Proper 29 · 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 · November 23, 2008
By Travis J. Scholl
Is there any better way to preach on the last Sunday of the church year than to preach Christ “raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20)?
This pericope falls in the middle of Paul’s great resurrection chapter. What precedes it is his theological argument for why Christ’s bodily resurrection is necessary for salvation. What follows it is his discussion of the nature of the resurrected body. This text deals with the purpose and goal—the telos, if you will—of Christ’s resurrection, and ours, in the economy of God’s saving action in the world. Just like last week’s epistle, Paul sees God’s salvation with an eschatological perspective: Christ, the “firstfruits” of the resurrection life that becomes fully ours “after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power” (v. 24). The telos of God is victory over everything that is against God, the last of which is death itself (v. 26).
Paul’s proclamation echoes with the Old Testament distinction between “life” and “death.” As Kathryn Tanner points out, the OT view does not see life and death simply as biological facts but as metaphors for entire ways of living, “Where life refers to fruitfulness and abundance, longevity, communal flourishing and individual wellbeing, and death is a catch-all for such things as suffering, poverty, barrenness, oppression, social divisiveness and isolation” (Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, 104-105). Moses, setting before the people of God the choice between life and death so that they may choose life, stands in the shadows of Paul’s discussion (Dt 30:19-20).
Or, as the character Andy Dufresne puts it in The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”
Here, though, standing at the edge of another Promised Land, the resurrected Christ pronounces the final victory of life over death. Thus, we are no longer forced into a zero-sum choice between life and death. Life is already ours, even as we wait for its consummation, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We endure the “deaths” we suffer now in our daily living (“I die every day!” Paul exclaims later in v. 31) knowing that they have already been “swallowed up” in the victory of Christ (v. 54). Moreover, all our living and dying is subsumed within the daily dying and rising of our baptism; the waters that make his victory ours, right here, right now.
It would seem difficult from the pulpit to try to untangle verses 27 and 28 without a few lost strands along the way. To fully explicate who is subjected to whom, and where and when, might be better left to the classroom. But the underlying theological claim is foundational. The culmination of the resurrected Christ’s kingdom, the reign that will bring about our own resurrection from the dead, is brought to its ultimate fulfillment in the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. For God to be “all in all” is for all creation to be brought under the “authority and power” of Father, Son, and Spirit. The One (Son) who was given all power on earth gives it back to the One (Father) who gave it to him. Then the perichoresis of God will “make alive” all who are “in Christ” (v. 22). And this is how “those who belong to Christ” enter into that dance.
At Concordia Seminary’s recent Symposium, one of the keynote responders, Gary Simpson, made a case for the church to renew its emphasis on the perichoresis of the Trinity (his presentation is on the Seminary’s iTunes U: itunes.csl.edu). Preaching perichoresis effectively is not the easiest of tasks, and I am not going to pretend to know how. Perhaps, though, we need only extend Luther’s insight about our faith in Christ’s word that he gives himself “for you.” The perichoresis of God is nothing if not “for you,” and for me. Christ’s resurrection makes it so. By his rising, I rise and enter the dance. The steps of the dance are often a mystery. But we don’t need to know the steps to move to the beat. Indeed, my joy is in seeing the One who dances with me, who encircles me with a love supreme.
Interestingly enough, our last reading in the Gospel of Matthew for this year is the Great Judgment, where Christ separates the sheep and the goats. There is a similar naivete at work there: “Lord, when did we see you…?” (Mt 25:37-39). When we worship the resurrected Christ—to whom “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given” (Mt 28:17-18)—the steps of the dance become obvious. Feed the hungry. Quench the thirsty. Welcome the stranger. Clothe the naked. Care for the sick. Visit the imprisoned. This is how we dance life with Jesus.
We are only dancing steps that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have already danced for us. They are dancing still.