February 17, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
I read a story this week from another preacher, Thomas Long, about a call-in Christian radio show he heard once. A woman named Barbara called and shared with the host that she had a lot of problems in her life—problems with her marriage and her children and her job. Struggles with depression. And in the middle of her litany of woes, the host interrupted her:
“Barbara,” he said, “I want to ask you something. Are you a believer? You know, you’re never going to solve any of these problems unless you’re a believer. Are you a believer?”
“I don’t know,” said Barbara hesitantly.
“Now, Barbara,” said the host, “either you are a believer or you aren’t. If you’re a believer, you know it. You know it in your heart. Now, Barbara, tell me, are you a believer?”
“I’d like to be,” Barbara replied. “I guess I’m just more agnostic at this point in my life.”
The host jumped on that. “Now, Barbara, there’s a book I’ve written that I want to send to you. In this book I prove that Jesus was who he said he was and that he was raised from the dead. Now, if I send you this book and you read it, will you become a believer?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of trouble from preachers.”
“We’re not talking about preachers,” the host said. “We’re talking about proof. I’ve got proof-irrefutable proof that Jesus was raised from the dead. Now if I send this book to you, will you become a believer?”
By this point, Barbara was becoming frustrated. “I don’t think you’re listening to me,” she said.
Honestly, sometimes I feel like Barbara when I’m reading Paul—who wrote this letter to the Corinthians that we’re reading. He can be a little tough to take. I mean, the whole “love is patient, love is kind” thing from a couple of weeks ago is all well and good, but last week, and this morning . . . Paul can come across as pretty arrogant and dogmatic. Not to mention repetitive and confusing. It often feels like he is answering questions I’m not even asking—or asking questions I don’t want to answer.
Paul, I want to say, I don’t think you’re listening to me.
And of course Paul isn’t listening to me. I mean, God is listening to me. And God, through the Holy Spirit, can speak through the words of Paul. But Paul is most definitely not listening to me.
Paul was listening to the people who were part of the church in Corinth. He was listening to them in person when he visited. He was reading their letters. He was hearing reports from Chloe’s people about the quarrels and divisions in the church.
So, yes. Paul is not listening to me—or to us. He was listening to them. He was responding to what he heard from the first century Christians in Corinth. And, unlike the Christian radio host, Paul was not just giving them some standard, generic “proof” in order to make them “believers.” Paul was responding to the particular situation in Corinth. Speaking into the real lives of the real people who made up that church community.
I think that if we want to make any kind of peace at all with Paul, we have to read his words in the context of them being written specifically for the Corinthian Christians. You might remember, since you all took copious notes on my sermon two weeks ago, that this Corinthian congregation was made up of people who were Jewish, as well as those who were Greek. So, in the spirit of understanding context, here are a couple of stories that the Greeks in the Corinthian congregation likely knew:
Memnon, king of the Ethiopians, was the son of the goddess of the dawn, Eos, and a mortal man, Tithonus (who Eos managed to make immortal—but that’s another story). Memnon was a great warrior who went to fight for Troy during the Trojan war. He was killed in an epic one-on-one battle with Achilles—also the child of a god and a human. Memnon’s mother, Eos, was heartbroken when Memnon died, and the colors of the morning sky grew dull. She eventually persuaded Zeus to resurrect Memnon and make him immortal.
Asclepius was the son of a human mother, Coronis, and the god Apollo. Coronis died in childbirth, and Asclepius was raised by the centaur, Chiron, who taught him the art of healing. Asclepius became a very skilled and gifted healer, curing people who were sick, and even bringing people back from the dead. Hades, the god of the underworld, was afraid that Asclepius would prevent any more people from dying and coming to his underworld, so Hades had Zeus kill him. Later, however, Zeus resurrected him to avoid conflicts with Apollo.
O.K. Now, one more story.
Jesus of Nazareth was the son of a human mother, Mary, and the Jewish God, Yahweh. Jesus was raised in a humble family and became a great speaker and healer, performing many miracles through the power of his Father. Jesus was killed by the Roman government, and upon his death his divine father caused darkness and earthquakes. Jesus was buried in a tomb, and after three days, Yahweh resurrected Jesus and he became immortal and ascended into heaven.
