Sermon on the Mountain, Károly Ferenczy,
1896, Magyar Nemzeti Galéria (Budapest)
(About this Image)
And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Cor 15:12, 16-20
February 13, 2022
The 15th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is so important that we will read it for five Sundays. Even then, we will examine only about half. Last week’s selection gave us a concise but clear statement of the creed:
that Christ died for our sins
in accordance with the scriptures
that he was buried
that he was raised on the third day
in accordance with the scriptures;
that he appeared to Kephas,
then to the Twelve
(1 Co 15:3–5)
This week, he will begin to examine what happens when this basic belief of Christianity is ignored or denied. The Corinthians were a flesh and blood community. They had concrete and specific concerns which affected how they interpreted doctrine and indeed how doctrine formed them.
Paul knew these people well and, despite their stubbornness, loved them as a father, he understood that their key difficulty was their lack of unity. He saw clearly that they allowed other concerns from previous beliefs to a desire to baptize their social background to overly influence them. But as we begin let us not forget that he is moving from effect, disunity, to cause, insufficient commitment to the resurrection. A journey we could take with great benefit.
When we looked at the basic creed last week, see above, we commented that the word used for raised egēgertai is in the perfect passive. This not only emphasizes divine participation but also continuing action—Jesus is always being raised. The Resurrection still has an effect on Christians. Also, earlier in the letter (1 Cor 12:12-31), he used the image of the church as a body. Seeing an organization as a body was familiar to all ancient peoples. As this is the body of Christ who gives it life those who are members of it will share his life.
This is the immediate problem of some of the members of the church in Corinth. They hold that Jesus is risen from the dead, but it has not affected them. Although Paul states that there are only “some among you,” he realizes that this is deadly to Christian life.
If only a minority position in Corinth, it was found in other communities as well. The first letter from Paul which we have is to the church in Thessalonica and addresses this same issue from a somewhat distinct perspective. They want to know what will happen to those who died between Jesus’ resurrection and his return. Paul’s answer to this is in greater detail than we need to review but the basic answer is the same as he will give, after greater reflection to the Corinthians:
“If we believe that Jesus died and rose,
so too will God, through Jesus,
bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
(1 Thess 4:14)
Paul is not a systematic theologian and is most directly concerned with the practical consequences of poor doctrine.
If we deny that the dead are raised, then Christ is not raised and what has faith offered us. Paul has recognized the courage of Corinthian Christians in chapters 8–10 in giving up idols and their former way of life. But this was for nothing if they are not transformed in Jesus. Jesus offers a superior way of living, but most importantly he offers transformation. Not a better you, but a new you.
Their faith is “in vain” if their belief not worthy of their sacrifices. Jesus gives us more than a good moral code to help us identify and perhaps to avoid sin. He takes away our sins. This is not a simple cleaning of the old life but replacing it with a new one.
Without this transformation, those who have fallen asleep have truly died. They exist no more. If this is all we ask of Jesus, we are truly pitiable indeed we are worse off than if we never believed in Jesus at all.
Paul ends with a very Jewish image which may have not been as clear to Gentiles, but it is so packed with meaning that he literally could not resist it.
But now Christ has been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep
(1 Co 15:20)
The Jews believed, as we do, that all things belonged to God. To symbolize this the first produce of the harvest was offered to the priests in the temple: the first sheaf of wheat and cakes made from new dough. This recognized that the entire harvest belonged to God and was in a sense consecrated to him. It is also a sign that the rest of the harvest will soon arrive. The future would be fruitful.
By accident, this gift was given on the 16th day of the month of Nisan, the same day that Jesus rose from the dead. This happy coincidence allowed Paul to emphasize rebirth in a very rhetorically skillful manner. As we have seen this was important to the Corinthians.
He does not use it again but relies more on direct imaging such as: “in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” (Ro 8:29–30)
Paul is telling them that if they believe that they are part of the body of Christ then the resurrection of Christ will raise them as well. Connected as we are to Christ and each other, if we really believed that Jesus was being raised within and among us then we would be in union with him. That they are not is proof for Paul that they do not truly believe in the Resurrection.
What about us?
We have great disunity in our world and Church. Would this be a problem if we truly believed in the fullness of the resurrection? If we were truly transformed? The topics discussed by Paul in the letters to the Corinthians are very much like ours: social position and table fellowship to name just two.
For Paul all these issues are manifestations of the same resistance to the resurrection and the only way to resolve them is its acceptance. The tragedy is we may refuse a banquet for a hot dog.