"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

You say there is no resurrection of the body…

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20 April 2012, 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, Easter 3
St John the Evangelist, Edmonton

The books I mentioned are:

The World Turned Upside Down, Melanie Phillips

The Cruelty of Heresy, C FitzSimmons Allison

We are continuing in our quick walk through 1 Corinthians 15. Last week we heard Don talk about the essential elements of the resurrection, and we continue on that theme this week. Paul writes a systematic defense of the existence of bodily resurrection. He begins, with the text Don dealt with last week, by setting out common ground and reviewing the evidence. This week he undertakes a dismantling of the heretical teaching of the Corinthians (that there was no bodily resurrection) using formal logic. Next week, Paul argues the reverse position.

Just to review, Don talked about what had happened in Corinth – the belief in a bodily resurrection had been replaced with a spiritual resurrection. The Corinthians had come to focus on spiritual existence over the physical, and were rejecting the physical resurrection. You can understand how a believer falls into this thought pattern – this physical body, winding down, aging, who would want to keep this for eternity? So they instead adopted the image of a spiritual resurrection, a form of angelic existence where the body was not needed or wanted. You can understand the desire to rid oneself of all the badness that the physical world contains: decay, sickness, disease…but to do so at the expense of Christ’s physical body is to commit a grievous error, something the church since the earliest times would have considered a heresy – wrong belief. Although it is considered somewhat of a swear word today, you’ll hear me mention heresy – wrong belief, lots.

Paul’s attack on this wrong thinking is presented in rhetoric, an argument formulated in formal logic. You can tell that Paul is well educated, and schooled in the art of argument, for in our reading today he argues the consequence of the Corinthian’s denial of the resurrection of corpses. If you have studied formal logic, you can see that verses 12 through 19 can be nicely diagrammed to represent a well-structured logical argument. So, I’ll start by talking about that argument, and then finish with some talk about the impact that wrong belief, heresy, has on the believer. Our thought about God, about Jesus, about resurrection and salvation has real impact on our lives – and it can form for us a source of great joy and freedom, but also can be a source of great shame. The way of heresy is death and despair.

Let there be no doubt that Paul is discussing bodily resurrection. He uses the Greek word (νεκροσ – nek-ros’) which describes a physical body, dead, whose soul is in either heaven or hell. This is the root word for several English words – necrotic, necropsy. Paul is literally describing the resurrection of corpses. I suspect, given the wrong belief of the Corinthian Christians on this part of the faith, Paul is doing this deliberately to hammer his point home. He is using language offensive to the Corinthians to emphasize his argument. They would have heard this as corpses getting up and walking around, which is not what we understand as resurrection – which is the literal remaking of all we are, through Christ, into eternity.

Paul sets out a logical premise in verse 13: if there is no resurrection; then not even Christ has been raised. And, if Christ is not raised then (comes the logical conclusion to the argument):

– Our preaching is in vain (useless)
– Your faith is in vain (useless)
– We misrepresent the faith (we are liars)

Paul uses the word translated “in vain” many times to make his point that without the bodily resurrection, all that has been said and taught is empty and useless. At the end of chapter 15 we’ll hear him say that in Christ our labours are not in vain; and Paul wants to know that he has not run the race in vain; and that by holding fast to the faith, he will know he has not laboured in vain (Gal 2:2; Phil 2:16). Paul keeps using the word over and over because of the great darkness that ultimately comes from the Corinthian’s heresy: a life that is empty, meaningless, wasted and worthless. If the resurrection isn’t true, Paul asks, why bother? Indeed, if the resurrection isn’t true, then the Body of Christ here today becomes more like a civic club than an actual place of physical and spiritual transformation. Church or Toastmasters – they’re just about the same.

