1 Cor 15.35-38, 42-50
Some of you have noticed that I teach a lot in my sermons. I am at heart an educator, but there is more to it than that. Historically, Disciples of Christ have been referred to as “the people of The Book.”
Now, I have spent my entire life as a Disciple and while I did learn the Bible stories in Sunday School as a child, I made it to adulthood without much more than that. As a young adult, I could not have told you if Hebrews was in the Old or New Testament. The Bible was not approachable, it was difficult to read and harder to understand – so like many others, I avoided it. I have always loved church and I have always been involved but I stayed clear of the Bible outside of the Gospels (and I cannot even claim to have known very much about them.)
My husband kindly teased me as I started seminary, that as a Baptist, he knew more about the Bible than I did entering seminary. But my very first semester, I was required to read the entire Bible from beginning to end and I was tested over it. I read the Bible in every spare minute – in the car while waiting for the kids to get out of school, in between work and classes and I even listened to it on CD while I was cooking dinner. The exercise of reading it through so quickly helped me connect the various stories and people for the first time and it gave me a love for Scripture.
Sometime after I read the Bible through I read that Disciples are NOW characterized as “people of the book they do not know.” At the moment I read that, I decided to help change it. At that moment, I knew that I wanted to share the love of Scripture that I have. At that moment, I understood that the leadership had been failing the church. And so, I see it as my responsibility to help change the course of Disciples relationship to Scripture and help get us back on track. And so, I do aim to teach in my sermons – I aim to teach Bible – to give some background on the historical situation and the author so that together we can try to figure out what these passages mean for us today.
And so here we are for the 3rd out of 4 Sundays in I Corinthians. You will remember that Paul started the church at Corinth along with many churches in Turkey and Greece. You remember that he wrote letters to them to instruct them in the Christian life and worship. They were young in the faith and were making some critical mistakes. One of the mistakes that impacts our passage today is that some of the church members were abusing their bodies.
Early Christians assumed that Christ was coming back soon – very soon – in their lifetimes. A common belief of many pagan religions was that physical bodies did not matter – it was the spiritual stuff that mattered. Along with that, these new Christians had been taught about God’s grace through Christ and the Corinthians figured that grace covered any and all sins, past, present and future. So, since they were already forgiven, physical bodies were not important, AND Christ was coming soon – they might as well party it up. And some of them were doing just that – drinking heavily, involved in immoral sex and paying no attention to what they ate. With this in mind, let’s read from I Corinthians 15. 35-38, 42-50.
Poor Paul, chapter 15 is getting near the end of his letter and his patience seems to be waning as he responds to all their issues. He calls them “fool.” They struggled with a lot of things, but I guess he thought that should understand resurrection. But who does? 2000 years later of trying to figure it out and we still struggle with the idea of resurrection – what it meant for Jesus and what it means for us. None of us would probably volunteer to teach or write on it.
To understand resurrection, we have to understand the relationship between physical bodies and our Spirits. Paul wants the Corinthians and us to know that they are inextricably linked. The Corinthians were all about their spirits, but had no concern for their flesh.
So in Chapter 6 Paul told them to “Glorify God in your body.” In IThessalonians, Paul said, “May your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord.” And he tells them again here, Fools you cannot just do whatever you want. Flesh and spirit cannot be separated in this life or in the next. God came to be with us, to walk with us and guide us in bodily form as Jesus. If our bodies were not important, would God have come in the flesh?
Body and Spirit – inextricably connected,— when we live as Paul says “in the flesh” – we primarily pay attention to the wants and desires of the flesh, which are in opposition to God’s will for us. When we live “in the flesh” we ignore God IN us.
Things “of the flesh” are earthly things/wants and desires – drinking too much alcohol, abusing drugs, eating things that are not good for us, and being sexually immoral. Things of the flesh also include focus on achievement, power and material things. Things “of the flesh” distract us from God – separate us from God – cause us not to recognize God IN us.
Paul said, “fool!” you can’t separate your body from your spirit – you can’t separate any part of your life from God! Your body and your spirit are inextricably linked and abuse of the physical body is also abuse of the spirit.
