Lesson 14: Elephant in the Road (I Corinthians 15)

If religions deal with ultimate questions, they eventually have to deal with death. As Paul says, it is the last enemy, the elephant in the room, or to keep our metaphor, the elephant in the middle of the road. No matter what we do, death is ahead. Paul might have put off the task in earlier letters, believing Jesus would return in the immediate future. But as time passed, the questions had to be addressed, and he does this in I Corinthians 15.

One way to pose the question is “Why should I participate in God’s long range project for overcoming the evil in creation, if I am going to die anyway?” Three classical ways to answer are to 1) Act like the elephant is not there. This one sometimes uses fantasy, such as imagining it is a pink elephant in my mind but not on the road. 2) Live for the moment. This one assumes a cynical attitude, such as getting off the road at the next bar to eat, drink, and be merry; or 3) Accept the reality of the elephant, but proceed anyway. For example, you can participate for the sake of future generations.

Paul takes the third option, adding the assurance that God will make it possible for all of us to get beyond the obstacle in the end. In doing this, he tries to hold on to reality as he knows it. That gets a laugh from many who believe any answer that includes God or life after death is already fantasy. And it is true that we have trouble fitting his particular answers into 20th century thought forms. At the same time, he does give us some standards for our holding on to reality.

First, he lays the Gospel as his foundation. Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was resurrected. His words make clear Jesus really died; if he is alive again it is because God recreated him. Because his resurrection is a singular event, it sounds like fantasy. So in verses 3- 11 Paul provides an official list of people who had resurrection appearances. It was only about twenty years after Easter, so Paul’s people could seek out many of these first hand witnesses. In fact, they can speak with him as he adds himself to the list, apparently signifying his Damascus road appearance.

Then he places this Gospel into the history of God’s redemption of his creation, maintaining a consistent argument. In 12-28 he describes the resurrected Christ as the first fruits of this redemption and provides for us following in our own turn. He makes clear we all shall die, really die, and God will raise us. In fact, we are already partially participating in this new Age of the Spirit through our baptisms. Yet our physical deaths are still ahead of us.

Verses 30-34 conclude the argument by showing trusting in God’s promise to overcome death gives us the courage to participate in this salvation project. His faith inspires him to suffer persecution and face death for the cause. He reads life after death just the opposite of Karl Marx. It is not a narcotic used to keep the poor from demanding a better life now. Rather it is powerful incitement for joining that struggle right away.

Paul does not use fantasy or become cynical. He acknowledges there is an elephant in the middle of the road ahead, but proceeds by trying to hang on to reality as he knows it. First, he discards Greek, Roman, and other Christian understandings which regard humans as essentially spirits entrapped in bodies. It is silly to say our bodies can not get pass the elephant but our spirits can. Second, he rejects any theory of natural growth, such as reincarnation, which gives us the power to become someone else on the other side of the elephant.

Verses 35-50 insist if we want to hang on to reality we always have to deal with bodies. Jews and Christians believe there is never a spirit without a body. Paul points to many different kinds of bodies, insisting they are still bodies. Anything real has a body. So when he illustrates with a seed, he is not referring to natural growth, as if we grow from this life into life after death. Rather he speaks of a seed having one kind of body and the resulting plant another.

Paul is trying to say you are your body as well as your spirit. If I love you, I care for your body as well as your spirit. The person I love now is the same person I shall love after death. A spiritual body is not a spooky, ethereal, incorporeal one but simply an imperishable one. C S Lewis mused that perhaps a spiritual body was more material than a physical one. Maybe Jesus could walk through walls in the resurrection, because he was more solid than the wall, sort of like us walking through air.

He further elaborates this argument in verses 50- 57. When he compares this to sleep, he does not mean that our spirits sleep through death. We are really dead. He is simply maintaining that we shall not be aware of time passing or have any pain of waiting. We have no natural powers for overcoming death. We need God to raise us, just as Jesus did. And he shall raise us up, because he loves the real people we are right now.

Verse 58 concludes the argument by affirming this means “my living shall not be in vain”. Our participation in God’s work is part of the history of salvation and based on God’s promises.

Paul presents a very materialistic faith. We never get off praying for the souls of people without caring for their bodies as well. In the last Judgment we shall not be asked about our prayer life but if we fed, clothed, gave drink, and visited the least of our brothers and sisters. This essential nature of body is found throughout his letters. Our bodies are temples of God’s spirit; the Church is the Body of Christ; the sacraments utilize the material elements of bread, wine, and water; and
sexuality must be discussed, because it deals with our bodies.

None of us has the ability to explain exactly what life after death is. Only Jesus has any right to do that, because he is the only one who was there and came back. And he never went into detail, simply said it is something like a dinner party with loved ones and surprise guests. Perhaps it is enough to proclaim Jesus who promises to care for us shall be there. At the same time, we can use the Apostles’ Creed to confess belief in the “Resurrection of the Body”, because we want to insist, as Paul did, that the person God loves is the real me, body and soul. To speak of the spirit leaving the body and ascending immediately to heaven at death or of a reincarnation as another person is still fantasy. They deny the reality of death; they ignore the real needs of real people.

We are going to skip II Corinthians. We’ll use Romans to summarize Paul’s teachings. I plan the following schedule: March 31, Romans 1-8 on salvation; April 3, Romans 12 on ethics; April 7 Romans 13 on national government; April 14, Romans 16 on women; and April 17, Philippians 2 on the fundamental story.

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