Unpitiable Hope

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Psalm 1:1-3a Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on [God’s] law day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water.

Introduction

I fear hope has gone the way of bathwater when a bath is over: swirling down the drain. The phrase, “I hope so” seems to carry the same force as “thoughts and prayers.” I think we’ve lost some of our willingness to be creative. Creativity takes on a forward-action of momentum; in creating, I move into the space where there is nothing with my hands, feet, head, heart, words, thoughts, actions and put something there. I believe the concept of hope carries this same action-oriented ability (hope and creativity seem to run on the same fuel of imagination); as of late, hope seems stripped of any forward action. When we use the word, it falls from our lips with a downtrodden lilting tone flirting with despair and heavy with doubt; our hands appear tied behind our back as we whisper the phrase to some unknown force and wait for intervention, like waiting on a superhero who will (hopefully) arrive just in time.

I don’t think it’s only an issue of creativity. I think we’ve emphasized too much intellectualism, rationalism, reasonability, and sensibility defined as “common sense.” We’ve allowed what is to triumph over what could be or might be or would be; we’ve stolen away with possibility and shoved it in the attic cranny or the basement closet of the house of actuality: what “is” is best and what isn’t “is” is worst. But if this is our axiom, then isn’t this axiom a death sentence? We’re stuck, if this is our paradigm. Doubly stuck if our hands are tied behind our back. What point is there in having hope if all there is is what we see; we know we don’t hope in things seen especially if all our world and society present is tumult and chaos…

The ultimate problem is a confusion of hope and expectation. When we consider hope we think about something we expect to happen in the future. In this way, hope is that thing that has (as of late) disappointed rather than pleased. I’m quite familiar with theologians, both alive and dead, who have no room for hope in their theologies. I’ve always marveled at such a stance but haven’t judged it because I get it. When hope fails to produce material or spiritual alterations to our life—extricating it from the burden of bludgeoning demoralization or the monotony of the mundane—it makes sense to ditch it. If my hope keeps presenting as dreaming of phantoms of good and better, rather than material bodily presence, then it’s nothing but that which perpetually disappoints me. It’s the mythological carrot of sadistic King Future luring on the peasants of the present eager to steal their labor and love.[1]

Sadly, we’ve conflated future expectation and present hope. When I’ve read through the First Testament and the recorded stories of Israel’s journey and walk with God, Israel’s hope in God is a ripe present hope based on historical stories hallmarking the past: we hope now because God has done… Today we can press on because yesterday God saw us through it.

Hope keeps an eye on history for the present; future expectation uses history as certainty for the future. Future expectation sidesteps the present and anchors what was into what will be, and flags are mounted on that moon with vigor and certainty. But the problem here is that we are not in a position to substantiate the future with…anything—neither with certain cynicism nor opportunistic optimism. We do not have the ability to throw anything far enough and hard enough into the future to populate it. I can only populate the present and in doing so participate in populating the past. I can’t penetrate the future; it always remains right outside of my grasp.

So, hope must accompany me today oriented toward possibility and built on the story of what has happened.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Now if it is proclaimed that Christ has been raised from the dead, how are some of you saying there is no resurrection of the dead? … If then Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain and you are still in your sins. Also, therefore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If with reference to this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable of all people

But now, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.[2]

1 Corinthians 15:12, 17-20, translation mine

Notice that in this part of the letter to the Corinthians, Paul challenges the refutation circulating among the Corinthians that resurrection isn’t real[3] by turning to story to validate the proclamation that Christ is the first fruits of hope of resurrection, hope that the death that threatened does not carry the final word. Using logic[4] to explain the consequences of such a denial, Paul calls the Corinthians back into the story, their story. Remember … remember what God has done[5]…This is all God’s work; as it was then, is now, and will be forever.

The point at stake, for Paul, is the vanity of faith and the emptiness of the story of God’s activity in the world if even this part is a lie.[6] Thus, Paul (eagerly but gently) reminds the Corinthians to consider the work of God, to consider the possibility that remains existent around them independent of what makes sense and what they can see. He explains the fruitlessness of a claim that resurrection from the dead isn’t real or couldn’t be because it’s beyond anything we’ve ever witnessed or demonstrated in our seeking of knowledge through the pursuit of science. In doing so, he allows the Corinthians to linger in a moment of hopelessness. If Christ isn’t raised from the dead by God and the power of the Holy Spirit…then what are you doing? The story is pointless: your faith counts for nothing; the dead are not asleep[7] but are dead; you are stuck where you are; death reigns and new life is a myth. For Paul, to completely reject Christ’s resurrection because you can’t prove it or it doesn’t make sense is the most hopeless posture to be in. It is a posture to be pitied because it is without hope and life.[8]

Why?

