I Corinthians 15
I Corinthians 15:1-11: Paul’s letter has ranged over a variety of topics, some the Corinthian Christians had asked him about, and some Paul wanted to address given what he was hearing about this church. Now Paul wants to get back to the bedrock of the faith. In one way he has already done that in chapter 13, where he proclaims the primacy of love for the Christian life. But why is love the standard for our lives? What grounds our deepest convictions about life? In this chapter Paul wants to remind the Corinthian Jesus community about the central convictions of the Christian faith.
The good news (gospel – basic Christian message) is one that Paul has proclaimed. The Corinthians have received it, stand in it, are being saved by it – if they hold firmly to it. That is to say, this good news only has the power to save, to make life whole, if we let it do so. There is not here any exclusive claim about Christian faith as the only saving way, only a claim that for Christian faith to be a saving way one must persist in it, and the “saving” is having one’s life formed by the Spirit of Christ in love.
Paul has received and has handed on this tradition: that Christ died, and that his death was meaningful for us as we were trapped in sin. This efficacious dying was “in accordance with the scriptures.” This is not to say that these events are the fulfillment of predictions, rather it is to say that the God known through the Jewish Scriptures has acted in a way consistent with that witness in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christ died, Christ was buried (his death was a real death, this in contradiction to some who wanted to proclaim that the “God part” of Jesus did not participate in this dying or that the death was not a real death), Christ was raised on the third day “in accordance with the scriptures. It is crucial to see that this earliest summary of Christian faith does not portray the “life and teachings” of Jesus as a great hero to be emulated, but refers to his death (his truly human life) and his resurrection (God’s act, not an “accomplishment” of Jesus). The death and resurrection stand for the Christ event as a whole, the act of God for human salvation. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Clearly the life and teaching of Jesus were important, as four gospels were soon composed to share the life and teaching, but the point here is that for Christian faith Jesus is something more than a “good teacher.” For Christian faith, God was at work in a special way in Jesus, in a unique way. One need not claim that God never acts in any other tradition, but to be a Christian is to claim that God was at work in a special way in Jesus and because of that, life is different, because of that I can be different, because of that I can make a difference in the world.
“Christ died for our sins” is a phrase that can mean different things, as the history of Christian theology demonstrates. Let me reprint some of what I have previously written about the significance of Jesus’ death. The gospels also proclaim that this death was meaningful and significant. In that, they agree with Paul, who is writing before the gospel writers.
All of the gospels report that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities. “There is no more certain fact in history that the execution of Jesus by the Roman occupational forces in Jerusalem at a Passover festival ca. 30 CE” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). It seems almost as sure that certain of the Jewish leaders at the time collaborated in his execution. There had been an uneasy peace established between Rome and Jerusalem, and some had a stake in maintaining that peace. If Jesus was seen as a threat to that, and he certainly seems to have been, then that threat needed to be taken care of. Historically, then, this is why Jesus died. But the Christian church and Christian faith has been almost unanimous in saying that the death of Jesus had a deeper meaning, a theological and religious significance. For Paul, this is a part of the gospel he was taught and has now handed down to the Corinthian Christians. What is this theological/religious significance?
