1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57
Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at this letter written by Paul to the Church in Corinth; a Church divided, that he called to unity in the foolishness of the way: the foolishness of the cross. Then last week, we read his amazing, beautiful poem to love; his description of a love which goes far beyond the sort of love we find easy or automatic, which transcends the barriers and divisions that we so easily place between ourselves.
And he ended that poem with the famous trilogy: these three remain – faith, hope and love.
Now faith is something that Paul writes about a lot. Not, for him, the “believing something even though you know it isn’t true”, faith is not irrational, although it is, perhaps, arational, outside, beyond reason, but not contrary to it: in the same way, perhaps, as love goes beyond the rational. Faith, for Paul, for us, is intensely personal. It is not about believing a set of doctrines, or about assenting to a ‘statement of faith’. It is not “faith about”, it is “faith in”. It is the belief in things not (yet) seen, but a believe grounded in the character of the one who has made the promise – believing, not in the impossible, but in the faithfulness of God.
Love, then, and faith. And now, as he brings this letter to an end, he turns to the third of his trilogy: hope.
For if faith is the belief in things yet unseen, and the love of God is what sustains faith, then hope is that for which we have faith.
And it is with our final hope that Paul leaves the Corinthian Church.
“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, and that he was raised on the third day.”
The death and the resurrection of Jesus has always, from the very first days of the Christian movement, been at the core of the faith. “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again” was perhaps the earliest declaration of faith; “He is risen indeed” the earliest response.
“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile … and those also who have died in Christ have perished”
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”
Paul’s argument is simple enough: “in Adam”, by the simple fact of our humanity, all die. It is the universal fact of human existence. All die. But God entered into our humanity, even into death, and then added something new; added the postscript, the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” as Aslan called it – resurrection. And just as in our humanity “in Adam” all die; so in our faith, “in Christ”, all will be made alive.
For “the last enemy to be destroyed in death”.
I’d like to linger on that phrase, for it bears reflection. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Death is an enemy.
There’s no attempt here to avoid what we all know at some deep, animal level – death is an enemy. But for much of the history of the people of God that could not have been unambiguously declared.
For in the most faithful of Jewish monotheism, death – like everything – came from God. In the story of the garden “if you eat of that fruit you will die” – it is the declaration of God, the judgement, even, of God; that we will die.
But here death is not a necessity, not a judgement, not, ultimately, even the will of God: death is an enemy.
For some, dying at an old age, after a full life, death might be an enemy greeted, finally, if not as a friend, as a final release: for others, when death comes far too soon and far to unexpectedly the enmity of death is all too clear.
Whatever else we might say of death, let us not fall into those trite pseudo-Christian mottos: “God must have taken them for a reason”. No. Death may not always be the worst thing possible, but it is the enemy.
And it is an enemy as of yet undefeated, undestroyed. However deep and secure and profound our faith, death still comes and when it does, it shakes us, attacks us, confuses us, stands against us. We may hold with unshakable faith to the promise of the resurrection and the life of the world to come, but still, death comes at us as an undestroyed enemy – a genuine foe.
For death is the last enemy to be destroyed.
Indeed, death is the last enemy.
In the course of our lives as people and in our lives of faith, we face many enemies, literal or figurative: people who stand against us or against the faith; circumstances that seem to conspire; limitations of resources, of abilities, of time, that prevent us from doing the work that we feel called to do as well or completely as we wish we could; sickness that seems to strike at the least convenient moment; violence, crime, terrorism, war.
We face enemies throughout the walk of our lives. Some we defeat, some we flee from, some we compromise with, some we make friends of, some set us back, some, perhaps, even help us.
But at the end, beyond them all, lies the last enemy. In each of our lives the last enemy we will face is death.
And then, it will be the last enemy that is destroyed
The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
And then ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
This, in the end, is our hope, the great, eschatological hope of the Christian faith. That death, the final enemy, will be swallowed in victory. For even now, while it is still undestroyed, it has been defanged. Sin, the sting of death, has been defeated. Also not destroyed – we surely all know that sin is still very much alive – but defeated, for it lacks the power to control our final destiny, lacks, in the loving forgiveness of God, the power to shame us, the power to drive us apart from God or from one another. And when sin cannot separate us from God or from one another, death lacks any final meaning.
For the pain of death is the pain of separation, the pain of loss of the beloved.
And the Christian hope, the sure and certain hope of our faith, is that nothing that is good is ever lost forever, but is held in the hands and memory of God.
Death is an enemy, and one who can still cause much pain, but in the end, one who is ultimately, and totally, defeated.
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.