April 16, 2006
1 Corinthians 15:20-21
Please turn in your pew Bibles to I Corinthians chapter 15 and follow along as I read verses 20-21.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center, on a lovely hillside, people lying in the sun or reclining in the shade. On this hillside, Arpad Vass, a scientist at UT’s Anthropological Research Facility, sees dead people — every day. All those folks spread out there in the Tennessee heat are lying down because they are all very much dead. They are cadavers sprawled out intentionally as a way of studying modes of human decomposition. They are the lifeless bodies of people who have nobly and generously donated their bodies to science after their death.
Arpad Vass has the job of evaluating how the human body decomposes under various conditions. This is not pretty. Bodies are buried in shallow graves, stuck in car trunks, wrapped in plastic bags, submerged in a man-made pond, and treated any other way that they can think of by which a murderer might try to dispose of his victim. The data collected helps law enforcement personnel work their cases.
You might think that a hillside full of decomposing human bodies would cause a person to upchuck frequently, but Vass sees it differently. Asked about what makes him queasy, he says, simply, “One day last summer I inhaled a fly. I could feel it buzzing down my throat.” That would certainly make me queasy. In fact, I would probably barf all over the woods.
Vass says that he used to be a little freaked out by seeing the faces of dead people. He rolled them over on their stomachs so that he didn’t have to look. Now, however, it’s no big deal. And he is doing important work. These cadavers serve a definite purpose. They are given over to “corruption”, as the King James Bible would call it, for the sake of forensic science.
Arpad Vass is one of the people profiled in Mary Roach’s book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers [New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003]. It is a study of the various ways that research on the dead is used to benefit the living. It seems like a morbid topic but I suppose that someone has got to do it.
The truth is that in the 21st century, at least in the industrialized world, death has been thoroughly sanitized and sterilized for our physical and emotional protection. Most people, if they think of death at all, think in spiritual not physical terms. We think of death as the moment our soul leaves the body. We go down the tunnel to the light, and then we spend eternity plucking on a harp. As for the body, we know that it decays in gross and icky ways that we’d rather not think about that.
Consider how we celebrate Easter — with pink bunnies, marshmallow chicks, plastic grass and colorful eggs. But that’s not what the story is about. Actually if you want a holiday to compare to happenings of the first Easter, it was a lot more like Halloween — lots of blood, a corpse, burial clothes, sepulchers — that sort of thing.
The women who went to the tomb that morning fully expected to encounter a dead body. They intended to make certain that the dead body of their friend, mentor, and rabbi was prepared properly so that it could decompose quickly in this borrowed tomb. That is what the spices were for. The spices did not preserve the body; they helped the body decay, and then, later, the bones could be taken and put in an ossuary or “bone box” and buried. That was their funeral custom. The body decayed in a tomb, and they later buried the bones.
But make no mistake. The women on that first Easter expected to find a cadaver. Although Jesus had hinted at his resurrection in various conversations with them, they really didn’t “get it.” He had said that were “this temple” to be destroyed, God would raise it up again in three days.
He urged them to not “let [their] hearts be troubled.” In John 14, he said, “Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-2).
He said that, but they did not believe it. They had absolutely no doubt that when they arrived at the tomb they would find the lifeless body of Jesus, and they would not need a forensic scientist to tell them how he died. They knew. He died in a horrible way. He had been on a Roman cross, and while you go up on a cross alive, you come down off a cross dead.
Jesus died. Jesus was dead. Nothing was going to change that gruesome reality. The apostle Paul drives that point home when he speaks to the church some 25-30 years later: He says, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried“ (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
Now back in the first century, no funeral homes existed. Family and friends were the default morticians, so people knew what death smelled like, what death looked like, what death does to a body. Tombs were closed, barricaded by large rocks and stone, but everybody knew what was happening inside, in the darkness. The body was decaying.
But not that day, not on the first Easter. When Easter happened, those first witnesses saw something unprecedented in the history of human corpses. The material, fleshly body of Jesus of Nazareth somehow became a former cadaver. That was a first. A dead body became very much alive.
In the Old Testament, the prophets had occasionally talked about resurrection, but mostly as a metaphor for God’s renewal of his people. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37) is a prime example. In Jesus’ time, some Jews were expecting that at the end of time, God would resurrect the dead to new life, but that was a future hope, a distant dream. Nobody expected it to happen to a person that they knew. Nobody expected it to happen to a person who was publicly executed and so was known to be thoroughly and completely dead.
