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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

PRAYER / WORSHIP: Homiletic Notes for the Week of Prayer

2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

We Will All be Changed by the Victory of our Lord Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51-58)

The Rev. Ruthanna B. Hooke, Ph.D.
Virginia Theological Seminary

First Corinthians 15:51-58, Paul's ringing affirmation of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, is a fruitful text to ponder in relation to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is useful, in the first place, because it is part of the First Letter to the Corinthians, in which the problem of unity is perhaps the central problem of the letter. Right at the outset Paul appeals to the Corinthians "that all of you be in agreement, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose" (1:10). He writes this appeal because he has heard that they have been quarreling and breaking into factions, declaring "I belong to Paul," "I belong to Apollos," and so on. Clearly one of Paul's chief purposes in writing this letter is to call this community back to unity in the face of their divisions. He pursues this aim at several points in the letter, for instance when he urges the Corinthians to include all equally in the Lord's Supper, or when he advances the metaphor of the body with many parts, all of which need the others. If this whole letter, in a sense, revolves around the problem of creating unity in a divided church, then the final section of the letter, Paul's argument for the resurrection of the dead in Chapter 15, must be seen as part of solving this problem. Indeed, if in standard rhetorical fashion Paul has saved his most important topic for last, then this topic-the resurrection of the dead-must in some way be Paul's trump card in his effort to move them toward unity, his final and strongest effort to bring about this change.

Paul's reason for articulating this doctrine for the Corinthians is not simply that he wants to educate them about certain aspects of their faith that some of them have come to doubt, but more urgently because he believes that this loss of faith in the resurrection is contributing to the disorders, conflicts and disunity within the Corinthian community. Paul's premise throughout the letter is that what members of this community believe (or don't believe) has a powerful impact on how they behave and what kind of common life they manifest. Hence in this section his purpose is to strengthen their faith in the resurrection of the dead in order that this faith might lead them to amend their behavior and the character of their community. By looking at the specific ways that the Corinthians' faith in this doctrine (or lack of faith) influences their conduct and way of being in the world, we can by extension see how a firmer belief in the resurrection of the dead can affect our lives and conduct, and in particular our prayer and work for Christian unity.

God's Transforming Power

It is clear from the way Paul frames the argument that it is not the resurrection of Jesus Christ that the Corinthians doubted. They affirmed Christ's resurrection, but denied that they themselves would be raised. It is this denial that Paul seeks to correct, and all the rhetorical firepower of First Corinthians 15 is devoted to this end.

On the most fundamental level, Paul's proclamation of the resurrection of the dead speaks to the quest for Christian unity because this doctrine is a declaration of God's transforming power. If death is our final and most potent enemy, then nowhere is God's power more fully manifest than in the raising of the dead-in the raising of Jesus Christ, as the first fruits of those who have died, and then the raising of all humankind as belonging to him. For this reason, few New Testament texts proclaim God's transforming power with such rhetorical force as 1 Corinthians 15. To say that the resurrection of the dead is the definitive and unsurpassable manifestation of God's power to transform and perfect the human condition is also to say that this event is the purest gift of God's grace. To call the resurrection a gift of God's grace is, among other things, to emphasize that this event is not something we can control or make happen in any way. In saying, "Listen, I will tell you a mystery…we will all be changed" (15:51), Paul is pointing to the ultimate miracle that defines our existence, a miracle that can only come about because God is God, because God has power to transform us beyond what we can anticipate or imagine.

Although in Paul's exposition of the resurrection the transformation that awaits us will occur at the close of the age, the stirring language of 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 reminds us of God's transforming power in other aspects of our life as well. This reminder of God's power to transform us is crucial whenever we contemplate forces in our lives that seem too entrenched ever to change. Just as death might seem too powerful an enemy for God to defeat, so too the forces of disunity in the churches today might seem too potent for us to overcome. However, Paul's promise that God is powerful enough to defeat death itself gives us encouragement that God can and will also defeat other forces that seem bent on thwarting God's will. In this way, Paul's gorgeous rhetoric about our transformation at the resurrection can give us the certainty to know that if death ultimately will submit to God, then there is no other aspect of our lives that cannot also be transformed according to God's purposes. God's power to bridge division and bring about unity is this same transforming power at work in a different context. The God who can raise the dead can also accomplish the miracle of transforming the church into unity, and transforming each one of us to help bring this unity about.