Paul then restates the argument from the perspective of the dead: if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. And, if Christ has not been raised, then:

– Your faith is futile

Your faith is futile, and Paul builds on his previous use of the word vain here. The word means idle, empty, useless, powerless, and is an accurate description of a faith which has no resurrection. Again Paul asks the question. Why bother? He goes on. If Christ has not been raised then:

– You are still living in sin (no forgiveness)
– The dead are lost for ever

The result of the Corinthian’s wrong belief in a spiritualized resurrection led to consequences that cut the heart out of the faith. Most significantly, their loved ones who had already died were gone for good; and their sins continued to have hold over them. Why? If Christ did not physically go to shatter the chains of death, by breaking down Sheol, those who died before the Corinthians great spiritual awakening are gone. This also brings us back to the first chapter of Corinthians where Paul talks about the message of the cross being foolishness to those who are perishing by reason of their wrong belief (1 Cor 1:18).

If Christ did not physically, in human person, bear the sins of the world on the cross, then there has been no propitiation, no substitute to relieve the debt that was owed for our sins. Again we hear Paul’s implied conclusion: if that’s what you believe, why bother? Finally he ends with the kicker:

– We are of most people to be pitied.

That last line is very specific, and the word to be pitied draws us into Revelation 3:17, in the letter to the church at Laodicea. This is a rare word in the NT. It is a significant conclusion that points to the nastiness that goes along with wrong teaching about the nature of Christ, the nature of God. Listen to how the same Greek word is used in Revelation: “15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” If the resurrection is not true, Paul asserts, then we are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.

Paul’s idea of the kingdom points to the central importance of the resurrection. Without that important fact, a physical resurrection of a physical God, the intellectual and false spiritual world of the Corinthians must collapse. The Corinthians appeared to think they were leaving their physical bodies behind, and were becoming spiritually perfect beings. They manifested gifts of the Spirit, with no doubt, but those gifts came into a flawed community (as they always are), by God’s grace. Thanks be to God for that. But there are consequences for wrong belief.

We don’t know exactly what it was that was believed in Corinth, but we can infer it from Paul’s argument and the context. As Don mentioned, Corinth was very much influenced by Greek philosophy, which divided the world into the physical and the spiritual. The physical world was imperfect, and at times downright evil; while the world of spirit, thought and idea was perfect and pure. This world view placed the physical body into the realm of corruption, and the ultimate goal was to transcend the physical so as to become a perfected spirit being. The Platonists believed in an immortal spirit, but a perishing body. Paul has commented on the reception of the resurrection in other places, in Athens Paul talks about the resurrection, in response we hear some mocked, while some were interested in this new idea (Acts 17:16-34). There’s little doubt that Paul is engaging the thought of the Greek world throughout his writing, “For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness,’”

The problem in the Corinth church sounds like a very well-known heresy, a form of Gnosticism called Docetism, that is very much alive in the world and in the church today. The formal definitions of heresy arose a few hundred years later, but it is worth talking about because our world view as believers is important. Docetism sees the person of Christ as a spirit being that only appeared to be human – it denied the incarnation, the coming of God in human form. He did not suffer, or if he did suffer, this was only an illusion. Jesus becomes a spirit being who reflects for us what we can become if we manage to escape the shackles of this corrupt physical world. This heresy is attractive because it feeds our need to escape this troublesome world. It allows us to seek God’s image, without having to conform ourselves first to Christ, including his suffering, death and resurrection.

The heresy of Corinth carries with it some serious problems, for once you deny the physical resurrection, you deny the physical crucifixion, which, at its core, is the denial of Christ’s suffering. Suffering is a hard part of the Christian message, so you can see the appeal of a philosophy which allows us to escape Christ’s image, and go directly to God without the intermediate steps of suffering, death and resurrection. What this does is remove the redemption of suffering from the Gospel, and this is a change that can cause considerable damage. Imagine bringing pastoral care to a person dying of a painful disorder, and the best you can offer them is this: well, this is all illusion. If you were more enlightened you would see that, and you wouldn’t be suffering so. In any event, your pain has no meaning. Nice. Contrast this with a soundly orthodox Christian view, where all of our suffering, and the birth pains of this troubled world, are brought into clear meaning through our understanding of the suffering of Christ. Suffering, even while we seek to flee from it, ultimately has meaning within God’s great creation by reason of Christ’s suffering. Do you see the damage that heresy can do to our lives?

