Sunday, 8 May 2016

'I'll Fly Away, Oh Glory!'

Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
8 May 2016 11.00am

1 Corinthians 15.1-58
Well I wonder, what do you think the solution is,
          to all the ills of our society? [1]

Will our newly elected mayor resolve our city’s problems?
          Will the housing crisis end,
                   with people able to afford to live in their own neighbourhood?
          Will our manual workers and cleaners and bar staff
                   earn enough to feed their families and avoid poverty?
          Will the refugees stranded at our shores
                   find fulfilment of their dreams for a better life?

Can our new mayor solve this?
          Will they even keep the promises made in the run up to the polls?
          Would the other side have made any better job of it?

And then there’s the coming referendum on Europe…
          Will we be better in, or out?
Which argument will convince you that they are worth supporting?
          What will sway us one way or the other?
Appeals to our self-interest, or appeals to our compassion?
          Will we ever face war in Europe again,
          or have we put such foolishness behind us?

And then there’s America, with Donald Trump now flying the Republican flag
          and betting that fear and ignorance will give him a platform
          for widespread retrenchment and nationalist xenophobia.

But then there’s our churches, tearing themselves apart
          over who’s right and who’s wrong on issues like human sexuality,
          with each side convinced that the solution to church decline
                   lies in their interpretation of scripture.

And what, in all of this, is the solution?

Where are we to go to find an answer to the many, many problems
          that beset us locally, nationally, and internationally.

How are we to know what the right thing is to do?

The world seems ruled by powers so much stronger than we are,
          and our own choices in the middle of it all
          can seem utterly inconsequential and futile.

Perhaps it’s better not to vote,
          not to participate in the dialogue about key and contentious issues.
Maybe quietism is the answer,
          withdrawal from society and its structures
          in favour of devotion to a life of holiness and discipline.

Or maybe revolution is a better solution,
          devoting ourselves to the overthrow of the oppressive powers
          in favour of more benign regime made by us in our own image.

Or maybe we just say to ourselves that this world is passing and corrupt,
          and our stay here merely temporary,
and so we resolve to do the best we can
          with the hand that has been played to us,
          whilst holding out for a better eternity.

Well, what do you think the solution is, to all the ills of our society?

One well-respected Christian position is to see resurrection as the solution,
          and this is something that Paul addresses
          in our extended reading this morning from his first letter to the Corinthians.
I make no apology for the length of the reading this morning,
          and I thought Kathy did a sterling job of bringing it to life for us.
The thing is, sometimes you just can’t cut St Paul off in the middle of a rant,
          especially one as central to our understanding
          of the Christian faith as this one.

Today’s sermon is the final one in our post-Easter series,
          where we’ve been revisiting various biblical accounts
                   of the resurrection of Jesus,
          and reflecting on what they might say to us in our world.
If you’ve missed any, they’re all online and you can find direct links to them
          through our Bloomsbury Facebook page.

And in our reading this morning,
          Paul offers the most extended theological exploration
          of the significance of resurrection that we find in the New Testament.

Paul was well trained in the art of Greek rhetoric,
          and so his argument follows a pattern that was tried and tested
          and would have been familiar to his readers.
We won’t go into it in depth this morning,
          but in essence the logical flow of what he’s doing
          is carefully structured to draw those reading through his argument
          to a position of conviction on the centrality of resurrection.

So far, so good, if a little complex.
          But what’s he actually trying to say about the resurrection, and why?

Well, at a basic level he is responding to those in Corinth
          who simply don’t believe in the reality of resurrection.

We know quite a bit about the early Corinthian church
          – and they appear to have been what, in ministerial terms,
          is technically known as a ‘nightmare congregation’.

They were a multicultural, multi-ethnic, extremely diverse group
          of recent converts to Christianity,
with religious backgrounds ranging from Torah-observant Judiasm,
          to Greek paganism, to Roman emperor worship.

So getting any kind of agreement on even key issues
          was always going to be something of a nightmare,
and we certainly see this in Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church,
          where he has to address everything from money to sex to theology
                   as he tries to help this group of people work out
                   what it means to follow Jesus in their context.

And at the heart of all this, for Paul, is the issue of resurrection.

For Paul, how one should be a Christian in the world
          is a second-order question which follows directly on
                   from what one believes about resurrection.
Or, to put it the other way around:
          if you haven’t got your belief in resurrection sorted,
          you’ll never work out the right answers to any of the other questions
                   that those who would follow Jesus are going to have to grapple with.

Part of the problem was that the diversity of religious backgrounds
          in those he was writing to
meant that there was no common ground
          on which to build an argument
          for a Christ-centred understanding of resurrection.

The Jews had a variety of opinions about what happened when people died,
          with the Hebrew Scriptures tending to speak of death
                   as a place of rest, or void;
          with just occasional glimpses of the idea
                   that in some way the spirit of a person might return to the God
                   who had given the gift of life in the first place.

In Jesus’ own time, there were debates between different Jewish factions
          on whether there was any kind of existence
                   for the individual beyond the grave,
          and any notion of resurrection was tied up with the idea
                   of the resurrection of the whole nation
                   and its restoration to its promised land.