This focus on God's transforming power reminds us of some important principles in our work for Christian unity. First and foremost, Christian unity, like the resurrection of the dead, is fundamentally God's gift to us, a miracle that God will perform beyond what we can do by our own efforts. If our disunity as Christians is a result as well as a manifestation of our sinfulness, then clearly it is only through God's intervention that this disunity can be overcome, since only God has the power to remove the power of sin in our lives and bring us to holiness. It is essential, in all the work that we do for Christian unity, that we recall that this is really God's work and mission, in which we are participating, rather than being our own independent work. Our unity is grounded in God and sustained by God, rather than being grounded and sustained by ourselves. Among other things, remembering this crucial fact reminds us not to lose hope in work for Christian unity, even amidst conflicts and setbacks, since it is God who is bringing about this unity, and will accomplish it in God's time. Hence our first and most important task in the work for Christian unity is to pray for that unity-to ask God to bring about this state, which we cannot by ourselves achieve. If unity in the church is a state that God is bringing about, and in which we are invited to participate, there is no more valuable way to participate in this work than to pray for it, as we are invited to do in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Continuity: This Mortal Body Must Put on Immortality
In addition to this fundamental principle about God's power, the way that Paul unfolds his defense of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead offers insight as to how God's power works in transforming us in our lives today, and thus suggests in particular how this doctrine can influence our labors for Christian unity. Paul believes that the transforming power of the resurrection not only awaits us at the close of the age, but has broken into our lives in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and so is even now at work in the world to transform us. For this reason, Paul argues that if the Corinthians understand the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead more fully, and take it more to heart, they will be more available to this divine life-giving power, and their behavior and whole way of being will improve as a result. Likewise, as we ourselves reaffirm our faith in this doctrine, and come to understand it more fully, our own way of life and work in the world, including our work for Christian unity, will be changed, becoming more faithful. A fuller exploration of Paul's exposition of the doctrine shows how this is so.

Throughout his exposition of this doctrine, Paul seeks to hold together two poles of the seeming paradox embedded in this doctrine: on the one hand, the continuity between our mortal bodies and our resurrected bodies, and on the other hand, the discontinuity between these two bodies. His effort to hold these two poles together is evident in his use of the metaphor of the seed and the plant that grows from the seed (15:35-44). While the plant is different from the seed, it is also of the same species, such that from this seed no other kind of plant could grow. In the same way, the resurrection of the body is not the same as the resuscitation of a corpse, but rather is a transformation into something that is at once different from the body each of us has now, yet has essential continuity with it. Paul emphasizes both continuity and discontinuity not only because both are theologically important, but also because the Corinthians' doubts about the resurrection involve a rejection of either one or the other of these poles. For Paul, to reject either of these poles is a theological error which is having ethical consequences for their life in community. To put it differently, if they more fully understand and reaffirm their faith in both of these poles, their behavior and life in community will change for the better. We shall see, by analogy, how our own willingness to hold together two poles of this paradox in the doctrine of the resurrection-to affirm both continuity and discontinuity between our mortal lives and our resurrected state, will have beneficial effects on our own work for Christian unity. 
In stressing the continuity of the resurrection body with the bodies we have now, Paul is countering a strand of Corinthian belief that did not question the resurrection as such, but rather of the resurrection of the body. According to Richard Hays, it is this aspect of the doctrine of the resurrection that most affronted the Corinthians. Steeped in a Hellenistic worldview, the Corinthians were inclined to think of the body as a corrupt prison entrapping the soul, such that life after death was conceived as the freedom of the soul from the body. In short, the Corinthians believed in the immortality of the soul rather than the resurrection of the body. Much of 1 Corinthians 15 is occupied with Paul's correcting this notion, and insisting on bodily resurrection. Instead of death being a sloughing off of the body, Paul argues that the "mortal body puts on immortality" (15:53). Our bodies remain yet have immortality added to them, rather than the body being dispensed with. For Paul, it is crucial to affirm the resurrection of the body precisely because the body is the point of continuity between the present and the eschatological future. To argue for the resurrection of the body is to argue for this essential continuity between who we are now and who we will become at the resurrection.

