Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, May 25, 2018
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Death Doesn't Get the Last Word

1 Corinthians 15:19-28
            “If our hope in Christ is only for this life, then we are to be pitied more than anyone else.” I think most people today would agree with that statement, but from a different perspective than the one Paul had. 
            Paul was thinking of persecution. In Paul’s world, Christians were a persecuted minority. Jews who became followers of Christ were excommunicated from the Jewish synagogue, thrown out. Often they were disowned by family and excluded from the community.  Gentiles who became followers of Christ became enemies of the state. All people in the Roman Empire, except Jews, were required to offer sacrifices to the emperor as a god. Christians refused to participate, because it was idolatry. That was an act of sedition, and sedition was punished by death. So whether you were Jew or Gentile, following Christ was likely to result in persecution, exclusion, imprisonment, poverty, even death. And if you were to suffer all those things for something that was not even true, then yes, you should be pitied.
            Today in America, we are unlikely to face real persecution for our faith. People might say or think bad things about us, but we’re unlikely to be fired or imprisoned or executed. So today I think we would look at that statement more from the perspective of what we are “missing out on.” 
            Years ago, there was an advertising campaign for beer. And it went like this, “You only go around once, so go for all the gusto you can.” If this life is all there is, then you may as well try to live it up as much as possible. And the stereotype is that if you’re going to take this Jesus stuff seriously, then you can’t have any fun. You’re one of those boring, stuffy, pious, religious types. You can’t get drunk. You can’t party. You can’t sleep around. You can’t go out and blow your money on a good time. You can’t stay out late on Saturdays and sleep in on Sundays. It would be a shame to live your pious, boring, stuffy life, only to die and find out you missed out for the sake of a lie.
            I’m not sure that line of reasoning is all it’s cracked up to be. Those who “go for all the gusto they can” generally seem to find that way of living is rather empty. The more you have, the more you need. You can never have enough money. You always need more: More drugs, more alcohol, more sex, more good times. On the other hand, I’ve known plenty of people who have found deep, lasting satisfaction in Jesus. I’ve never known any faithful Christian who came to the end of their life and said, “I wish I would have partied more.” On the other hand, those who live it up eventually seem to come around to saying, “I wish there was something more to life.” 
            Why is Paul talking about all this in the first place?
            Well, Paul’s letter is to the Corinthian Church. Corinth was a Greek city. And Greek culture denied the possibility of a resurrection. In the Greek way of thinking, everything physical, including the human body, was corrupted, evil, and doomed to destruction. Only the soul, being spirit, was immortal. And when they conceived of an afterlife, it was only a spiritual afterlife. Their concept of an afterlife was a gray, dreary, shadowy existence, devoid of any joy or pleasure. There’s not much hope in that way of thinking. And there’s certainly not a lot of motivation. 
            By contrast, the Hebrew mind thought of body and soul as a unity. They valued the body. They didn’t have trouble, intellectually, conceiving of a resurrection from the dead that was not only spiritual, but physical.
            But if the Greek philosophy was correct, then there was no resurrection of the dead. And that Greek way of thinking is still pervasive in the Western world today. Many people think that there is some kind of spiritual afterlife. Many people outside the Christian faith think that we go on as some kind of spirit. Some in the church think that we “die and go to heaven and become angels.” Some think that our souls existed with God in heaven, and for some reason God sends our souls down here to earth to inhabit a human body, and when we die our souls go back to God. 
            The Scriptures don’t teach those ideas. Scripture teaches that we are created as flesh and spirit creatures. And the eternal life we look forward to in Christ is a physical resurrection to a bodily existence in a New Heaven and New Earth. Scripture does not teach that we only have a spiritual afterlife in heaven with God. 
            But only if the message is true. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then we don’t have a good reason to hope we will, too. Paul says in verse 17 that if Christ has not been raised, our faith is useless, powerless, empty. Faith is more than just what we believe. Faith is our relationship with God. Our relationship with God is meaningless, devoid of any power to change our lives or save our lives, if Christ has not been raised from the dead.
