Easter Sunday - March 23, 2008 - 1 Cor. 15.19-28 - Oberursel - Armin Wenz
If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "all things are put in subjection," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (ESV)
Over and over, one has sought to explain the resurrection of Jesus from the dead with comparisons. There is from the mythology of the people the legendary phoenix bird, that rises forth from the ashes, and one is reminded of the butterfly that seemingly squirms itself out of a dead caterpillar. Also, there is the reference to the spring, in which year after year new life sprouts, which often plays a role in our latitudes especially since Easter falls on a different date each year in the southern hemisphere from Spring.
One can certainly recognize in the Creation God’s creative power overcomes death or what often seems like death. Nevertheless, all of these comparisons are lagging when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
The Bible says that the resurrection is not a metamorphosis nor is it a miraculous transformation from one form to another. The resurrection is also not a spiritualization, so that one could say: Jesus’ body is really dead, but His spirit is awakened by God to life. Or even, as it was claimed in the 60s by many German evangelical theologians, who proclaimed, Jesus certainly remained in the grave, but that the subject of Jesus’ resurrection should continue.
The opinion of the Corinthians came quite close to this, and thus Paul was concerned. They also wanted to reinterpret the resurrection. They did not directly deny the resurrection of Jesus, but they denied that there would be a resurrection of the dead in the future. They thought they were already complete. They supposed that, after Jesus fully accomplished salvation, nothing new would come. And so they also supposed, they could no longer fall from salvation, no matter what they would do, no matter how laden they were with their wicked sins.
Paul preaches against this error of the Corinthians, their opinion that they already live in the perfect time of salvation. He does so by distinguishing the resurrection of Jesus at three times, which, he clearly says, follows one on top of the other, by which all three times have to do with the resurrection of Jesus.
The first time lies in the past; it is the time of the Jesus’ Easter victory. The second time is the time of Jesus’ struggle against doomed powers which are still raging; this is the present. The third time, however, is the time when Christ’s death will finally overcome and God alone will prevail.
First is the time of Jesus’ Easter victory. The New Testament unanimously proclaims the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as an unique and completed event. No one could have observed the resurrection, but numerous witnesses have arisen who saw and heard Christ. Paul lists them at the beginning of the chapter. The testimony of everyone is this: Christ is alive.
However, as was testified truthfully, because it was even officially sealed by the spear thrust in Jesus’ side and by the burial, it is certain that Jesus had truly died.
The resurrection has not reversed the death of Jesus; it is not a journey into the past, but it is the miracle of the new life that God has worked on the one who was dead, absolutely dead, lifeless, and forsaken by God.
The resurrection of Jesus is not a metamorphosis, but it is a victory, a victory of God over death. As previously indicated time and again, as God spared Isaac in his sacrifice, as Jonah was miraculously saved from drowning, as Jesus called Lazarus from the grave, which occurred with Jesus in a radically new way.
Because Jesus is the first to be raised from death, who will not die again, thus the resurrection of His Son was the seal and confession of God the Father to His Son: This is My beloved Son.
That’s why Paul proclaimed with unwavering certainty: Christ is truly risen. And He is the first to rise. Up to this moment in world history, there was never such a thing. But it is God’s will that Christ should not remain the only one; according to God’s will, He opens the resurrection to all people who will follow in His footsteps and experience what He experienced: Death is in God’s hand, and the resurrection from the dead, the new life, is by God’s power.
Admittedly, says Paul, there is an order in this series. Nobody can trade places with Christ. He is the first resurrection. He already lives in the glory of the Father. He is the first. For every one else, however, Paul says, these wonderful events still lie in the future. But everyone in his order: first Christ, then when He will come, those who belong to Christ.
But there is no doubt: the Corinthians are wrong, if they think they already have already attained the goal as Christ has already attained the goal. No, the physical resurrection from the dead is still pending for those who believe in Christ. They live in a sort of interim state.
This second time, St. Paul says, is the time of Jesus’ struggle against doomed powers which are still raging. This power and might will become the first to be destroyed by Christ at the end. The last enemy, which will be destroyed, is death. Only in the new heaven and new earth will it be said: There will no longer be death (Revelation 21).
The interim period, in which we live as Christians, is also marked by two things: First, death is already defeated by Jesus’ resurrection. Second, death is not yet destroyed, but this terrible state of affairs flourishes until the last day.
