Must we, as Christians, believe in Christ’s resurrection? Should we expect a resurrection from the dead, even our own resurrection? The apostle Paul, in his extended discussion of resurrection hope in 1 Corinthians 15, says it is a matter of “first importance” (v. 3). Resurrection faith is the very essence of the gospel. But even when we answer in the affirmative, as we should, have we grasped the import of it all—as a matter of faith and life? Our own life?
Consider the following. If Christ had merely died at the hands of an angry mob, he would certainly be a great example for us. An example of courage and self-sacrifice in a hellish world. A world that cares little and forgives even less. A world that fundamentally does not want its ways disturbed. “But he had the audacity to eat with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors! He healed on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath—can you imagine?!” The mob’s indignation seemed so righteous. “He forgave sins—but only God can forgive sins!” They said he was a blasphemer. A blasphemer because he dared to bring God close to those who had no money, no status, no clout, and no hope. If Christ had merely died—in self-sacrifice and in protest against the ways of the world—if he had merely died, he would be yet another victim of collective lynching, of an overreach of power, of murderous arrogance. Another victim on the sad and ever-growing list of scapegoats.
And we might still remember him, with solemnity, even after two thousand years. And we might be inspired by him. Thankful that in this world, in this world, there still are the few that care, the few that try to make a difference, the few that try to remind us all of humanity’s higher calling. What a tall order!
But if Christ had merely died—in self-sacrifice and in protest against the world’s ways—the world would still be beyond redemption. It would decidedly remain beyond redemption. Our hope would be that perhaps someone else would pick up the baton, continue the good work… and meet with the same gruesome death. Because, while God may forgive, the world is unforgiving! The mighty hold on to their thrones, and the masses jealously guard what status they have with labels and finger pointing and, if need be, walls. Yes, even walls!
If Christ had not been raised from the dead, our hope would perhaps be for justice in the afterlife. Justice that can come only in the spiritual world and in eternity. But not in time. Not down here, amidst the grating roar—where bodies clash, where there seems to be “neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” (M. Arnold). Not down here—where the daring and noble few only meet their untimely death. If Christ had not been raised from the dead, the arc of the moral universe would, to be sure, bend toward justice… But what’s the moral universe got to do with this world of invincible ignorance and circling the wagons? You tell me!
If Christ had not been raised from the dead, we might hope for a place of peace in the great beyond. Peace for our weary souls. A necessary peace, mind you, for deprived of our bodies we could no longer do harm to one another. Deprived of our tongues, we could no longer hurt with words. Deprived of our ears, we could no longer be hurt. Deprived of our touch, we could be out of touch with each other, finally and completely undisturbed, walled in. Deprived of blood, nothing would boil in us in anger or indignation. Deprived of a heartbeat we could no longer suffer, not even from love. What a hope! What a dream! What tranquility! Only not. Is this what we want: a paltry existence of translucent spirits, floating, indifferent, tranquilized, drugged. Is the final justice merely opium for the masses? For us? God save us from this kind of salvation!
Mark Paul’s words: “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:13-14). We are stuck with the unforgiving toil, back to making the most of this life, back to being taken advantage of, back to labels and lynches, and walls, walls, walls all around. Back to the us-versus-them mentality.
All of this only punctuated by rumors of those noble and sensitive souls who said “no,” who said we could do better, who inspired us for a moment or two…But “if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied,” Paul insists (1 Cor 15:19). If, in the end, any real hope boils down to making a little bit of difference in this life—where we live together body and soul—then in the long run there can be no difference. For all those noble and sensitive souls perished under the world’s boot. And indoor plumbing hasn’t made us any better, not even by a fraction of an inch. An eternity of blissful indifference would then be good news. We could finally languish unperturbed… and just be. Only not.
“Now I would remind you, brothers [and sisters], of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved: in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:1, 20).