For the Jews, the body and the soul
          were largely considered to be a united entity,
          and any resurrection involved the entire person
          – both their body and their spirit.

And then when we turn to the Greek and Roman context,
          the situation is equally confusing,
with an equally diverse set of opinions
          about the relationship of a person’s spirit to their body.

Probably the dominant view was that which we call Platonic Dualism.
          This is the idea, originating with Plato the Greek Philosopher,
                   that the soul is imprisoned in the body.
          In other words, the body and the spirit are not united,
                   but rather they are divided,
          forced together in an uneasy alliance for the duration of a person’s life.

Platonism taught that the physical world is merely a shadow
          of the true reality which lies beyond,
and so the physical body of a person is a poor shadow of their true self,
          which exists in its most real form as perfected spirit.

By this understanding, the corruptible body corrupts the soul,
          but one day the soul will be freed from its mortal shell:
                   when the body dies, the spirit is freed
                   to become most fully real and perfect.

So, we’ve got multiple views on mortality and immortality,
          and multiple views on the unity or separation of the body and the soul,
and all of these are in the background
          to what Paul’s trying to say about the resurrection of Jesus.

From a Jewish perspective,
          the resurrection of a person must involve their body,
          because the body and soul are a unity.

Whether the person is resurrected
          back into their old body to walk again on this earth,
          or into a new body walking on a renewed earth,
                   the point is still the same.
However, from a Platonic Greek view,
          any ongoing life of the Spirit must be about freeing the soul
                   from its corruptible and corrupting body.
So, for the Greek’s any talk about resuscitating the corruptible body
          was hardly an attractive idea.

So Paul responds by inventing a concept
          to help try and draw together these two very different religious strands.
Listen again to what he says in verses 50-54 (translated by Nicholas King):

This is what I mean, brothers and sisters:
          flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God;
          corruption does not inherit un-corruption.
Look! I am telling you a mystery.

We shall not all fall asleep;
          but we shall all be changed, in a nanosecond,
          in the blink of an eye – at the final trumpet.

For the trumpet will signal
          – and then the dead shall be raised undecayed.

And for ourselves, we shall be changed.

For this decaying part must put on un-decay,
          and this mortal part put on immortality.

This is one of those passages that has been hijacked
          by the kind of Christianity that looks to a future moment of transformation,
                   when suddenly some heavenly trumpet sounds from the sky
                   and all the believers are caught up into the air…
It’s one of the famous ‘rapture’ passages, as they’re known;
          and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it!
Because when it’s heard in the context of those he was writing to,
          Paul’s words make a lot of sense.

He’s trying to draw together
          the Jewish and Greek ideas about the afterlife
          and make sense of them in the light of Jesus.

One of the problems we can have,
          encountering Paul’s thinking on resurrection,
is that as Western Christians,
          we are the religious and philosophical heirs to Platonic Dualism.

And so we have a tendency to hear talk about body and soul
          from a dualistic perspective.
If you don’t believe me, I’ll prove it to you.
          It’s time for a song.

The gospel hymn "I'll Fly Away" was written in 1929 by Albert E. Brumley
          and is sometimes claimed as the ‘most recorded’ gospel song.

I was torn as to which version to play today,
          and nearly went with Alison Krauss,
          but in the end Johnny Cash won.

Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away.
To that home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away.

I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away.
Just a few more weary days and then,
I'll fly away.

To that land where joy will never end,
I'll fly away.
I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away.

Oh I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away.

The message is clear:
          One glad day our Spirits will be freed from this mortal and corruptible shell
                   to go and be with Jesus in heaven,
                   and this is resurrection.

Except, St. Paul would want to say to us,
          as he said to the Platonic Dualists of Corinth,
          it isn’t.

For Paul, resurrection is absolutely NOT about escaping
          from the problems, trials, and tribulations of this present darkness
          to fly away to a better place.

Rather, resurrection, and specifically the resurrection of Jesus,
          is the defining and decisive moment
          where Christ destroys every ruler, authority, and power
                   that has ever held dominion
                   over the lives of human beings.

Listen to verses 24-26 again:

24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father,
          after he has destroyed every ruler 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.

The primary context that Paul has in mind here,
          when he speaks of rulers, authorities, and powers,
                   is of course the Imperial rulers of the Roman Empire,
          but he clearly also has in view
                   the spiritual forces that lie behind them,
                   including, interestingly, death itself!

To understand what’s going on here,
          we need to remember that Paul wasn’t just
                   a Greek-educated intellectual,
                   he was also a Jewish apocalyptic mystic.
          And what he certainly wasn’t
                   was a western scientific rationalist.

For Paul, the resurrection of the dead
          wasn’t understood as a simple restoration
                   of ‘those who have fallen asleep’ (as he calls it)
          to some kind of walking-talking-living-and-loving
                   post mortem experience.

Neither, for Paul, was the resurrection
          the same thing as the zombie apocalypse,
where newly-undead corruptible and part-decayed bodies
          are reanimated and re-inhabited by their immortal souls
          to lurch the earth for eternity.