“For all his followers, Jesus’ death was a terrible, unexpected surprise that shattered their hopes” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). But the death of Jesus was not the end of the story. They later experienced Jesus as alive and vindicated by God. Their later experience forced them to reevaluate and reinterpret Jesus’ death. Somehow even his death must be significant. Even here God must have been at work in some way. A variety of interpretations of the significance of Jesus death are offered in the New Testament and in the history of Christian theology (theologically these are referred to as “atonement theories”). “The meaning of Jesus’ death was understood in a variety of ways: as an expression of Jesus’/God’s love, as the means of God’s forgiveness, as an atoning sacrifice, as an act of sealing or eschatologically renewing God’s covenant with his people, as redemptive liberation from slavery or ransom from captivity, and in numerous other concepts and images that express the saving act of God in the death of Jesus” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). There are those in the Christian community of faith who argue that there is only one appropriate way to understand the theological/religious significance of the death of Jesus. It is probably fair to say that substitutionary atonement is the only way that many or even most contemporary Christians understand faith in the sacrificial and salvific death of Jesus…. It is not just that Jesus offered his life in atonement for sin, but that God demanded it as a condition for our forgiveness. (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 101). Crossan and Borg wonder if there are better metaphors for understanding God and thus for understanding the significance of the death of Jesus. Jesus may be said to have sacrificed his life “for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kingdom of God” (The Last Week, 154), but this is a different kind of sacrifice than one required by God so that God might forgive. Walter Wink, in his brilliant book on “the son of man” traditions in the Bible and particularly in the New Testament (The Human Being) writes perceptively about the significance of the death of Jesus and about the theories of his death in the history of Christian theology. Of most views of the significance of Jesus’ death, Wink writes, “All these views share the presupposition that God had Jesus killed in order to redeem the world. None of them makes realistic sense of the fact that Jesus was executed by the religious and political establishment.” (105) Wink then rehearses many of the traditional theories and ends up with the following: There is truth in most of these atonement theories…. The point is that no religious experience can be made normative for all people. God reaches out to us in love wherever we are and instigates what leads us to wholeness. Each response if divinely tailored to meet our situations…. The virtue of multiple images of the atonement in the New Testament is that each communicates some aspect of forgiveness and new life, without a single model being elevated as exclusively correct. Atonement theories are need-specific remedies for the spiritual afflictions that assail us. (110-111)
All of this is to say that the bottom line New Testament affirmation is that the death of Jesus, a brutal execution at the hands of legitimate authorities, has significance for our lives and our relationship to God. Just what that significance is is open to a rich variety of interpretations, and that is perhaps as it should be. Rather than argue that there is only one true way to understand the meaning of Jesus death for our lives we would do well to listen to others as they share their understandings. Such conversations have the potential to contribute a great deal to our own formation as disciples of Jesus – this Jesus who trusted God even when he felt God’s absence.
“He was raised on the third day… and appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” This is the earliest account we have of the resurrection in the New Testament. Notice that Paul does not distinguish between his experience of the raised Jesus and the experience of the other apostles. While this telling of the resurrection story is meant to say that it was not merely a subjective experience – Jesus appeared to more than five hundred at once, it tells us little about the exact nature of that experience. Again, allow me to reprint some of what I have already written about the resurrection of Jesus.
The People’s New Testament Commentary notes that “the resurrection of Jesus, i.e., God’s act in raising up Jesus, is central to the Christian faith.” I would agree – but what does that mean? The commentary goes on to say that resurrection is God’s action and that it is “to be distinguished from resuscitation, i.e., the restoration of a dead person to this-worldly life…. Jesus was raised to a new order of being beyond this life.” Resurrection in first century Judaism was a concept that was meant to say something about the ultimate justice of God. In the end, God’s justice would prevail – thus resurrection is an “eschatological” concept and it was sign of the kingdom of God. Another way of saying this is that in the resurrection the Christian community affirms that just as God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world was breaking into the world in Jesus teaching, healing and feeding, so it continues to break into the world through Jesus even though Jesus was crucified. “The resurrection faith of the earliest Christians was expressed and communicated in several forms: songs, creeds, sermons, and stories.” “The Gospel stories of the resurrection are thus not to be harmonized. They differ on such items as who went to the tomb and when, the nature of the resurrection body of Jesus, and the location and chronology of Jesus’ appearances.” To my mind the very variety in these stories indicates that we may be dealing with something more than an easily identifiable historical event.
