and promise is indicated in Paul’s contrasting words about the possibility of having “faith in vain” and being “still in sins.” This ability to be faithful is, one could argue, the entire point of the passage, as it is how Paul ends the chapter: he encourages the Corinthians that their “labor is not in vain.” Instead, he urges them to “stand firm” in their “work of (faithfulness to) the Lord.” Click here for a longer discussion of this point, but one of the implications is that we actually verify the resurrection of Christ (and our own future resurrection) by the way we live in this life now.

And this is the third significance, that there is hope and purpose in this life. Christ’s resurrection from the dead, while the first-fruits of the general resurrection which includes our own, makes our lives and the world we live in now meaningful. Some churches and theologies wrongly teach that this life and our world now will all “burn” and thus ultimately they don’t matter. So they are apathetic about the destruction of the environment or the state of the poor and marginalized.

On the on contrary, “The resurrection of Jesus means that the present time is shot through with great significance. What is done to the glory of God in the present is genuinely building for God’s future. Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness—these all matter, and they matter forever.” N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus; Two Visions, p. 126.

Finally (fourth), of course, there is hope for life after this life. After realizing that God has overcome sin and death in Christ’s resurrection, after realizing that we can live a faithful life in the power of Christ’s resurrection, after realizing that our lives and our world matter in this life, Christ’s resurrection promises us that our lives and our world matter even after death. There is a life and a world (a “new world” as a matter of fact, as well as a “new heaven”), in the general resurrection of the dead. It is our life and our world that is only similar—marked by differences with sameness—but still ours. This allows us to face death and dying not with fear, but with faith, and in fact to live our lives in faithfulness.

This is why the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is so important to Christian community and witness in the world. Paul says that, “as often as we break the bread and share the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.” Communion is a remembrance of Christ’s death which is significant to remember only because it is prelude to his resurrection. It is a remembrance not only, or even primarily, of Christ’s last supper with his disciples prior to his betrayal and death, but in fact a remembrance of all of Christ’s meals—meals he is able to share with us today by virtue of his resurrection.

As we reflect upon Christ’s resurrection, it is imperative we do not make the mistake of fundamentalists and atheists, to take it too literally. A more metaphorical approach to the resurrection calls us to transformation, not only of our own lives but of the world as well. This kind of transformation is what God intended by resurrecting Christ from the dead and giving us that same Spirit in baptism.

Questions for Discussion or Reflection

  • Has the resurrection from (and of) the dead ever been problematic for you? How might a more metaphorical reading of the resurrection help make it meaningful again? Could this approach to the resurrection help make the Bible as a whole more meaningful?
  • Realizing that Christ is unrecognizable, at least at first, by those who encountered him following the resurrection, is it possible that Christ appears to you today in ways that may be unrecognizable at first? What kinds of things could we be looking for in order to recognize Christ’s presence today?
  • In what ways can you begin to live the resurrected life this side of death? Learning that the whole world will experience God’s faithfulness in the resurrection, what might we do in this life that we can be confident we will “see” in the resurrection?

 

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