May 24, 2020

“Death Swallowed Up By Life”
1 Corinthians 15:1-5, 51-57
A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi
May 24, 2020 (Easter 7)

These days, we think about death a lot, don’t we?  The COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating effects are constantly in front of us on the news, social media, in the signs around us in our community.  We are daily reminded of the number of deaths due to the coronavirus, along with the number of infections and hospitalizations.

I don’t know about you, but I’m so glad and thankful that there have been relatively few deaths in Hawaii—17 at last count.  And yet, we know there are 17 local families in sorrow and grief, 17 lives ended by this invisible enemy, COVID-19. 

As people of faith, how do we think about death?  Our Scripture reading is timely, isn’t it?  This is the work of the Holy Spirit, as I didn’t choose this reading for today.  It was on the Narrative Lectionary schedule as we have been reading selected passages from the book of 1 Corinthians.  This message of hope in the face of death speaks to us at a very poignant moment in our lives.

As I’ve mentioned before, this letter was written by the Apostle Paul to a church of relatively young Christians who had a lot of disagreements.  One of the biblical scholars I listened to this week said that it is good for us that the church in Corinth was so conflicted, because if they had agreed on everything, there would have been no need for Paul’s letter to sort things out.  We would not have his explanation of some of the fundamental tenets of our faith.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul sorts out beliefs around death and resurrection.  Since the church was in a city that was home to people of many cultures, there were lots of ideas floating around about death.  Apparently, some folks in the Corinthian church denied the resurrection of the dead.

Paul argued that if one doesn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, then faith in Jesus Christ falls apart.  The fact that Jesus died, was buried and three days later was raised from the dead is an essential part of our faith.  This is the gospel, the most important part of the message he preached to them:  “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” (vv. 3-4). 

And there were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection:  Cephas, whom we know as Peter, and the Twelve, Jesus’ disciples.  He goes on to note that more than 500 others had seen Jesus, including James and the apostles.  Lastly, Paul himself saw Jesus.  These were all witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.  With all these witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, one would have to conclude that there is indeed such a thing as resurrection of the dead. 

If you continue reading 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes an eloquent argument for the resurrection of all who follow Christ.  This is all part of God’s plan for the restoration and redemption of creation, when Christ will rule over all things. 

Paul then goes on to share his view on resurrection bodies, answering the questions, “How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body will they come?” (1 Cor. 15:35).  He uses the analogy of seeds being planted and sprouting up as wheat.  The seed doesn’t look anything like the wheat.  In the same way, our bodies die, but are resurrected anew.  “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.” (1 Cor. 15:42b).

Paul doesn’t diminish the sting or sorrow of death, but he paints a picture that gives hope to believers.  While death is real, and it disrupts, it destroys, and it is horrible, it is not the last word.  Because Jesus Christ died, was buried and then resurrected, we too can anticipate the same.  On the last day, death will be vanquished as the last enemy of God and God’s people.  Those who are alive on that last day will join those who have died.

Listen again to verses 51-57, this time from The Voice translation:

51 Stay close because I am going to tell you a mystery—something you may have trouble understanding: we will not all fall asleep in death, but we will all be transformed. 52 It will all happen so fast, in a blink, a mere flutter of the eye. The last trumpet will call, and the dead will be raised from their graves with a body that does not, cannot decay. All of us will be changed! 53 We’ll step out of our mortal clothes and slide into immortal bodies, replacing everything that is subject to death with eternal life. 54 And, when we are all redressed with bodies that do not, cannot decay, when we put immortality over our mortal frames, then it will be as Scripture says:

Life everlasting has victoriously swallowed death.
55 Hey, Death! What happened to your big win?
    Hey, Death! What happened to your sting?

56 Sin came into this world, and death’s sting followed. Then sin took aim at the law and gained power over those who follow the law. 57 Thank God, then, for our Lord Jesus, the Anointed, the Liberating King, who brought us victory over the grave.

God has won the victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ.  This is the source of our hope in these days when death is so very present in all our lives, when death seems to loom large over our world.  Death will not have the last word.  Because Christ died for our sins, was buried and on the third day he was raised—and there were numerous witnesses to his resurrection—we know that we who are in Christ will also be resurrected.  Just as Jesus was raised with a transformed, imperishable, immortal body, we will too will be raised with imperishable and immortal bodies. 

This is our hope and our comfort as we face the unknown future with COVID-19.  This is our hope and comfort in all the days to come.  Thanks be to God.