Paul helps us understand through horticulture examples. A plant grows from a seed. The plant will die and then grow again from another seed. It looks different – a seed or a plant but it is the same essence. The seed will always be part of the plant and the plant always part of the seed. Our bodies, too will always be part of who we are. We will not have the bodies in heaven we have now, in physical form, but Paul said, we will have a body. Our physical bodies are not mere husks covering our essential spirit but are part of who we are – of our very identity. We look very different as a newborn than as a teenager or an adult but it is the same person. Our heavenly bodies will look different, but it will be the same person, nevertheless.
And just as a plant must die in order to live again next spring, death is a precondition for heaven – for true life – for life eternal. We must die to live with the fullness of God but it is not really death, it is not the end, it is a transition from this stage of life to a new phase of life. —
When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians there had to have been some people who had near death experiences and came back to tell about them. There probably were a few who had died or nearly died. But since they did not have the medical technology and knowledge that we have now to bring people back from the edge of death, it was very rare. They had no way to connect to each other, no internet or Oprah so there stories may not have been known by many.
Today, there are books and studies on near death experiences – there are gatherings and blogs and websites and tv shows to learn and to share. If you google “near death experiences” you will be amazed at all the information: scientific evidence explaining them, stories by people who have had them, stories from every faith, articles about the science that supports them, videos, conferences and more.
Over the years, I have read the stories of many different people who have had near death experiences. Some of them are more convincing than others, but the sheer volume has to give us pause. If there were only one or only a few, you might be able to discount them but there are tens of thousands of them. Some of them remember hovering over their earthly body watching the doctors and surgeons – giving details that the patient would never know. Many describe being welcomed by loved ones to heaven. Some have conversations. Many describe going through a tunnel toward light. But they all contain some of the same characteristics. They are all life changing – they cause the person to live and think differently. They all include light and usually warmth. They all include a feeling of peace. And they all describe experiencing the Holy, the Divine, — God.
The ones that are most convincing to me are people who did not believe in God or heaven or near death experiences UNTIL they had one. Eben Alexander, the author of Proof of Heaven falls into that category.
Dr. Alexander, is a renowned academic neurosurgeon. He was involved in research, teaching and surgery. He taught at Harvard and conducted important brain and consciousness research. He knows the brain as well as anyone. And like most neuroscientists, he believed that all of consciousness is brain based – he believed that consciousness is completely and totally dependent on brain functioning, specifically the neo-cortex, the outer layers functioning. When his patients told him unbelievable near death stories, he patronized them and said, “wonderful,” but he knew why it happened. It was scientifically explained. It was “only in their minds.” While he attended church with his family, he did not believe in God or heaven.
And then he was driven to the brink of death. He spent a week deep in coma from a very serious brain infection. And as hours and days went by, his chances of survival went down. By day 7, he had only a 2 percent chance of survival and doctors said the rest of his life would be spent in a nursing home if he lived.
However, as his body and brain shut down in the hospital room, his sprit journeyed beyond to another dimension. In this other realm, he experienced everything intensely as beauty and love—he experienced complete truth and joy. During his journey, he flew with butterflies over beautiful landscapes listening to the loveliest music, feeling the best he had ever felt – the most alive he had ever been. During his journey he was escorted by a beautiful woman who was full of love. She took him where he experienced God. — When he woke up everything profoundly changed for Eben but it happened slowly. Over 3 months he wrote and reflected about his heaven experience.
It is important to know that Eben was adopted. His biological parents were teenagers when he was born but they did eventually marry and had other children. After he visited heaven, he was able to meet with them. It was wonderful except he learned one of his biological sisters passed away a few years before. He asked to have a photo of her and some weeks later, he received a framed photo of his sister. But he was shocked. The woman in the picture was the same beautiful woman who escorted him through heaven and to God.
Eben has been changed. He sees everything and understands everything differently now. He loves deeply and has profound peace. Eben understands the connectedness of all life, including a sibling he never had the chance to meet on earth. Eben now knows God and – It changed him.
Paul hoped that if the Corinthians understood resurrection, it would cause them to a change, it would cause them to cherish their lives and their bodies. We don’t know if the Corinthians understood resurrection after hearing Paul’s letter and I do not know if you will understand it after this sermon. But I do not expect you to understand it – I ask you to believe it— to believe that God is real, to believe that we are all connected to each other – those living now, those who have gone before us and those who are yet to be born. I ask you to believe that your body and spirit are inextricably connected and that how you care for them matters now and in the next life.
I do not expect you to leave here understanding resurrection, but I ask you to live as if you believe resurrection.