On this point I speak from some personal experience, as a person who experiences chronic pain from a lower-back nerve injury. Believe me when I say, that one of the things that allows me to continue to function with constant pain is a clear vision of how my existence is brought into a specific context in the suffering of Christ. I don’t like it, sometimes I don’t understand why I am on this path, but I always know that I’m in holy company with this thorn in my side (or lower back, in my case). (cf. 2 Cor 12:7)

The ultimate consequence of heresy, wrong thought, is despair unto death. At the root of all heresy is an attempt to separate Christ’s human and God natures: some, like the Corinthians, see the goal as becoming spirit; others at the opposite end see Jesus as the one human who achieved perfection, who we, if we only try hard enough, will be able to follow. For Corinth, the result of their wrong belief was the end of freedom from sin and death – as Paul argues, without a bodily resurrection of Christ, this undoes the freedom from sin by grace at baptism; the continued access to forgiveness; and makes the goal of going to glory a lie. Without a bodily resurrection the Corinthians have done themselves out of freedom and joy past, present and future. If we follow the opposite path of ascribing to Jesus full humanity and no divinity, we will conclude the world is awful and we through our own merits will have to fix it. This is the result of heresy: despair, for without the resurrection of the physical body, all faith falls. In Christ, our humanity, our death, and our ultimate resurrection are inextricably bound together.

Now, this is a really critical point, because it tells us something about wrong thought, about heresy, when it comes to belief. We are sometimes quick to adopt thoughts that are heretical, ultimately because we’re trying to make the faith something that is more comfortable, less challenging, and more like the way we would have designed the system if we were God. Heresies feed into our hearts innermost, very human desires: to avoid suffering; to avoid the need for a real change in life or behaviour; to avoid the consequence of a God who knows us better than we know ourselves…including all those deep dark secrets we are loathe to even acknowledge to ourselves. Heresy attracts us because it presents reality to us in the way we would have it; rather than the way God has provided it.

We like to think that we are greatly advanced in terms of thought today, when in many ways we’re right back with the Greek schools of philosophy in Corinth, debating many enticing thoughts, teachings that satisfy our itching ears. Today, under post-modern influences, our culture accepts that there is a plurality of truths, none absolute, but all equally valued. That world view permits us to hold great error in our understanding of God. Julius Caesar was reported to have said, “People willingly believe what they wish.” This is exactly what Paul is facing in Corinth. It is instructive to us, for the siren song that drew in the people of Corinth still works to draw us in today. We don’t talk about heresy much anymore, both because it offends our very polite Canadian approach to disagreement with others; and because of the very post-modern lie that all truth is relative, and all thought has equal validity. This is not what Paul is arguing before the church at Corinth, some comfortable, middle-of-the-road, broad circle that somehow manages to encompass both orthodox Christian belief and the pantheon of new age spirituality, rather Paul is arguing the very reality that is the foundation and the core of our faith. From his letter to the Galatians we know that the physical resurrection and crucifixion of Christ has direct impact on our physical being: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20 There is a physical reality about this that changes us, and changes how we live.

One of the characteristics of heresy is its enduring nature, and we can easily find any of the major heresies of the 4th and 5th centuries alive and well and present in the church and the world today. If you’ve read the best seller, The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield you’ve seen that heresy at work – if only you find the right road to perfection, through hidden secrets, you will leave behind the physical and become beings of pure spirit. Nope. A recent book in a similar line of thought had this recommendation: find out how to enter the, “New Jerusalem, a city “not built by hands,” to reveal the flawless master plan for healing every unwanted condition, bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth! [This book] is for light beings everywhere, and the time has come to realize your true potential.” Such heretical thought is alive and well today, and while it seems comfortable it really brings death.

I talked at Easter about the Vancouver church that had changed the words of the hymn, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” to “Glorious Hope is Risen Today” as they wanted no more talk of the resurrected Christ, which they had disposed of as so much superstitious knowledge, and having no place in modern thought. Theologian FitzSimons Allison calls this the “Roger Bannister doctrine of the Atonement” Before Bannister ran a 4-minute mile it was widely believed that such a goal was impossible as the human body could not physically accomplish such a feat. When Bannister did it, everyone believed. For those who gut Christ of his divinity, he becomes a great man who demonstrated that by living the right kind of life you could become divine. Jesus becomes instead the perfected person, who stands as an example of what we can achieve if we but succeed in our quest for goodness. Jesus broke the 4-minute mile, and you can too (if only you train hard enough)! This is the way of despair.