This continuity is important for Paul for two reasons, one theological and one ethical. Theologically, the resurrection of the body holds together God's creation of the world and God's redemption of it. The body is part of God's created order, that which God created and called good, so this creation has to be in some way brought to fulfillment in the resurrection rather than shucked off. To leave the body behind in the resurrection would be in effect to deny the goodness and the importance of the world that God created. This theological argument leads to an ethical consequence: to deny the resurrection, and hence to deny the goodness and importance of the world God created, would also lead to a denial that what we do in it matters, and especially that what we do with our bodies matters. There is evidence that the Corinthians have taken this view, for Paul has to remind them earlier in the letter that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, that they are meant to glorify God in their bodies (6:19-20). In other words, Paul is telling them that their bodily behavior has eternal significance in God's eyes, and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is another way to reinforce this. They will live in their bodies differently if they understand that those bodies are not just tools to be tossed aside at death, but that they will be raised, transformed, and perfected at the last day.

In terms of our work for Christian unity, this insistence on the resurrection of the body points us toward all the work of the Lord we do in this world. Denial of the bodily resurrection is in effect a denial of the goodness and value of this world and what we do in it, with the result that we turn inward and away from the world. Conversely, the affirmation of the bodily resurrection, by affirming the eternal goodness and value of this world, turns us outward to work in the world that God has given us. At the very close of Chapter 15, Paul descends from his soaring rhetoric to make what seems like a rather prosaic statement: "Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (15:58). This seemingly throwaway line is actually in some ways the punch-line of the whole chapter, because here Paul tells them that all the good works they do for God will not be in vain, but will be retained, taken up, and brought to fruition in the resurrection. It is because of the continuity of their bodies in the resurrection life that he can say this-that what they do in their bodies now has eternal value and significance.

Paul's claim about the eternal value of our work for the Lord is reassuring for any who contemplate the meaninglessness that the reality of death seems to introduce into human life. Does not death cancel out the value of everything we do, rendering it ephemeral and futile? As Paul says, "if the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'"(15:32). However, if we are raised, if our bodies in some sense continue in a transformed state, then death does not have the power to cancel out the value of our lives, loves, and labors. Because death is swallowed up in victory, we are called all the more to joyous labor in this world, knowing that this labor is eternally significant and will not be swept away by death. In a very real sense, therefore, the doctrine of the resurrection does not shift our attention to heaven, to "pie in the sky by and by," but focuses us all the more fervently on this life here on earth, because we know that it is even now moving toward its eschatological consummation, in which everything we do now will find its ultimate fulfillment. This can energize us for all "works of the Lord," especially work as important as seeking the unity of Christ's body, the church. Although the work is hard, the promise of the resurrection is the promise that our good works, no matter how feeble they may seem to us now, will not be lost, but will be taken up and consummated in God's reign, where all tribes and nations will feast around God's banquet table.