Here are some comments from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, from their book, The Last Week. So Easter is utterly central. But what was it?... When we think about Easter, we must consider several foundational questions. What kind of stories are the Easter stories? What kind of language are they told in, and how is that language being used? Are they intended as historical reports and thus to be understood as history remembered (whether correctly or incorrectly)? Or do they use the language of parable and metaphor to express truths that are much more than factual? Or some combination of the two? (190) We are convinced that an emphasis on the historical factuality of the Easter stories, as if they were reporting events that could have been photographed, gets in the way of understanding them…. Seeing the Easter stories as parable does not involve a denial of their factuality. It’s quite happy leaving the question open. What it does insist upon is that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. (191, 193) Two themes run through these stories that sum up the central meanings of Easter. Jesus lives. He continues to be experienced after his death, though in a radically new way…. God has vindicated Jesus. God has said “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers who executed him. In the words of the earliest and most widespread post-Easter affirmation about Jesus in the New Testament, ‘Jesus is Lord.” And if Jesus is Lord, the lords of this world are not. (204, 205, 206)
Marcus Borg, in his own work Jesus builds on some of the themes already presented in his work with Crossan. While Matthew is the first writing we have in the New Testament (and Mark follows Matthew but was written earlier), Paul’s letters are earlier. Paul provides the earliest witness to the resurrection, and in his writings (as we shall see) he bundles together his own experience of the risen Christ with those of others who experienced him. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Paul thought of the appearances of the risen Jesus to others as also visions…. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the thought that the experiences of the risen Jesus were visions…. But not all visions are hallucinations…. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus changed his life. (277-278) Borg goes on discuss other aspects of the resurrection. But I am aware that a historical question can still be asked: what happened? What I am confident of is this. The followers of Jesus had experiences of him after his death that convinced them that he continued to be a figure of the present. Almost certainly some of these experiences were visions; it would be surprising if there weren’t any…. I think there were nonvisionary experiences of the risen Jesus…. I think his followers felt the continuing presence of Jesus with them, recognized the same Spirit that they had known in him during his historical life continuing to be present, and knew the power they had known in Jesus continuing to operate – the power of healing, the power to change lives, the power to create new forms of community. And I think these kinds of experiences have continued among Christians ever since…. For me, the truth of the claim “God raised Jesus” is grounded in these kind of experiences…. And there is one more thing to say about the experiences that lie at the heart of Easter. They carried with them the conviction that God had vindicated Jesus…. There is a continuity between the post-Easter conviction that God has vindicated Jesus and the message of the pre-Easter Jesus. “Jesus is Lord” is the post-Easter equivalent of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. (287, 288, 289) What did Easter mean to the first followers of Jesus?... First, the followers of Jesus continued to experience him after his death. They continued to know him as a figure of the present, and not simply as a figure from the past…. Second, Easter meant that God had vindicated Jesus…. To put these two meanings as concisely as possible, Easter meant “Jesus lives,” and “Jesus is Lord.” (276)
Finally, before I add a few more words of my own, a few words from George Ricker (What You Don’t Have To Believe To Be A Christian). “Christians do not agree theologically, and they never have. The essence of Christianity is not in the literal truth of the story language of the faith. In all of this I am pleading that Christians not be divided over opinions about which obvious differences exist. Christians are united in the love of God revealed by Jesus, whom we call Christ, and not by our opinions.” (69-70) Ricker imagines what an experience of the risen Christ might have been like for the first disciples of Jesus. He pictures them together sharing a meal and in the midst of that sharing they experience Jesus as present. “By the inspiration of God, the intrusion of the Spirit, they suddenly realize that it was not all over. The Lord was with them…. Jesus is dead. Jesus has a new body. They tried to kill the Christ, the activity of God, they could not. The Christ is raised in a new body.” (72-73)
What am I trying to say with all these extended quotes? Am I trying to convince you that your view of the resurrection of Jesus is wrong if you disagree with Crossan or Borg or Ricker? No. With Ricker, I am asking that we give each other permission to ask questions about this important part of our Christian faith. I am asking that we allow that people of deep and genuine Christian faith can disagree about the exact nature of the experiences of the disciples as they proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead. I do think that Borg and Crossan are right when they say that the meaning of the resurrection, whatever its precise nature, is to be found in the statements “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord.”