Rather, for Paul, the language of resurrection,
          so central to his Christian faith,
needs to be heard in the context of the historical problem
          for which God’s deliverance and resurrection was the solution.

In other words, for Paul, resurrection is about the end of imperial rule.

Specifically, it is about the end of Roman domination of the known world,
          although it is also about the ending of the underlying spiritual powers
that gave the Roman empire its force and motivation
          to distort, demean and destroy humanity in its own service.

And this is where and why, for Paul,
          it all comes down to the resurrection of Jesus,
          rather than just to the concept of resurrection more generally.

Because Jesus was crucified.

For a Jew like Paul, the crucifixion of the Jewish messiah
          was a potent symbol
                   of the victory of the Roman imperial domination system
                   over the Jewish God.
Crucifixion was a Roman punishment,
          and it is not lost on Paul that Jesus died at the hands of Rome.

At the crucifixion, the messiah lost and the emperor won.

So to assert that Christ is risen
          is to make a profound statement about the power of the emperor.
The resurrection of Jesus is a potent symbol
          of the victory of God over the very powers that had killed him.
As Paul puts it, the resurrected Christ
          ‘has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power’.

It’s almost as if, in Paul’s thought,
          God makes Christ the counter-emperor,
who will ultimately destroy the earthly imperial rulers,
          having already defeated their spiritual power-base at the resurrection.

But Paul doesn’t stop there.

This isn’t just about first century Rome
          and first century Israel.
Rome and Israel are just the examples in his time and place
          of a far deeper victory.

To make this point, Paul borrows an image
          from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible,
and he says that ‘Christ has been raised from the dead,
          the first fruits of those who have died.’

This idea of the ‘first fruits’ comes from the book of Deuteronomy (26.2)
          and it was the idea that when harvesting,
                   the first fruit you gather, the first sheaf of wheat or whatever,
                   should be presented as an offering to God,
          as a symbol of the fact that the whole harvest
                   that is yet to come also belongs to God.

We have a similar practice here
          when we bring our offerings of money,
and we often pray that the gifts we give in in church
          are symbolic of the fact that all we have belongs to God.

So if the resurrected Christ is the first fruits, what is the full harvest?
          If Christ is the first fruit of resurrection, what is still to come?

Well, it seems that Paul has set his sights rather high:

  21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;  22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.  23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler 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.

The resurrection of Christ
          isn’t just about the defeat of imperial rule in the first century,
          it isn’t just about the overthrow of those earthly powers (in any age)
                   that take the imperial spirit and reinvent it in their own time and context.
          Rather, it is about the resurrection of all things.
It is about the ultimate defeat of death itself,
          as all of humanity, and indeed all of creation,
                   is freed from the tyranny of death and made alive once again.

This is a view of resurrection which changes, literally, everything.

This world is not something to be endured,
          it is something to be redeemed.
It is not somewhere to escape from,
          it is somewhere to live in.
It is a world that is crying out for the life-giving spirit of the resurrected Christ
          which comes to those who are oppressed
          by the powers and empires of any day and age.
It is world that desperately needs the faithful witness and service
          of those who have themselves already received
          the gift of life eternal in Christ Jesus.

We need to move way beyond a view of resurrection
          that focusses on where we go when we die.

This is about life lived now,
          as the future breaks into the present
          in ways that transform the lives of those who long for restoration.

So, to return to the question with which I started,
          what is the solution to all the ills of our society?

Paul’s answer is quite simple: it is the resurrection of Christ.

Those who embrace this truth are empowered and enabled
          to do battle with the powers
          that would keep us in fearful subjugation.

Those who no longer fear death
          because they know death to be a defeated enemy
          are freed to live each moment of life in the light of eternity,
                   and so to see life come in all its fullness
                   to those who still labour under the burden of guilt and sin.

We are called, in the light of the resurrection of Christ,
          to live into being the new world
where oppressive powers are challenged
          and people are brought to freedom.

So the resurrection of Christ, by this understanding,
          drives us to political action.
At the very least we must engage the political processes of our world,
          speaking out for truth and justice and righteousness,
          making the case for the widows and orphans and refugees,
          standing up against the corporate self interest
                   that would pay the bare minimum to maximise profit,
          engaging in arguments about armament sales
                   and nuclear deterrents and drone warfare,
          fearlessly standing up for the marginalised and those discriminated against.

We cannot sit tight and wait until out our few more weary days until this life is over and we get to fly away from our corrupt mortal bodies. That is not resurrection.

Resurrection challenges crucifixion.

Wherever the empire seems to win,
          wherever the dominant powers in this world
                    kill the innocent and oppress the vulnerable,
          resurrection is at work to destroy its power.

And we are the people of resurrection.

So do we want a world transformed?
          Do we long for a world renewed?
If so, then it begins with us, and our faith in the resurrection of Christ,
          and it ends in eternity,
as all things are redeemed in and through the love of God.

[1] This sermon was based on reading the relevant section of ‘A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament’ by Segovia and Surgitharajah (eds.)

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