4th November 1 Corinthians 15
Faith and hope will one day be unnecessary gifts, for we will see and know what now we believe and trust and hope in. But for now, our faith and our hope are essential, which is why St Paul ranks them among the three most important gifts of the spirit, alongside the one gift that lasts into eternity, love. Our faith and hope are not about what is now, but about what has been – the life and teaching and resurrection of Jesus - and about what is to come – the resurrection of the dead, our own life beyond this one.
People found this difficult even in the first generation, when witnesses were still living who saw Jesus in his lifetime, and who witnessed his return to life after crucifixion. They still find it difficult today. Astonishingly, folk myths take hold and are spoken of as if they were truths, taught to children as if they were more comforting than the truth. But how can it be comforting to be told that Grannie has become a star in the sky, when any child knows that stars are superheated gas balls set massive distances from each other on their lonely orbits. How can it be helpful to tell a child that Old Mr Jones has gone to become an angel? It isn’t true, and so it doesn’t prepare them to handle the actual truth. It seems when it comes to death, people either avoid the truth by indulging in sentimental storytelling, or when imagination and faith fail completely, by insisting that death is the end, that there is nothing beyond it. Because we do not at this time see the resurrection of the dead, many people deny it.
In Corinth there was a powerful group of people within the church who insisted that there was no resurrection. You live, you die, that’s the end of it. Paul, Apollos, Peter and all the others who had led churches in Corinth and taught the stories of Jesus, including of his resurrection from the dead, they were wrong. And so the authority, leadership and teaching of Christian leaders was completely undermined and the faith they taught utterly devalued. And yet these unbelievers continued to consider themselves part of the church, and as they spoke out they damaged the church more and more. Paul wondered why they bothered, because if they were right, and he was wrong, then ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!’
If you don’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, or that we can be raised from the dead, then what you do in church is a waste of time. Paul knows, and offers lots of witness statements to back himself up, that Jesus did rise. But if you choose not to believe that Jesus rose, then it follows that his death either wasn’t real or was the end for him. In either case, his teaching, his actions, the miracles, all become meaningless. And if Jesus is meaningless, then so is the rest of the story. If he didn’t rise from the dead, you won’t rise from the dead. And if that’s the case, why are you in church? Go and party, or have a lie in, or go shopping, because nothing in church makes any sense if don’t believe in everything that Jesus is.
Paul was pretty frustrated by this group of effective unbelievers who were exercising a lot of influence within the church and undermining the faith of others. You can see this frustration in the outburst: Come back to your senses! (v34). Paul knew that some of those who denied the resurrection would try to justify themselves by demanding a description of what life after death looks like. They’d see it as a clever question, because of course no one knows what life after death looks like. None of us has seen it, other than those first witnesses of Jesus, which is why it is a matter of faith and hope. Paul’s frustration shows again as he exclaims: ‘Foolish question!’
What Paul describes is far more hopeful and far more lovely than the strange stories that people imagine bring comfort to children or even to themselves. He offers us something to hope for, a glorious end to the life of faith. Without this hope, being part of church is a waste of time, but with it, everything that we do when we worship, when we pray, when we spend time reading our Bibles and getting to know God better, is a preparation for the life to come. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory over death and over faithlessness through Jesus Christ our risen Lord!