Since writing those words, I have discovered some others that I also find helpful. John Dominic Crossan in his book on Paul, written with Jonathan Reed. For Crossan and Reed, a basic concept in Paul’s theology is that resurrection transformation is a process, not a moment (In Search of Paul, 173). At the heart of Christian faith “was the proclamation that the general resurrection had already begun when God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead” (173). The general resurrection was seen “as the last act or grand finale by which God finally justifies (that is, makes just) this unjust earth” (174). To claim that God has already begun to transform this earth into a place of divine justice and peace demands that you can show something of that transformative activity here and now. To which Paul would have replied unabashedly: To see God’s transformation in process, come and see how we live (In Search of Paul, 174)
Jesus lives. Jesus is Lord. Because of God’s action in Jesus, lives are being transformed and we can be a part of that transformation. This is the heart of the gospel, the Christian good news. Paul witnessed the risen Christ, and though his experience was as one untimely born, it changed his life dramatically – “by the grace of God I am what I am.” And Paul sought diligently to live out that grace, to live resurrection transformation. He has shared this good news and one result is the very Corinthian Jesus community to which he writes.
I Corinthians 15:12-34: Paul rehearsal of the essentials of the faith are not just a reminder, but are now used to address some concerns present in the life and theology of the Corinthian Jesus community. Apparently some are having difficulty with the idea that Christ was raised from the dead. That seems very contemporary. For the Corinthians, there was little difficulty with the idea of a disembodied soul separating from the body at death – this idea was well ensconced in Greek philosophy. What they struggled with was a more holistic idea of resurrection, something that may have included the body in some way. I am not here retracting what I’ve said before about legitimate room for debate about the resurrection within Christian faith, but the tradition of the faith is that resurrection is not simply the survival past death of a disembodied soul. The resurrection may be something different from the resuscitation of a corpse, but for Christians it does not leave the body behind entirely. This discussion hearkens back to Paul’s earlier discussion about the body as temple of the Holy Spirit (chapter 6).
So for Paul this sense of “bodily” resurrection is important. It is important because of his idea that such resurrection was part of God bringing God’s dream for the world (God’s kingdom) into being. “The term resurrection meant one thing and only one thing at that time – it meant the general bodily resurrection as God finally began the great cleanup of the world’s mess” (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 343). The resurrection has to do with God’s transformative work in the world. For Paul, that began with God raising Jesus as the Christ from the dead, and if this is the beginning of the process, it make no sense to say that the process will not continue. We don’t know exactly what the Corinthians were arguing, but perhaps it was for a more individualistic understanding of resurrection, that their souls would be raised from the dead, as against the broader understanding that God was transforming the world, including their lives. This may have something to do with their lives after death, but more importantly it has to do with God’s transformative work in the world. God’s transformative work is of a piece – it happened in Jesus and it is happening in us. If it is not happening in us, did it really happen with Jesus, and if it didn’t start with Jesus what are we doing talking about it as if it did.
I find the terms of this debate a little muddled, as we don’t know to what Paul is responding. The bottom line for me is the Christian message of faith – God was acting in Christ for the transformation of human life and the world and that action was decisively demonstrated in the resurrection. That transforming action of God is at work in my life, if I open myself to it. I also like The Message rendering of parts of this passage. If there’s no resurrection, there’s no living Christ. And face it – if there’s no resurrection for Christ, everything we’ve told you is smoke and mirrors, and everything you’ve staked your life on is smoke and mirrors. The God who works to transform our lives is the God we know as the one who raised Jesus from the dead.
“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” I think we need to take care in interpreting this for our lives. Is Paul saying that unless there is an eternal life after death, our good living here really is in vain and that we should have been living more selfishly? The Message translates the verse: “If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot.” Should we read this as saying that we should be willing to suffer and suffer in doing good in this life for a reward later on? I think the better understanding is to hear in Paul’s words a rhetorical flourish. No good deed is a waste. Nothing done in love is in vain. However, Paul is right in saying that goodness does not always “make sense” in the span of our lives. It helps to know that when we love, when we seek peace and justice, when we give of ourselves and our resources for others, when we work to heal others and the earth, we are acting in a way that conforms to God’s dream for the world. We are contributing to the long-term transformative project of God. Paul is “blowing our minds” open to the wider context for our lives, God’s on-going resurrection transformation.
