Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 12-26, 50-58

I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. As we gather on Remembrance Sunday, it’s useful for us to remind ourselves what it is Christians believe about death and the future. Is there life after death? What is it like? Is it all clouds and harps and white robes?

There are some people who try to say that this life is all there is - that there’s nothing after death. There were even some in the church in Corinth who were saying the same thing. They were claiming that there is no resurrection of the dead (12). The apostle Paul, writing to the church, says that it’s nonsense - as he unpacks their logic.

No resurrection means that not even Jesus has been raised. If Jesus has not been raised, if he is still in the tomb at Jerusalem, then ‘our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.’ Paul says, in effect, that if Jesus is not alive, then our meeting together as a church is pointless. A dead Jesus means there’s nothing to believe in, no forgiveness of sins, and no hope. So if we continue to cling to our faith despite the facts, then we are to be pitied. We might as well just pack up and go home. That is, if Jesus is still dead.

Verse 21 is the great statement of fact: ‘But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.’ Jesus is indeed alive - and that changes everything. Nothing will be the same. It’s a bit like the one red sock in the washing machine full of white shirts - the resurrection affects and changes everything it comes into contact with.

In verse 21 Jesus is described as the first fruits. First fruits was a Jewish harvest festival, where the very first bunch of grapes or sheaf of wheat was brought as an offering to thank God - in anticipation of the rest of the harvest. First fruits signifies all that will follow. And here Jesus is the first fruits - he rises from the dead first, guaranteeing that others will also live.

Verse 22 shows us who will live with Christ. Let’s look at it together: ‘For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.’ In that verse, it’s as if there are two teams, two captains. (I never liked having teams picked at school for football as I was too small and was always picked near the end!). By nature, we are all automatically in Adam’s team. We’re born into his family, and share his problem - we sin (and are sinful), and so will die. That’s because right back in the garden of Eden, Adam disobeyed God and ‘death came through a human being.’ As Romans reminds us, the wages of sin are death. So that’s Adam’s team. The future is bleak.

But the good news is that, while all in Adam will die, ‘so all will be made alive in Christ’ - in Christ, all live. Now those ‘alls’ aren’t the same - it’s not that all everyone will die and all everyone will live - it’s all those who are in Christ, who are on Christ’s team, who are united to Christ, will live. As verse 23 makes clear, ‘those who belong to Christ.’

The question for us to consider is this: whose team are you on? Which of the two heads are you connected to? We’re all naturally in Adam, but are you also in Christ? Are you trusting in Jesus for your future, connected to him? We have this sure hope that those who die trusting in Jesus will be raised to live with him.

Now as we think of this, there might be an objection forming in your mind. Surely, you’re thinking, if Jesus has defeated death by rising to new life, then surely we shouldn’t die at all. If Jesus is alive, then why do we die? Why do we have to keep hearing of friends who have died? But Paul says it’s all a matter of timing. Jesus’ resurrection, the first fruits, is a bit like D-Day in World War Two. The decisive victory has been won, but the war continues until the enemy is fully defeated. After D-Day, the battle continued to rage until VE Day, but it was clear who was going to win.

It’s the same with Jesus’ resurrection. Death has been defeated by Jesus, and yet it still has some hold over us - until Jesus returns: ‘But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.’ When Jesus returns, death will be destroyed, because it has already been defeated in Jesus’ resurrection.

It’s why we look forward to the return of Jesus so much - death will be fully and finally defeated; new life will be given to us; there will be no more pain or sorrow or sickness or sadness. But what will it be like? What is heaven like?

Paul says that it involves change - ‘we will not all die, but we will all be changed... for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.’ Our bodies will put on imperishability and immortality - we will still have bodies in the new creation, not just souls or ghosts. In another place, we’re told that we will be like Jesus - you remember his resurrection body, he could eat fish and bread with the disciples, Thomas could touch his wounds, so it’s not a ghostly existence we’re destined for.

It’s at that very moment that we will then celebrate the victory in our own experience: ‘then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ Death will have been devoured, no more to impact us, no more to make us sad. It’s as if we can taunt death as we sing: ‘Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting?’

Right now, it looks as if death is winning. Each day the death columns in the newspapers is full. Every family, indeed every person in church has probably had to deal with death at some point. But Jesus has gained the upper hand - it’s as if death overreached itself in trying to hold Jesus, the author of life. It’s as if death is a bee which has stung Jesus - leading to the demise of the bee itself.

This is the Christian hope - life after death; everlasting life in the new creation that God is preparing for us - but we can’t be sure of being there by our own merits, our own achievements. The only thing we have to contribute is our sinfulness. And as we’ve seen, sin brings death. ‘But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Jesus has won the victory, but graciously allows us to share in that victory - he did it for us. It’s a bit like a football fan rejoicing because Man City won the FA Cup this year, even though they weren’t on the pitch, they didn’t take part - the team has done it for everyone who is connected to the team.

Jesus has died for our sins, been raised for our justification, has defeated death, and lives forevermore. He offers each one of us this hope, these blessings, if we will but come and join his team. Our lives can be changed, our futures transformed, our hope made sure and certain. Which team are you on today? Adam’s or Jesus’?

This sermon was preached on Remembrance Sunday, 13th November 2011 in Aghavea Parish Church.

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