Paul's insistence on the continuity between the mortal body and the resurrected body also suggests that the distinctiveness and particularity that makes each of us what he or she is will not be lost at the resurrection, although it will be transformed. In relation to the church, this assertion of continuity suggests that in the resurrection life the body of Christ will continue to manifest diversity and difference, just as it does now. In First Corinthians 12 Paul advanced the image of the Christian community as a body with many parts, all of whom need the others. Paul's insistence that the resurrected body will share continuity with the mortal body suggests, by extension, that the kind of unity in Christ's body the church that God seeks to bring about will be a unity that incorporates rather than annihilating differences. Christian unity that is modeled after the eschatological vision of bodily resurrection will not be a lockstep uniformity, but rather a unity that respects and values difference. Just as our mortal bodies are not cast aside at the resurrection, but transformed into something more glorious, so too the distinctive expressions and forms of Christianity that now exist will not be done away with in the final attainment of Christian unity, but will flourish as part of that unity. In like fashion, Christian unity does not entail a stifling of dissent or the silencing of minority voices, but rather is a unity that is based on something deeper, something that can allow for difference and even disagreement without unity being compromised. The unity of Christ's body that is founded on the doctrine of the resurrection is a unity that rejoices in difference as a vital part of that very unity.

Discontinuity: We Will All be Changed
For all of Paul's emphasis on the continuity between our mortal selves and our resurrected selves, he also finds it essential to stress that resurrection involves radical discontinuity as well as continuity. His insistence on bodily resurrection lays the emphasis on the continuity between our current state and our resurrected state. However, in the last section of Chapter 15, especially in verses 50 to 58, the emphasis shifts to the discontinuity between our current lives and our lives after the resurrection. Paul states: "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (15:50). Here Paul announces a sharp break between life as we know it now, and the resurrection life; hence he insists twice: "we shall all be changed" (15:51, 52). This change will happen dramatically and suddenly, "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet" (15:52). Paul draws on Jewish apocalyptic imagery to describe the dramatic transformation of all of creation that will occur at the eschaton, and the promise "we shall be changed" suggests that the transformation that awaits us is into something we cannot now imagine or describe. In this last section of Chapter 15 Paul's language shifts from one of argument to one of praise, doxology, and wonder, as though only poetry can draw near to capturing the glory of the resurrection life, until ultimately these words too will fail before the wonder of that transformed reality.

Just as Paul insists on continuity between this life and the resurrected life in order to counter the Corinthians' misperceptions, so too in emphasizing discontinuity between these two states Paul seeks to correct these early believers' mistaken belief, as well as the behavioral consequences that flow from it. One reason that some Corinthians had come to doubt the resurrection was that they had developed a false sense that they had already, in effect, attained the resurrected life. As we noted above, they believed that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead, but also believed that they had themselves already been raised with him and reigned with him, such that there was no need to hope in any future resurrection. As a result, many in the Corinthian church believed that they had already achieved the pinnacle of Christian faith, already attained remarkable spiritual gifts, and had no need to grow further in the faith. Resurrection had already happen to them, and was a way of talking about the Christian life as they already experienced it. Paul's ironic exclamation, "already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!" (4:8) suggests how vehemently he opposed this way of thinking. Scholars note that in the undisputed letters of Paul, it is clear that Paul sees salvation as a process initiated by Christ's death and resurrection, but not yet completed. It will only be completed in the parousia of Jesus Christ. Hence all the verbs in 1 Cor. 15:51-58 are in the future tense: "we will be changed…the dead will be raised" (15:51, 52) Paul emphasizes that there is an eschatological horizon to the Christian life, a promise of future fulfillment and the completion of human salvation, promises for a future that has not yet become present.

Paul argues this point vigorously because he sees the ethical consequences of the Corinthians' faulty convictions. The Corinthians had lost the eschatological horizon of their faith, having come to believe that they had already arrived at the fullness of salvation. This conviction of having attained Christian perfection led to an arrogant pride and certainty about their beliefs and behaviors, and this had been one of the sources of their divisions. Paul seeks to reinstall an eschatological horizon to the Corinthians' faith because he wants them to understand that they have not yet reached the perfect expression of Christian faith, and they do not yet have the truths of the faith all figured out. Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that they have not yet received all the goods of the Christian faith precisely to check the arrogant certainty they have developed. Instead, he seeks to instill in them the humility needed to reexamine their practices, such as the deplorable practice described in Chapter 11 in which richer members of the community came to the Lord's Supper earlier and ate all the food before the poorer members arrived. Moreover, Paul hopes that the reinvigoration of an eschatological direction to their faith will provide a greater moral telos to their lives as Christians, leading them to reorient themselves toward a deeper unity and koinonia.