The reason we need to reflect on these questions is because our concept of God reflects how we live our lives. If we believe in a limited God, and have adopted thought that brings us short-lived and limited comfort in this world, this will ultimately leave us in despair and hopelessness. Listen to Paul’s argument, and see if he is speaking to you. Does your belief fulfill Christ’s promise, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”, or does it instead bring hopelessness?

As we hear Paul arguing with the Christians of Corinth about their wrong belief, take this time to consider what it is that you believe. Is Jesus the Son of God, created before all things, the Christ? Do you believe he can save you from yourself? Does the Spirit of that risen Christ dwell within you as we speak? It is my prayer that God will write these truths on our hearts, minds and souls. Amen.

————————————— snip

Bits that didn’t make it off the cutting-room floor:

Heresy, at its core, is a problem of the will. That is, we chose to believe something that gives us a particular benefit. Heresy usually involves some analysis to depict how a particular wrong teaching is supported. Orthodox thought, by contrast, is a matter of the heart, and cannot be mended with logical thinking. Paul attacks Corinth on the same ground they have likely used to develop their over-spiritualized wrong thought, by using withering logic. Orthodox or correct thought about God can start with learning, and logic and reason, but is ultimately a matter of conversion of the heart. When in the 18th century John Wesley, after years as a failure as an Anglican priest, “felt his heart strangely warmed” and realized that God had indeed saved him, that was a conversion to orthodox thought. Heresy, by contrast, is always linked in some way to sin.

Why does this matter? Another very post-modern thought is the right of everyone to hold whatever thought they want, and to be free from interference. I can chose to believe what I want. In one article about this thought, an ethics lecturer is stunned when one of his students asserts that she is not obligated to follow the teaching of science, for she has the right to choose to believe what she wants, even if it is contrary to fact. This lecturer was talking about abortion, and found that student after student preferred either comfortable unawareness or bold-faced denial of plain fact. Read more: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=19-07-023-v#ixzz1si4pr4W5

Samantha: Yes, but what science says doesn’t matter.
Me: (silent, unsure of an appropriate response to such an assertion)
Samantha: Just because something is true doesn’t mean you have to believe it.
Me: Okay. (I write her last sentence on the board so it’s plain as day.) Are you sure that’s the argument you want to make to defend a right to abortion?
Samantha: Sure. I can go through my life denying what science says is true. I have that right.
Me: Yes, I guess you can. I can refuse to believe, for example, that the world is round. I can insist it’s flat.
Samantha: Exactly.

One other aspect of this I want to emphasize is something that is at the root of all heresy – all wrong teaching ultimately seeks in some way to split apart Jesus from the Christ…to make Jesus all man, with some spiritual aspects; or to make him all spirit with only some phony human aspects. The Corinthians were attempting to make the question one of only spirit, to remove the human, and Paul tells them the ultimate impact of that thought: they continue to be dead to their sins. Without a very human Christ, who dies on the cross on our behalf, there is no real washing clean from sin. The problem with heresy is, at its root, it is fundamentally cruel. While we grasp those ideas because they allow us license to be something other than that which God would call us to, those same ideas, those idols, rather than bringing us freedom instead bring us death.

Just looking at the two extremes, you can see this to be true. If Jesus becomes all human, and blessed by God, we are left with a God who does not really know us, who never became us, and never paid the price for our sin. We instead turn to endless attempts to become a perfect human. A path to despair as it places all the weight for our salvation on our own shoulders, an endless path of trying harder to be good, an impossible task. If we instead opt for the Jesus who is all spirit, and only appeared human, we now have a God who is isolated from the physical and the earthy. This drives us into a place where we focus on nothing but the experience of the spiritual to the exclusion of the physical (much as the Corinthians). Jesus never suffered, and therefore he has no part in our suffering. What a message of despair – rather than seeing our path to a holy death, through holy suffering, to be a preparation for glory and a sharing in the Creator’s suffering, it becomes empty and proof positive that God does not care.

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Written by sameo416

April 21, 2012 at 10:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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