Tombstone from the cemetery at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN.

This scripture is particularly poignant in this pandemic time, when we’re confronting death in different, more demanding ways than we usually do.  Some of us are overwhelmed with the number of deaths around us, and have lost people to death much too soon.  All of our lives have changed in response to the lethality of COVID-19.  Death is much more present to us than it would usually be.  “I tell you a mystery,” Paul writes, and that mystery is in our faces every day, all day. 

Paul writes to bring clarity to the community of faith in Corinth, and he gives it a mighty effort before concluding that there’s an essential truth that he can’t explain. 

Read the scripture.

Read the Working Preacher commentary.

In reading any long section of the apostle Paul’s writing, we often have a roller coaster sensation.  This part of his writing to the churches in Corinth gives us the same impassioned whiplash.  Paul moves from talking about spiritual gifts to this section on resurrection, knowing that some of the believers are doubting the resurrection of Jesus, and the hope of their own resurrection. 

Paul marshals the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, recalling the people who saw him alive after this death.  He moves the anxious believers from their immediate question out past themselves to larger faith claims. He tells them that if they can hold onto the resurrection of Jesus, not so far in the past, then they can hold onto the hope of their own resurrection, not so far in the future.  In Paul’s vision of God’s triumph, the resurrection of Jesus is just the beginning of God’s triumph over sin and death.  Death, the thing we cannot escape, will be the last place where God’s new life comes, changing the finite into the infinite.  For the people of Corinth, this isn’t just a local dispute, like some of the issues addressed in Paul’s letters.  This is part of God’s largest and best plan. 

After his carefully built argument, we skip a section of the letter, and then Paul gives us poetry.  He announces that this is a mystery – but in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed.  He spends time and thought helping the believers grasp this, and then he says that it’s impossible to really understand, until we’re there.  Still, there is this triumph over death and the grave. 

Sermon possibilities:

Paul is writing to people who are having trouble with the idea of resurrection, and the sermon might look at places where we struggle with the beliefs in our Christian faith.  What’s hard to swallow?  What have we already discarded?  What would we like to belief, if we had a way into it? 

As Paul writes to the community of faith, the resurrection of Jesus is twenty or so years back, within the memory of living people.  It’s an established doctrine for us, and so it’s hard to imagine its newness then.  Are there new aspects to our faith that are hard to take in?  The sermon could explore how our own faith is changing, in this pandemic season, and in response to the changes in the world around us?  In her Working Preacher commentary, Dr. Shirley Snively notes that Paul “leverages the confessional traditions and history of those who precede him…Paul discloses that the content of his Gospel, not necessarily his ethical advice, comes from elsewhere. The proclamation of Christ’s death is not an invention but a recollection. Paul rehearses the traditions of the community as a way to unify the divisive Corinthians around one banner — namely their shared experience of belief in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:11).  According to Paul, this passing of tradition from one person to another is an essential characteristic of the Christian experience.”  The sermon could take the congregation along on an exploration of what we have received and are now passing on to others.  In addition to our core beliefs, what particular values does your faith community embrace and endeavor to hand on? 

In this pandemic, we are all struggling with death in new ways.  The deaths are coming disproportionately in poorer and minority communities.  Health care workers and others who serve the common good are dying, often at young age.  We are cheated out of mourning for beloved people, as funerals are limited to ten people, or happen through a screen.  Still, there is this mystery to hold alongside our sorrow, to lead us out from the place of our grief into the wider place of God’s presence.

What sorrows or mysteries are tugging at you this week? We would love to hear, and to continue the conversation, in the comments section below.

Mary Austin is the Pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, in the Washington, DC area, where the members come from over 30 countries.  She is a contributor to The Road to Hallelujah and the author of Meeting God at the Mall. 

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One thought on “Narrative Lectionary: A Mystery Gift (1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57)

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