That is however: Death is like all the doomed powers of this world which are under Jesus’ feet and reign. All power in heaven and on earth is given to Me, the Risen says to His disciples before He sends them out into the world, where they will not only baptize and teach, but where they will repeatedly expose all the tyrants of the world.
However all blood witnesses, all martyrs of the Church, proclaimed and died in the certainty that they had already vanquished the most brutal rulers for they stand on the side of the victor, even when the world was sure that it dealt with notorious losers.
It is clearly evident that this period in which we live is, for us Christians, a time of temptation. Yes, temptation hangs together with fighting. In other words: when we live our faith, we meet in and around us powers which oppose us and do not peacefully surrender. We stand in a war, as Paul says, not with flesh and blood, but with powers and authorities, namely the rulers of the world, who prevail in this darkness, with the evil spirits under heaven (Ephesians 6.12).
But this is true, it certainly is that we already stand in these struggles that stand entirely under the reign of Christ, which belongs to Him, for He guarantees that He defends, protects, carries, comforts, where He helps to make them bold, give strength, and then at the end – dying as a martyr or a natural death – He will also raise them up.
We live in the time of Satan’s fighting retreat. If we look into the world, you would think that he builds his reign ever further from our Lord and is moving ever backwards. In reality, the doomed powers always become furious since they know that their time is coming to an end. The fact is: a war becomes increasingly more fierce as the fighting comes to an end, so we must also know that the same is true in this war and therefore we should not be surprised when it becomes fierce. But we can also be certain that the unseen Victor is now behind us, that He stands in front of the door and awaits us.
The means by which Christ fights are His Word and His Sacraments, whereby He has sent His disciples to all people. It is the greatest miracle in the history of the world, that this non-violent Word and these plain and simple gifts of the Sacraments remain today and have not fallen, despite all the tyrants and despite all the aberrations of the Church. Here, where His Word is preached and His Sacraments administered in accordance with His will, is the living, risen Christ and they give the doomed powers one defeat after another.
What is most shrewd to Satan, is the fact that in everything, Christ, in His dying on the cross and in His non-violent reign as the Risen One, in His reign by His Word and His Sacraments, does not follow Satan’s diabolical advice, in that Jesus does not aspire to usurp world domination by his diabolical standards.
Jesus could have done it, He could have become the ruler of world by Satan’s favor, and He would have lost His Father in heaven just like Adam and Eve in Paradise; however, Christ does not do everything for Himself, but He does everything in obedience and loyalty to His Father and out of love for the children of men.
Because that is so, Paul must still speak about the third time, which for us is still pending. It is the time, when Christ will finally overcome death and God, the Heavenly Father, will alone prevail: after the end, when the reign of God, the Father, will be handed over, after He has destroyed all rule and all power and dominion.
After the Father puts His Son in charge of the resurrection, at the end the Son will commit to His Father and give back to Him the reign over men: all of Creation belongs to Him.
The Son’s mission is fulfilled, when death and all doomed powers, Satan and his angels, will finally be destroyed, when the war with men will be past.
Then, only then, will we have no temptation, no tears, no doubt, no hesitation, no more dying. Then, only then, is God finally justified before the entire world, when the Son will hold court and His Father will place before Him those who have confessed Him. Then, only then, it ends in our salvation, since we are sealed in our Baptism, in the consummation, the visible life in communion with God.
We owe all the fidelity of Jesus Christ to His heavenly Father. That fact that He became subordinate, has remained obedient to Him, although He forever and ever is together with Him true God. That He has not rebel against the position of His Father from whom He is a Son who is distinct and separate – even though He is the same God with power and honor.
That in His place Christ executes the true mission of His Father for us until the end, upon which we owe our entire redemption, our salvation with God and the certainty that neither death nor life, neither angels nor powers, nor authorities, neither the present nor the future neither height nor depth nor any other creature is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.38 f).
So death and also the terrible experiences in the course of our lives is nothing that can separate us from God. So we must – whether we live or die – safely wait in anticipation upon our own resurrection, that then we will really have peace. Not peace in the grave, but peace with God, after the victory over His enemies, and ours, becomes final, through Jesus Christ, His Son. Amen.
Translated by The Rev. Peter A. Bauernfeind