Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany – Epistle

by Crossings

Dressed For Service
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Analysis by Jim Squire

35But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 42So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. 50What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

NOTE: The verses following the text (1 Cor. 15:51-58) shed light on the gospel message Paul was sharing with his readers. It also helps to take stock of the entire letter, as noted by my references to other chapters.

DIAGNOSIS: Making a Perishable Name for Ourselves

Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem) – Dressed for a Lesser Success
The Corinthians who read Paul’s letter were very concerned about appearances. They were intent on associating themselves with the right leader (ch. 1). They placed great value in being part of the right group or faction. For some reason, they willingly overlooked the immoral lifestyle of one of their church’s members (ch. 5). [Perhaps he was a popular member of the parish, vested with some authority. Or maybe he was one of those who spoke in tongues–making them wish they could do the same, even though it seemed to be creating conflict in the congregation (ch. 14).] They were so determined to maintain their status and keep company with the right people that they even abused the Holy Communion (ch. 11), making it into another clique event. But, despite their concern for appearances, the Corinthians were left with strangely unsettling questions about how the dead will be raised (v. 35). Their own agenda for success consumed them, but it could not offer them peace regarding eternal questions.

Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem) – Dressed for Self-Promotion 
For the amount of attention the Corinthians paid to their own agenda they had little time for Christ. At best, they followed him on their own terms–which is the same as not following him at all. Given this, it’s no wonder they eventually abused the Lord’s Supper. When you are determined to “sow” your own future, you begin to believe you actually possess the power to do so, and you trust less and less in the guidance of others–especially one who got himself crucified (see vv. 36-37). Our problem, like that of the Corinthians, is that we insist on steering our own course. We might associate ourselves with Christ, but really we trust more in our own talents and goals.

Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem) – Dressed in Flesh and Blood
So determined are we to plot our own future that we aren’t even aware that we sow “but a bare seed” while God is the one who “gives it a body as he has chosen” (v. 37). Whatever we sow is perishable (v. 42), including ourselves and our success. No matter how carefully we tend them, our lives are still sown in dishonor (v. 43). We can’t create our own imperishable body or eternal future no matter how hard we try. Like the Corinthians, when we dress for self-promotion, we can only go as far as flesh and blood can take us: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (v. 50). All our plans for the future are perishable, and so are we. When we pin all our hopes on something that will perish, then we miss out on the kingdom of God and eternal life. Equally unfortunate, we are missing out on knowing salvation in Christ here and now.

PROGNOSIS: Clothed in the Imperishable Christ

Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution) – Christ Gives Imperishable Clothing
But what is impossible for us to do (“this perishable body must put on imperishability,” 15:53), Paul speaks about as a “fait accompli”–a done deal. “If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (v. 44). “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven” (v. 47). And “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven” (v. 49). Paul declares it was necessary that Christ came into the world, because it was written in the Hebrew scriptures “death has been swallowed up in victory” (Isaiah 25:7-8). Ultimately, Paul asserts that this victory has indeed come “through our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:57). And God gives us that victory now (present tense, not future tense). This is the Christ who took on our perishable flesh and blood so that we might “put on imperishability” (15:53). He took our sin, which is “the sting of death” (15:56), and bore it on the cross. And ever since he rose from the grave, that question from scripture, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your string?” (15:55) hangs rhetorically in the air.

Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution) – Dressed for Proclamation
But for believers that question is answered; and we receive the answer with great joy. And how do we manifest that joy? Here is the heart of Paul’s message to the people of Corinth: To enjoy this victory, the Corinthians need to know that Christ makes “imperishability” possible (15:53) for them. Paul is waking them–and us–up to the happy knowledge that we don’t have to worry about what kind of body we will receive in the resurrection. Rather, we can trust in the one who already has received the resurrection life. In faith, we put on his victory–dress up in the glory of God, if you will–right here and now. And we trust the promise that we have new “bodies” waiting for us that will last forever–way beyond death’s last gasp. Consequently, we can treat even our most well-intended plans as temporary means to negotiate our time here on earth because, in the end, those plans too will turn to dust. We don’t have to plot and scheme to make sure we come out looking good in the end. Through the victory of Jesus Christ, which he bequeathed to us, the end has already been taken care of! We have the promise that we are indeed clothed with the imperishable.

Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution) – Dressed for Service
Now truly dressed for success, the kind bestowed on us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we are free to be “steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because [we] know that in the Lord [our] labor is not in vain” (15:58). It doesn’t matter anymore who we know, or with whom we are associated. We are free to look at others as human beings rather than as people who can do something for us. In fact, we can focus on what we can do for them. It may mean putting them out of the group, as Paul suggests, for the purposes of saving their souls “in the day of the Lord” (5:5). It certainly means treating the Holy Communion with reverence and treating all believers who partake of it with equal love, because they were the Lord’s beloved. Finally, knowing the victory that is ours in Jesus Christ, we don’t have to try desperately to control our own future. Instead, we can look out for the future of others.


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