In our current work for Christian unity, the recovery of an eschatological horizon to our lives and work can have a similar effect. To the extent that we understand that "we will all be changed," that we have not yet arrived at the fullness of Christian faith but are on a journey of transformation that is still incomplete, we too will have both a sense of a moral telos to our lives, beyond what we now experience, and also a salutary humility about the truths we already possess. As in the case of the Corinthians, when we become too convinced of the rightness of our own positions, and lose the awareness that we still need to grow into the full stature of Christ-when we become convinced that it is only "others" who need to change-then we are on a path to creating divisions between ourselves and others. It is humility, rooted in the awareness that none of us have arrived at our eschatological completion, that allows us to reach across divides and discover the truths held by those holding other positions from our own. It is this humility that Paul seeks to engender by his argument that the resurrection of the dead is a future fulfillment of salvation, rather than a present possession.

In addition to cultivating a necessary humility, Paul's emphasis on the discontinuity between our mortal lives and our resurrected lives reminds us of the miraculous quality of both the resurrection and the attainment of Christian unity. As Paul insists, the transformation we will undergo at the resurrection will be into some form we cannot now imagine. In the same way, all the transformations God brings into our lives will transform us in ways we cannot now foresee, and this holds too for the realization of the unity of the church. Although we are called to work diligently for the unity of the church, that unity, when it is finally realized, will be something we cannot now envision. This fact too ought to prompt us to humility in this work, for we cannot yet see how God will bring it to pass or what a unified church will finally look like. Because God's transforming power is so dazzling, as 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 beautifully expresses, to believe in this power, either in terms of the resurrection or in terms of the other transformations (such as unity) for which we pray, requires a conversion of the imagination. As Richard Hays points out, Paul's argument for the resurrection of the dead ceases at a certain point to be about defending theological propositions and more about presenting a poetic account of the doctrine that calls for a conversion of the imagination. Hayes argues that preaching on the resurrection of the dead ought to follow this pattern-to be less about formulating logical arguments and more about making the imaginative leaps that allow us to grasp at that level the truth of the resurrection. The same approach could be urged for preaching on Christian unity: because in the end such unity depends on God's transforming power, motivating hearers to believe in and work for it probably relies more on presenting the beauty of Christian unity imaginatively and poetically rather than arguing doctrinal propositions.

The Way of the Cross and the Promise of the Resurrection
Paul's letter to the Corinthians is, as a whole, dedicated to inspiring the Corinthian community to a different kind of existence and way of being than that which is habitual to the human condition. In short, that way of being is the way of the cross, which Paul outlines at the beginning of this letter. The cross is foolishness and weakness in the eyes of the world, but for those who are being saved it is the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). This way of the cross is the way of self-giving, the way that takes account of the needs of the Christian community rather than solely one's own individual needs, the way of a love that is patient, enduring, hopeful, and kind (1 Cor. 13). Living according to this way is clearly the spiritual and ethical transformation that each of us needs to undergo if we are to move toward unity with ourselves, with our family and friends, with God, and with other Christian believers.

But what is it that prevents us from living in this way? In the case of the Corinthians, as we have seen, there was a fundamental arrogance and pride, a conviction of one's own rightness, that was a way of life diametrically opposed to the life of humility and self-giving love urged by Paul. There was a denial of the value of this world and their bodies in it that led to an indifferent withdrawing from others. Beyond this, however, as we consider our own tendencies toward selfishness, a hardening of our positions, and a closing out of others who differ from us, these behaviors are rooted in a fundamental fear. There is a fundamental fear in the human heart which stems from the knowledge that we are frail creatures, vulnerable to injury and loss, and finally subject to death. In some ways it is this deep knowledge that leads us to approach our lives with fear, which then leads to a desire to protect ourselves and what we know and have. This tendency leads us to reject, dismiss, and denigrate those who are other, closing ourselves off into ever-smaller communities of those who are just like ourselves. This tendency is at the root of much of the conflict and disunity present in the world, including that found in the church.