Paul ends his “what if” section. He gets back to the basic message – Christ has been raised from the dead, and in that is the beginning of a new phase of God’s transformative work in the world. Christ’s resurrection is the first fruit – the beginning of the general resurrection, the beginning of the process of God setting the world right. Paul envisions a time when all that is unloving and unjust, all those powers that perpetuate hurt and harm, are overcome. God is about the work of re-creating the world and God won’t stop until there is a new heaven and a new earth. God won’t stop until God is all in all.
Verse 29 is a pure puzzle. We have no idea what Paul was referring to here. Did persons get baptized representing others who had already died? We just don’t know, and this again demonstrates that this is a letter, part of a two-way conversation. We only get to hear half of it.
It is because of the hope Paul has that his work is a part of God’s transformative work in the world that he has “fought with wild animals at Ephesus” – a rhetorical phrase indicating the intensity of some of Paul’s struggles for Christian faith. Paul’s rhetorical flourish continues. If Christian faith doesn’t matter, if God is not at work transforming the world, maybe we would do well to just eat and drink our short lives away. Or if God’s transforming work has noting to do with our bodily existence, maybe it does not matter what we do with our bodies – eat and drink. Some of the Corinthians apparently had been listening to spiritual teachers who encouraged this attitude. Paul ends this section with straightforward advice. “Come to a sober and right mind, and sin no more.” “Think straight. Awaken to the holiness of life.”
I Corinthians 15:35-58: Just when you think Paul has covered all the ground he needs to cover about the resurrection, he anticipates another question – and it is a good one. How are our bodies going to participate in God’s transformative work? The question cannot be answered except metaphorically, and that is important to note. The language of faith is often, of necessity, the language of poetry and not the language of science. Some try and turn metaphor into precise scientific language, and that is not very helpful. Paul uses images from agriculture and astronomy to try and make the point that our future existence will not be as a disembodied spirit, but will involve a transformation of our bodily life. “We are no more capable of imagining what life in God’s new world is like than of projecting the image of a flower by looking at a seed” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Again, Paul is concerned to emphasize a holistic view of the human person – body-soul-mind-spirit all intertwined. At the same time, Paul makes a distinction between the body and mere physical existence (“flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”). Poetic language can contain ambiguity (“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself – I am large, I contain multitudes - - - Walt Whitman)
All of this is a mystery. It seems Paul expected that this final transformation might occur in relatively short order, before too long. The bottom line is that all will be changed. This is God’s victory over even death.
Again, Paul ends with an admonition: Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. Paul is not a speculative theologian. His theology seems intended to shape the lives of those to whom he is writing. If chapter 15 is sometimes difficult and abstract, it should not be read apart from chapter 13. Love is what Christ was about and his resurrection is a vindication of the way of love. God is transforming the world in love so when we love it is a part of that transformative work in the world. It is never wasted effort. Finally, all our efforts for love will become a part of a transformed world. Keep the faith, keep loving.
I Corinthian 16
I Corinthians 16:1-4: Paul was working to collect money for the Christians in Jerusalem, to help relieve their poverty in a very difficult time there and to show solidarity between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians. This is a concrete act of love in keeping with chapter 13. Apparently by this time, the Christians were meeting on the first day of the week (Sunday).
I Corinthians 16:5-12: These verses again highlight the personal nature of this communication. Paul shares his travel and ministry plans, and discusses the plans of others.
I Corinthian 16:13-22: Verses 13 and 14 offer some wonderful encouragement and direction – “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” “Keep your eyes open, hold tight to your convictions, give it all you’ve got, be resolute, and love without stopping” (The Message). “Let your every act be an expression of love” (Cotton Patch Version). Paul then suggests some particular people who should be shown love in concrete ways.
Paul apparently dictated his letter, but at this point he takes up the pen himself.
Greeting another with a kiss was a common first century greeting among friends and family. Paul’s words here indicate that in Christ, new friendships and a new family are being formed.
“Our Lord come” was an ancient Christian prayer, a prayer for God’s transformative work to be completed. It is a beautiful and simple prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom, and one that we might pray as we listen to news of war, poverty, violence, crime, assassination, inhumanity and the like. Oh that God’s dream for the world would be fulfilled quickly. We pray for this, but also work for this. Paul ends his letter offering them the grace of Christ, and his own love in Christ.