I have had several people ask me about the sermons I preached in February about resurrection and life after death. I am including my manuscripts for those two Sundays here on The Word and Spirit for anyone who would like to read and explore the topic further. This is the manuscript from Sunday, February 24, 2019.
35But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
42So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. 50What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
I remember being fascinated as a child with the idea of what I would look like as an adult. I would ask my parents and they would give me the same answer every time: “You’ll look like yourself now, just grown up – the same, but different.” This never really satisfied me, as it didn’t give any specifics. Interestingly enough, I found out a little what this meant in the summer in between my eighth grade and ninth grade years. I’ve always been tall, and at the end of eighth grade in June 1994, I was about 5’6” or 5’7”. I very much still had a baby face, highlighted by my chubby chipmunk cheeks and round belly. But by the time freshman year started a few months later, in August, I was 6’2” and roughly the same weight I had been a couple months prior. When you grow seven inches or so in two months, it looks like someone put you on a rack and stretched you out – the baby roundness was gone, and I looked a whole lot more at that point like I looked in my later teen and early adult years. I would still grow an inch or two before it was all done. The shock was so great that my best friend, Erica, did not recognize me on the first day of school. She looked at me real funny for a while until, after a few days, she was convinced I really was the same person from middle school.
Growth and change are vital components of life. The Sphinx asked the riddle: “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?” And Oedipus answered “man,” because he knew the ways we change with age: from crawlers, to runners, to those who must walk with the assistance of a cane. It amazes me how the little smudges I saw on our first ultrasound pictures are now over five feet tall and still growing. With each new hyacinth bloom in the front yard this month, I am surprised how all that beauty and color was held as potential in that dusty yellow bulb I planted back in October. There is a semblance to the things that were before, there is a connection, but things are different, new, fulfilled. As we look a little more deeply at resurrection today, we are confronted with that reality – what will be is like what has been, and yet different at the same time.
Paul uses the metaphor of the seed to explain resurrection to us. I believe that when we talk about deep realities like resurrection, ones we have not yet experienced firsthand, all we can do is turn to metaphor. Metaphor not only gives us a conceptual image to understand the unknown, but it gives us a language too. And so Paul writes about sowing our body in the ground, just like a seed would be planted. It is as if our bodies, when taken to the grave, are like a seed going into the seedbed, ultimately lying dormant for a season before sprouting the new growth. My hyacinth did not begin with white and pink blossoms, and yet if I plucked them up from the ground today, the bulb that was there from the beginning would still be attached. We are prepping the “seed” for “planting” in what we do, embrace, and absorb in this lifetime. Those realities will affect the growth of the plant in the season to come. The harvest we experience will have everything to do with how we nurture and tend the seed now. There is a change, Paul writes, from perishability to imperishability, from dishonor to honor, from weakness to power – and yet there is not a complete divorce from what was.
We see this when we look at Jesus in his resurrected form. The disciples, at times, struggle to recognize him, such as the men on the road to Emmaus or Mary in the garden on the first Easter Sunday. Yet, once they hear his voice or hear him recount the story of the gospel and break the bread in front of him – things that reveal his true inner nature – then they recognize him. On the shore, Peter knows it is Jesus asking him again to love him and tend his sheep, even though John adds this curious statement in his recollection of the event: “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord” (John 21:12). They see him, but in a new way.
And Jesus is tangible – again not the disembodied ghost we talked about last week. True, this resurrected Jesus can appear behind locked doors, and so perhaps there is a supersession of the natural laws as we experience them on earth. But this Jesus can also be touched, and his scars from the crucifixion are still present and visible and embodied. And this fits with what we learn in Scripture about the experience of the new heaven and new earth – the resurrected Jesus who fishes and prepares a meal for his disciples fits perfectly in the kingdom of God in which a great feast is set for the resurrected children of God. We can still enjoy the creaturely comforts of food and drink in the heavenly banquet. The old remains, but it is fully flourishing. Perhaps this is simply the effects of having the stain of sin removed from us – sort of like washing your windshield, having all this time thought it was clear enough, but now that the dirt is gone, you are amazed at how clear “clear” really is. After all, doesn’t Paul say that we see now like in a dark mirror, clouded? And yet in the resurrection we will know as we have been known.
What does Paul mean, though, when he says we will have a “spiritual” body if he doesn’t mean ghostly – wispy and airy and floating? The root word here for spiritual is actually used quite often in 1 Corinthians; in fact, it appears eleven times before it appears in this chapter. And nowhere does it mean “ghostly.” The word is used to refer to being in the Spirit – the Holy Spirit – or in other words, being fully connected to God, receiving power from God, and being godly in character. In other words, it means finished, flourishing, and reflecting the image of God fully as we were intended to do. The opposite, in Paul’s writings, is always referenced as the sinful life. When we are resurrected, the body we will have – and notice Paul still calls it a body – is the body freed from sin and made perfect in Christ’s likeness.
This life, then, is preparation for the kingdom to come, and our resurrected bodies will reflect God’s complete intentions for us. We will end up in a redeemed and restored heaven and earth. Just as there is an embodied reality for us in the resurrection, the setting is embodied as well. Paul is clear in Romans that the earth will be set free and become a spiritual body just as we will. The whole universe will be set free from sin. We are planting a seed with this life we are living, and right now we bear the image of Adam – that is the image of perfection distorted by sin. When the plant blooms after the dormancy of death, then we will bear the image of Christ – perfection unhindered and unencumbered by sin. We will be complete. And we will be able to live in the unlimited human flourishing that God intended for us in the garden. It will be a return to perfection. And beyond that, we are left to wait and see when we get there. Though, the descriptions we get, of – for instance – the throne room of heaven in Revelation, are pretty spectacular. And we do not need to fear that we will go unnoticed by those we love. For if we are finally set free from our sinful state and returned to God’s intentions, we will be more recognizable for who we truly are than we ever were in this life.
Some have asked since last week about burial and cremation, since Scripture is very clear about bodily resurrection. Death brings decomposition in whatever form of burial or cremation you choose. The God who created you out of nothing (but his own love and will!) can resurrect you regardless of your state after death. I presume that God can resurrect a renewed person from ashes as well as God can resurrect a renewed person out of bones. Remember, nothing is impossible for God.
Now, there is a moment for pure conjecture. And please understand it is such. Nowhere does Scripture tell us definitively what I am about to say – call this personal pastoral privilege. I have for many years found comfort in the image of us being resurrected as children. After all, we are called the children of God, and Jesus put a good deal of emphasis on become like little children, for whom the kingdom of God was intended. There is no marriage in the afterlife, after all – Jesus affirms that. But whatever form we take, we will be new, complete, and fulfilled. And then heavens and earth will be redeemed and healed as well. We will see God and walk with God as the first humans did in the garden. We will have unfettered access to God and all the good that was meant for us from the beginning.
We are all changing – you are not the same as you were in your mother’s womb. AND YET, there is something distinctly unchangeable about you that God wishes to bring to full bloom. Infants turn to children, who grow into eighth graders, who go through drastic growth spurts in the summer, who eventually turn to adults and mature. And then, when death comes, the seed of life that we are – body, mind, heart, spirit – that seed eventually wakens from dormancy and springs into full life, connected to God completely and brought to full fruition.
It is a shame that the lectionary reading does not include the conclusion of this chapter – the greatest writing on resurrection in the Bible. Because I think it sums it up pretty well. So, let us hear these words in conclusion: “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 grave, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” Praise be to God that the final word on death is that God has won the victory and we will never be separated from his love, his presence, or his reach.