If all of this is true, then finally the only thing that can counter the existential fear that leads to walling ourselves off from others and breeds disunity, is the promise that "death has been swallowed up in victory"(15:54). Once we trust that death is not the end, that God will raise us as God raised Jesus Christ, then there is no longer any need to live in fear. Once this burden of fear is lifted, it becomes possible to live the life of self-giving love and service that is the way of the cross. This is but one way that the beginning and end of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians tie together-for in Chapter 1 Paul expounds the doctrine of the cross, as in Chapter 15 he concludes by describing the doctrine of the resurrection. These two doctrines are the bookends not only of this letter, but of the Christian life itself. As Christians we are called to live according to the way of the cross, but what gives us the courage to do this is the knowledge that out of the self-emptying of the cross comes the victory of the resurrection. This fundamental knowledge transforms all our dealings in this world, making us into the kind of open-hearted, brave, generous people who really can bridge the divides that separate us in the church, so as to manifest a true unity to the world. It is fitting that Paul's great poem in praise of love in First Corinthians 13 concludes with the promise that of all the abiding virtues of the Christian life, the greatest is love-the love that we exhibit toward each other being but a foretaste of the love we will experience at the last when we see God "face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12).

Another way to talk about how the resurrection frees us to live according to the way of the cross rather than the values prevailing in the surrounding culture is provided by Paul's language of the powers in First Corinthians 15:24-27. Here Paul describes Christ's resurrection as the inaugural moment in God's defeat of "every ruler and every authority and power," a victory that will be fulfilled at the end of the age, when God defeats the final power and enemy, which is death. Paul frequently describes God's relationship to the world as a struggle against "powers and principalities," spiritual forces of evil that have also become embedded in human culture and institutions. In the resurrection, God decisively defeats these rebellious powers, and thus frees human beings from their thrall, allowing us to live according to the logic of the cross rather than the logic of these powers. For this reason the resurrection calls us Christians to ways of life that may be deeply subversive of the status quo, in which the powers still hold sway in the institutions and values of our time. One way that the powers operate is by dividing people from each other, sowing mistrust and enmity so that our common purposes and shared humanity are obscured from each other. Clearly the powers are using this strategy of division in our churches to divide us from each other and weaken our witness to God's presence and purposes. However, if it is true that the promise of our resurrection is the promise of God's defeat of these powers, and if in Christ's resurrection that promise is already inaugurated, then our faith in the resurrection gives us the strength to resist the "divide and conquer" strategy of the powers. Empowered by the resurrection's promise, we can live the way of the cross, reaching out in love, humility, and generosity across the divides that currently wound the body of Christ.

Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, in a recent public lecture reviewing the history of the ecumenical movement and its prospects for the future, stated that in order for this movement to flourish in the future it must be based on our theological conviction about the difference Christ makes for our lives and world. Kinnamon claimed that if our efforts toward Christian unity are not based on theological principles, these efforts become merely a front for political ideology. For this reason it is highly appropriate that we consider how a text like First Corinthians 15:50-58 speaks to the cause of Christian unity. To grasp and hold fast to the truth that "we will all be changed" in the victory of the resurrection is to see our lives as completely transformed already by this truth. It is to recognize at once the value and significance of our lives and work in the world, while having the humility born of understanding that we have not yet attained the fullness of our salvation. It is to reaffirm anew the magnificence of God's power to transform us completely at the resurrection, and to see that that power is transforming our lives and our church even now. It is to understand that we can live differently in this world, because of who Christ is and what he has done for us, in his life, his death, and his resurrection. It is because of him, and because we Christians belong to him, that there is the basis for unity in the church, his body.

The Reverend Ruthanna B. Hooke, Ph.D., is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, USA, and is Associate Professor of Homiletics at Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria VA.