But, in fact, on that Sabbath morning, the tomb was empty. Now we may admire Arpad Vass of UT and his study of dead bodies, and we certainly hope his studies benefit humankind. But Easter is the first and only case of one dead body benefiting humankind by becoming not dead. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the assurance or guarantee of our own resurrection.
In I Corinthians 15, Paul spends some time talking about this negatively. He says in v13, suppose that there is “no resurrection of the dead.” Suppose that there has never been any kind of resurrection. “Then Christ has not been raised,” Christ was not resurrected. If that is true, then Paul says, “your faith has been in vain.” You have nothing to believe in, you are just going to die and that is it. You can try to live a moral life if you want to, but it does not really matter, because as he says in v17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless and you are still in your sins.” There is no hope.
Of course there is hope, but only because of the resurrection. Paul hammers this message: Jesus was dead, and then he was made alive, and Jesus, as a live, post-crucifixion person, was seen by numerous individuals, whom Paul lists in verses 5-8
In this chapter, 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wrote an essay on how the process of death and decay was reversed in the resurrection of Christ. And the point is not just that jesus was resurrected. Jesus, was the prototype for the resurrection of everyone when the time comes. Thus Paul says in v20, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” The resurrection of Christ is the guarantee of our resurrection. And v21 is a little commentary on this. “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being.” In Philippians, Paul says that Christ emptied himself of his godhood and became a human being. That human being, Jesus of Nazareth, died on the cross, and was resurrected on Easter morning. And thus through him comes our resurrection.
Later on in the chapter Paul tells us something about a resurrection body. In v44, he says, “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” What he means is not the Greek concept of the separation of body and spirit, but rather that, in the resurrection, our bodies will no longer be subject to decay and decomposition. Instead, the body will be remade into a spiritual body, a body animated and fully indwelt by God’s Spirit, but still an actual body, a body like the resurrected Jesus, a body that will be “imperishable” (15: 42).
Resurrection is not a simple spiritual transfer in which the body is left behind while the spirit flies off to heaven. Resurrection is complete victory over the processes of death. Death itself is destroyed, and God’s people dwell as renewed people in a renewed world.
This, said the apostle, is the essential fact of faith. Christ’s resurrection made everything possible and if Christ wasn’t raised, if the tomb wasn’t empty, if death couldn’t be reversed, then “your faith has been in vain” (15:14). Thus, the resurrection is of “first importance” as Paul says in v3. He means that literally. The most important thing that every happened was the resurrection. Easter was the day that world changed. One formerly dead body made all the difference, giving hope to the living.
Now not everything the Apostle Paul says in chapter 15 is easily understood. A “spiritual body” seems like a contradiction in terms. We should realize that Paul is trying to describe a mystery, and ultimately probably not succeeding very well. The bottom line, though, is that somehow, at God’s initiative and through the resurrection of Christ, death became a lot less about decaying cadavers and a lot more about the power of new life.
After his resurrection, Jesus invited his disciples to check him out, to put their hands in the wounds, feel inside, touch him. Unlike the cadavers in a research lab, Jesus could offer an invitation that wasn’t silent. It was a proclamation to everyone that the secret, dark world of death had been exposed. The ghoulish turned gorgeous in the bright light of that Easter morning.
On this Easter morning, we come to celebrate this new reality. The promise of Easter is still in the realm of faith. Even though we are insulated from death by our society, we know that we are surrounded by death everyday. The morgues have multitudes of bodies; The funeral homes prosper; the cemetery’s are full. We dress death up and pretend its not there, but it is still there. But the promise is that it won’t always be that way. A cure for death has been found
Thank God for Jesus Christ. He is the cure. Thank God that as we declare his resurrection, we declare our own resurrection. As he lives, we too shall someday live!
[NOTE: Here, you move to the altar and take a white linen cloth and lifting it up in the view of the congregation, you say: “This cloth is a reminder of the shroud which was wrapped around the body of Jesus. Early on Easter morning, the shroud lay in the tomb without a body. Alleluia! Christ is risen!” The people respond: Christ is risen, indeed!
Then you take from the altar a bottle of scented oil, and displaying it to the congregation, you say, “This fragrant oil reminds us of the women who brought oil and spices to prepare the body of Jesus. But they found the tomb empty. Alleluia! Christ is risen!” The people respond, “Christ is risen indeed!”
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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