            As far as Paul was concerned, it was a matter of certainty, not possibility, that Christ had been raised from the dead. He himself had seen a vision of the risen Christ. He lived and worked with other believers who had been first-hand witnesses, they had seen Christ rise from the dead. They had stood at the cross when he died, and three days later, they saw him alive and touched him with their own hands. 
            We can’t have that kind of first or second-hand experience of Christ’s death and resurrection. But we can see what happened to those who did experience it. Many of them died for their faith. Many of the apostles were martyred, testifying to their death that Christ had risen from the dead. They were willing to endure imprisonment, beatings, and death for the sake of their message. People won’t die for a lie, if they know it’s a lie, but they will die for the truth. If anyone knew whether or not Christ had risen, it was those first eyewitnesses. 
            Paul boldly proclaims: Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection in verse 20. Paul is referring to an ancient Hebrew festival of Firstfruits, which is described in Leviticus 23. The first crop that ripened in the spring was barley. And when the first sheaves were ready to harvest, they would take them, prepare them in a special way, and then give them as an offering to God. Only after that was done could the rest of the grain be harvested for ordinary purposes. 
            The firstfruits were also God’s assurance that the rest of the harvest would follow. Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection. He is God’s assurance that the rest of the resurrection will follow. Christ is the first of the resurrection people, the first member of a new humanity. 
            Death came through one man, Adam. And all human beings die because they are related to Adam. In the Hebrew mind, there was more focus on corporate solidarity than individualism. To the Hebrew, people were first and foremost members of a family, a tribe, a nation, a common ancestor, than they were individuals. That’s kind of foreign to our way of thinking, but it’s important to Paul’s argument. 
            The Jews were fond of saying, “We are the children of Abraham.” That was their corporate identity. But all human beings are children of Adam. He is the father of us all. Adam sinned and died, and all his children follow his example.
            Sin and death are two sides of the same coin. One is the action, the other is the result. The person who sins is cut off from relationship with the Holy and Living God, and being cut off from relationship with the Living God is death. 
            Christ broke the pattern. He was without sin. After he died, he rose again. Through faith, we break our solidarity with Adam and become one with Christ. Through faith, we become children of God. So we rise from the dead, like Christ. 
            And Christ will destroy every enemy of God. He is the one to whom the Father gives all authority. He is God’s viceroy; he rules on behalf of the Father. Psalm 110, Isaiah 9, and Daniel 7 all describe the Messiah in this way, ruling on behalf of the Father. 
            He will conquer every enemy of God, and the final enemy to be destroyed is death. Death might seem to be the end of all things, but it is limited. It’s days are numbered. Only God is the end of all things. 
            Could this message be false? Yes, it could be. But the consequences of it being false are less serious than the consequences of it being true. If the message is false and we believe it, then we all die anyway. But if the message is true, then we certainly don’t want to be found apart from Christ.
            In the 17th century, there was a philosopher named Blaise Pascal. Pascal argued that it makes sense to live as if there is a God. If there is no God, we all die anyway. But if there is a God, whatever you “lose” in this life by seeking him will be less compared to what you would lose in eternity if you don’t seek him. 
            Is there a God? Is there a purpose to life? Why is there evil in the world? Is death the end, or is there more? These are the biggest questions humanity can ask.   
            My worry is that many are not asking the questions. “The devil is in the details.” Maybe. Because it seems that many people are asking about the details and ignoring the big questions. “What should we do this weekend? What’s for dinner? Where are we going on vacation? How can I earn more money? How can I meet that someone special? Is there a better job out there?”  There’s a million questions we can be asking ourselves. But most of them don’t have consequences like, “Is there a God? Is there a purpose to life? Is death the end?” We don’t miss the forest for the trees. We don’t want to get lost in the details.

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