In the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God said something momentous to his people and to the world, this world, our world. You see, the mob that demanded Jesus’ death were a people who had themselves been victimized. They had long given up on God as a deliverer in the here and now. They did believe in God, just not for this life. In this life, you had to take care of yourself, take care of yourself against overwhelming odds, and you had to do it all yourself. You had to carefully mark off your identity, cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. You had to preserve whatever status you had. You had to save the people, your tribe, your kind—to prevent it from being overwhelmed and dispersed. And so, anyone who threatened the identity of the group—who ate with sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners and other undesirables—anyone who did that was a menace and a danger. Where group identity is at stake, reaching out to others is reckless.
In his encounters with the Pharisees in particular, Jesus repeatedly pointed out that, in their zeal for preserving and saving the people, the Pharisees had forgotten the weightier matters of the law: mercy and justice and faith (Mt 23:23). They had forgotten Israel’s mission—which was to be a blessing to the nations, to be reckless with your identity. Because God, God himself, had their back. Because God, Israel’s God, was going to preserve and save them. But the leaders had forgotten all that—as they took the salvation of the people into their own hands and made it their own mission. “It is better for this man, this Jesus to die than for the people to perish,” the high priest declared. And it is better for a priest to pass by a half-dead and bloodied man on the side of the road than to get polluted (Lk 10:25ff). And it is better for suffers to suffer than for the Sabbath to be violated (Mk 3:1ff). It is better not to associate with strangers rather than compromise your identity. It is better to circle the wagons and to survive… no matter the cost.
In the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God said something to his people and to the world, this world, our world. He declared, even when we had given up on him, that he was still the God of this world. He doesn’t merely reward suffering and right all wrongs in the afterlife, when all is too shadowy and it’s too late. Rather, God is making all things new (Is 43; Rev 21:5). All things. Here.
What this means is that the ways of the world are no longer a necessity to be met with resignation or heroism. Life is not just about making a little bit of difference in a world that hasn’t changed a bit. No. The world has changed. And herein lies our hope. In the resurrection of Jesus God has laid his hand upon the world and will not let go. He has declared that he, he alone is Life. Where we say “it’s better for this person to die,” God says I raise the dead. Where we say, “we must take care of ourselves at all cost,” God says “I’ve got my people’s back.” “And not just my people’s. For I can make children of Abraham even out of stones (Mt 3:9). And I’ve made a people for myself also out of gentiles. Yes, them too!” And God says: “Where a priest may pass by a half-dead and bloodied man by the roadside, I care even about the hairs of your head. Not just your soul but your hair! For not a sparrow falls to the ground without my knowledge” (Mt 10:29-30).
Brothers and sisters, Christ was raised—raised for our justification (Rom 4:25). This is a matter of “first importance.” For it means that we no longer are “in [our] sins” (1 Cor 15:17), lost to ourselves, to each other, and to God. For God’s justice is now rolling down like waters and his righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). With Christ’s resurrection, God is bringing about the renewal of all things. Crucially, in this renewal and remaking of the world, we have a place, a God-given place. The Christ place—for he is ours with all his is and has, like we’ve never been. Here and now. Already. And we have a status, a God-given status: we are children of God, his people, his beloved. Yes, you are! Not just our souls but our bodies. These mortal bodies, and the resurrected bodies to come (Rom 8:11). All justified.
To be sure, people’s hands, even our own hands, may kill and our tongues curse. This creation is still groaning under the weight of its own old ways, its own sin, eager for full disclosure of what God has been doing in its midst (Rom 8:18-19). But in the world that God has already made possible, in the world that is breaking into ours and makes all the difference—our hands may also reach out in a handshake, and our tongues greet and bless. Swords can become ploughshares (Is 2:4). And the gates of our walls may swing wide open. For all things are possible with God. And Christ is risen. He, the “firstfruits” (1 Cor 15:20), is risen indeed! And this is only the beginning!
What a hope! What a joy! Let us dream big (Joel 2:28). Bigger than you thought was possible.
An earlier version of this post was delivered as a sermon at St. Paul Lutheran Church, in Birmingham, Alabama, on February 17, 2019 (Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany in Series C of the Three-Year Lectionary). Dr. Małysz serves as St. Paul’s assistant pastor.