Post-Easter Series: “Living for Jesus”
Have you ever set your hopes on something only to see them crumble into a bazillion pieces? Of course, you have. There’s not a soul among us who hasn’t found himself or herself in such a pitiable condition at one time or another.
At least most of those dashed hopes have been based on something that has some basis in reality or some chance of coming to fruition. But occasionally you come across the story of someone who out of desperation stakes his future on a farce that has no chance whatsoever of coming through.
Case in point is a story that hit the news wires some years ago regarding a Pennsylvania man who attempted to pass a $1 million counterfeit bill at a Pittsburgh grocery store. As the story goes, the man desperately wanted money, lots of money. Why he needed lots of money, the story didn’t say. Perhaps it was a substance abuse problem. Maybe he was up to his earlobes in debt. Regardless, the man didn’t try to pass off a measly counterfeit bill. If he was going to attempt fraud, he was going to go all the way.
So, picture in your mind the man stepping through the automatic doors and strolling over to the customer service desk, with his palms sweating and his heart pounding. After all, this could be his lucky day. Soon he would be able to have his money and purchase his dreams. But needless to say, his hopes were quickly dashed. For one thing, what grocery store clerk keeps that kind of money in her drawer, even at the customer service desk? Secondly, you would think that at the very least the clerk would have to call the store manager to approve such a request. And thirdly, and most importantly, there isn’t such a thing as a $1 million dollar bill! The largest US currency is now only a $100 bill, as the Department of Treasury discontinued the printing of larger bills in 1969, due to their lack of use. At the end of the day, the man had grounded his hopes on a “pipe dream,” on an unattainable scheme based on something that didn’t exist.
It is a sad and pitiable thing when a person’s high hopes come to nothing, especially when he or she has rested them on a foundation that is bogus and fraudulent instead of legitimate and real. Such was the logic Paul used in appealing to the church at Corinth to base their futures in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
When you read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, you see Paul giving guidance to a church that was torn apart by factions and divisions and immoralities and false beliefs. Of all those problematic concerns, I see false belief as being the worse, because if your thinking is wrong, then there’s little chance that your behavior will be right. In other words, the factions and divisions and immoralities all could be traced to their false beliefs, their false beliefs on all manner of important doctrines, but none more important than the doctrine of resurrection.
Simply put, here was the situation Paul was forced to address. While no one in the church at Corinth had any doubts about the resurrection of Jesus, what they did doubt was whether Jesus’ resurrection had any significance for anyone else. And so, in the preceding verses, Paul patiently but emphatically outlines the consequences of their wrong thinking, of which there were three: (1) If resurrection is such an inconceivable notion for anyone outside of Jesus, then you have to question whether Jesus himself was really raised from the dead; (2) If Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead, then the very foundation of our faith in him is compromised and our Easter proclamation is hollow and baseless; and (3) Worst of all, if Christ has not been raised, then we are still mired in our sins and the power of death still reigns supreme.
I think you can see Paul’s dilemma. The matter of resurrection is not one of those aspects of Christian doctrine that can be left to one’s interpretation. It certainly isn’t a doctrine that can be set aside like a graduation gift that you must politely accept even though you know you’ll never use it. Resurrection is the bridge between two worlds, the world that we know here and now and the world that is to come once our time comes to leave this earth and to pass into eternity. Resurrection is the sole foundation upon which our entire faith in Christ rests so that if we reject its relevance in our everyday existence, much less its reward for our everlasting existence, then we’re no better than the guy in the grocery store chasing his pipe dream and passing off counterfeit currency. We are, as Paul writes in this passage, “of all people most to be pitied!”
But notice what Paul does in this text. Having floated the pitiable consequences of a faith empty of resurrection, Paul emphatically declares the one reality that puts wind in our sails and a spring to our steps. “But now,” Paul says, “Christ has been raised from the dead and he is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Did you hear Paul’s strong word of assurance? “Now…he has been…and he is.”
At this point, I could delve more deeply into the background of “firstfruits,” which go back to the Old Testament celebration of Passover, but I really don’t have time in this sermon to do so. Suffice it to say that if you have interest in that connection (because it is an important one), read Leviticus 23 and see how the image of firstfruits points to the promise of an abundant harvest as the first ripe sheaf is a most hopeful sign that there are others yet to come.
What I do want to call your attention to is the grammar that Paul uses to make his foundational point. Paul employs both the perfect tense and the present tense, which as you English majors will remember joins the verb form that suggests a completed action (perfect tense) with the verb form that suggests continuous action (present tense). Again, here’s how Paul makes his point: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead (perfect tense) and he is (present tense) the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
OK, I know you didn’t come here for an English lesson, but I’ve been preaching and writing long enough to know that how a person says something is just as important as what that person is trying to say. In this case, what Paul wants us to know and to believe and to align our lives around is this glorious resurrection truth: In the resurrection of Jesus Christ an event has taken place that has resulted in this world having become a different place and we now have the possibility of becoming different people. Let me say that again, but in another way. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an event that has forever changed the character of everyday existence because of how God brought about a new beginning out of what seemed to be a cruel ending. God’s glorious future has invaded this fallen world and because of it we can be certain that there is great gain in store for all who trust themselves to the Risen Jesus.
Have you seen evidences of that new day in your life? Does your everyday existence now taken on a more hopeful flair because of how your life bears witness to the power and possibility of God’s Easter work, a work that can never be circumvented, frustrated, or overthrown because it continually is about making all things new?
The country of China is prone to earthquakes, massive earthquakes. In the 1950’s there was a particularly devastating earthquake in which a massive boulder was dislodged from a mountain thus exposing a great hoard of remarkable artifacts from a thousand years ago. It was as if a new world had suddenly become visible to students of such things.
Paul’s point is that on that first Easter morning when as Mary Magdalene and the other women were approaching the tomb of Jesus, an earthquake occurred, the stone that had sealed the tomb was rolled away, and we got our first glimpse of a new world that only God could make possible – a hopeful world, where wrongs are made right, where suffering is no more, where death does not have the last word because it has been swallowed up in victory.
In a world where virtually everything is subject to fall apart, our Easter hope cannot. It is based on a God who through the Risen Christ is transforming everything day by day. Dwell on Christ and the power of his resurrection and you will come to see how that same God can work in your life, in both improbable and impossible ways, to satisfy your every need, both now and forevermore.