This concept of a great human hero made immortal was quite a familiar story line to those who knew the tales of the Greek and Roman gods. Biblical scholar Dag Øistein Endsjø* points this out and contends that the Greeks within the Corinthian congregation would have had no trouble believing that a great man had been resurrected and achieved immortality. They would, however, have had trouble with the idea of the more general, more broad, resurrection of the dead. Because that is not how it works in the stories. Regular mortals stay dead. A few exceptional people attain immortality through the favor of the gods. Jesus was the exceptional person. They were regular mortals.
The Jews in the church at Corinth, on the other hand, would have had an accepted understanding of the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Not all Jews in the 1st Century believed in this resurrection, but many of them did. And even those who did not believe would have been familiar with the concept: All people will be resurrected from the dead in the final days. What would have been outside the realm of Jewish belief is the concept that one particular man would be raised from the dead to immortality. The Hebrew scriptures do contain, in fact, some stories of the dead being brought back to life, but they are always brought back to regular, mortal life. They eventually die. Jesus, on the other hand, is said to have been resurrected to immortality.
Paul writes: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? . . . 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.”
Paul is speaking to both groups at the same time.
To the Jewish Christians, who are inclined to doubt the individual resurrection of Christ, he is saying, “Look. Jesus was, in fact, raised from the dead and now lives eternally with God the Father. It’s true. We must believe this in order to hold onto our faith in our own final resurrection.”
To the Greek Christians, who are inclined to doubt the coming general resurrection, he is saying, “Look, Jesus is not just another immortalized Greek hero. His resurrection has meaning for us—it points to our own coming resurrection. And if it doesn’t, then what’s the point of this faith we are proclaiming?”
Remember that for the Corinthian Christians, claiming their faith wasn’t merely a matter of believing a particular set of facts. The end-point of faith for them wasn’t, as the radio host was so insistent about, that they all become “believers” in the sense of agreeing that statements x, y, and z are objectively true.
For the Corinthian Christians, claiming their faith–following Jesus, believing in Christ—meant that they were living different lives than they would otherwise be living. And one of the biggest ways their lives were different is that they were trying to live them together.
These people—Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female—were attempting to create community with each other. And that was hard. And there was really nowhere else where that was happening. There were no models for how to reconcile their different backgrounds and beliefs. No instructions on how to set aside the privilege they were used to claiming—or how to claim authority they had been told all their lives they did not have.
How do the Greeks understand that the general resurrection is real? How to the Jewish people understand that Christ was truly resurrected into immortality?
Paul tries his best. He tries to help them overcome their differences and create community together in all kinds of ways throughout this letter. And in this particular passage he focuses in on a key theological difference. Rather than claiming that one side is wrong and one is right, or that both groups have it wrong, he tries—somewhat desperately and repetitively—to explain how they are both right. How they both have to be right for this faith they are claiming to make any sense at all.
Passages like this from Paul are often read like that radio host’s book—as writing that attempts to present “irrefutable proof” that Jesus was raised from the dead and therefore make the right kind of “believers” out of people who read it. But I’m starting to think that those who read Paul that way just aren’t listening. They aren’t listening to the Jewish and Greek Christians of the earliest church in Corinth. And they aren’t listening to Paul in his own context.
The resurrection—and even our belief in the resurrection—is important to Paul, to be sure. No amount of contextualizing will negate that reality. But I don’t think that belief in the resurrection is important because we have to check off particular “belief boxes” to get into heaven.
I think, for Paul and for the first-century Corinthian Christians, belief in the resurrection of Christ and the promised resurrection of us all is important because that belief helps to make community where there would otherwise be only difference and animosity. This resurrection belief melds two belief systems together. It honors the truths of two very different traditions. And it breathes life—resurrection life—into a church on the edge of despair and collapse.
May we have the wisdom and grace to listen faithfully to Paul’s words and breathe in that resurrection life for ourselves and our community as well.
*Much of the information here about Greek and Jewish understandings of the resurrection comes from Endsjø’s article “Immortal Bodies, before Christ: Bodily Continuity in Ancient Greece and 1 Corinthians” in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, June 1, 2008.