Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Power of God's Love: Death, the Last Enemy

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he 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. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 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. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:1-26; 15:51-57 (NRSV)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.Amen.

I’ve mentioned before that, when I lived in California, I lived and worked in downtown Los Angeles for several years. Beginning in 1999 and continuing for three years, I would drive to work and pass by the construction site of what would become the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. During that time I watched it grow into a huge, kind of monstrous, 11-story, contemporary cathedral. 

To be honest, the exterior design wasn’t appealing. But the interior was breathtaking - in its simplicity and spirituality. One truly seemed to sense God’s presence in that space.

One aspect of the interior that I particularly love is a series of tapestries that surround the sides and back of the worship space - tapestries designed by artist John Nava. Most prominent are those along the south and north walls. Twenty-five fresco-like tapestries that depict 135 saints and blessed ones from around the world. People like Pope John the 23rd and Mother Teresa, from the 19th and 20th centuries. Or Ignatius Loyola, sainted in the 17th century. But, perhaps the most special figures in these beautiful tapestries are twelve figures that are untitled, including children. That represent the many anonymous holy people in our midst. In this space, one feels surrounded by the communion of saints. 

Now you might wonder why I’m talking about this cathedral and these tapestries, and particularly, the communion of saints. After all, this isn’t All Saints Sunday. It’s not the end of the church year. Yet, it is this communion of saints that Paul refers to in these opening verses of chapter 15, which we just heard. Those from whom the members of the Corinthian congregation have received their tradition of faith. In addressing the dispute over the veracity of the resurrection and the dispute over whether the resurrection of the dead will happen in the last days, Paul begins with a reminder to the church in Corinth. That he has passed a tradition of faith onto them, challenging them to hold on firmly to the message he first proclaimed to them. And that message? That Christ died for their sins and his. That Christ was buried. That he was raised from the dead on the third day. That he appeared to Cephas or Peter, and then to the twelve. And then to more than five hundred brothers and sisters. Then to James, Jesus’ earthly brother. And then to all of the apostles. This roll call of the earliest of the saints. Paul uses it to help them understand that this tradition - this eyewitness testimony to the resurrection - has passed from believer to believer to believer. And then to them. And that Christ’s resurrection from the dead can only be true.

But Paul does not stop there. He argues that, if it is true that Christ has been raised from the dead, then it is also true that the Corinthian believers will also be raised from the dead. If this is not true, then their faith has been in vain. Futile. Pitiful. Useless. Without hope. 

But, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. And he is the first of what will be many in the last days, when Christ comes a second time. After the kingdom of God, which he has initiated on earth, comes into its fullness. And when all the dead will be raised in bodily form. 

What did this mean for them? What does this mean for us? 

Perhaps Luther says it best: To [Paul] the resurrection is like putting on a beautiful new garment called...immortality. It is [a garment] spun and woven by Christ’s victory. For the victory of Christ [over death] was wrought for the purpose of clothing you with it and of cleansing you from your sin and death, so that nothing of your corruptible body remains…For God did not create man that he should sin and die, but that he should live...This [life] is not brought about in any other way than that we first shed this old, evil garment through death. We must be divested of it entirely, and it must turn into death. (LW 28, p. 2020)

With death we shed our old body, our old garment. This garment that carries with it our misfortunes and frailties. Our error and folly. The evil that we experience on earth. This old garment turns to dust. 

And at the end of days, this new time, this beginning of the new creation will happen when God will raise all the dead and will demonstrate God’s power over the power of death first witnessed in Christ’s resurrection. We will put on our new bodily garment.

It is in that first resurrection, though, that the future of this new world of life has already begun. We, believing in this risen Christ, trusting this tradition of the faith that has been passed onto us over and over throughout the centuries - we live in this in-between time. This time between a world of death and a new world. Of life. This time between - where God in Christ through the Holy Spirit continues to work to bring about new life. New life that is already in our midst, because the future has begun. 

This is the hope that we hold onto as believers in this faith that has been passed onto us through the communion of saints. This is the hope we hold onto as believers in Christ’s resurrection in the midst of this pandemic. This is the hope we hold onto in this time in-between, as we wait to shed our old worn bodily garment and put on our new one - our incorruptible one given to us and to the communion of all the saints. This is what we believe. This is what we hope. This is what we know. 

Or, as Luther writes: Now we say, Scriptum est, but then we shall say, Factum est.

Death has been swallowed up. New life begins. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Preached online May 24, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Easter 7
Readings: 1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57; Mark 12:26-27a; Psalm 1

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