Because such a statement puts human limitations on God. For all intents and purposes, we could read this passage in 1 Corinthians as a litany of questions addressed to the Corinthians: Where’s the possibility? Where’s the creativity? Where’s the daringness to imagine something other than just what we have here and now? Where is the audacity to question and to ask, “What is it?” (Manna) Without the interrogatives, without the subjunctive mood and future possible conditional clauses, without the question mark, where would we be but stuck in the indicative and the imperative with the full-stop and exclamation mark forever prohibiting us from the forward-action of creativity and hope. We’d be without story, without room to grow, to experience, and to dare. Isn’t that just stasis? Isn’t stasis death? Isn’t that state the most to be pitied?

Conclusion

But yet we were made to live and not just exist but live: boldly and daringly, marinated in divine love and clothed in hope.

If we allow God to be God (the Creator) and humans to be humans (the created, the creature) then what the future is, is God’s alone because that “not-yet” resides yet in God—all time is in God. We can’t declare that x is impossible because that’s a substantiation of the future, so too is: x will be. The only thing we are given as terminology to speak of tomorrow is the language of possibility and the space of paradox. What is isn’t ever all there is, thus we live in the collision of possible and paradox performing revolutionary resistance to the powers that threaten to take our lives (material, spiritual, social, sexual, financial, political, etc.).[9]

Here in is hope’s realm.

Hope never lays claim to what will be, it doesn’t even pretend to do so (we force it to be future-expectation’s handmaid). Hope always takes up residence in the present with every anthology of the past stacked against her walls. Hope whispers to us: what is right now, isn’t all there is right now; there’s more here than meets the eye; all things are possible with God. Hope latches on to possibility, or maybe hope is the embers of the once raging fire that is the source of the divine phoenix of possibility rising forth. Hope has eyes to see this one step and not that one just changed everything. Hope has the ears to hear the whisper filled wind of history’s many stories surging and coursing around our fatigued bodies. If I’ve made it these many days, to this spot, can I make it one more? It’s possible.

Beloved, come into this story today, take my hand around this table and hear the wonderful proclamation of God’s love for you that echoes through all the halls of time seeking your ears to hear and your eyes to see and your heart to dare to hope. There is more here than we know, for we proclaim Christ raised from the dead and our hope is not in vain.


[1] This and the following two paragraphs taken from the introduction to this episode of my old podcast: Sancta Colloquia. https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/06/18/hope-in-the-mess/

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1214. “The first refutation now addresses what in the language of deliberative rhetoric would be called the “disadvantages” (or, for Paul, dire, unacceptable consequences) of any attempt to deny the possibility or applicability of resurrection as a reality or concept in principle. Such a denial would entail the unimaginable claim that Jesus Christ himself had not been raised from the dead. If the universal principle has no currency, by deductive logic a particular instance of it has no currency either. Any possible sense of confusion for the modern reader arises because the resurrection of Christ is also regardedas the paradigm case of resurrection in reality.”

[4] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1217. “An a priori denial of the possibility of resurrection thereby logically excludes the resurrection of Christ. These verses underline Paul’s expectation that believing Christians will respect logical coherence and rational thought. He does not hesitate to appeal to it.”

[5] Intentionally using the perfect passive here to highlight this is God’s work (passive) and that it happened in a previous moment but has ramifications for us now in that Christ is still raised.

[6] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1216. “The fundamental kerygma has as its content the raised Christ (the force of the perfect passive ἐγήγερται is that Christ was raised and continues to live: present state on the basis of past event). Hence, to deny the possibility of resurrection as such is to knock the bottom out of what constitutes a central article of Christian faith (ἐν πρώτοις, 15:3)…”

[7] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1221. “However, sleep regularly denotes the experience of death for Christians as pregnant with hope and becomes a standard term…”

[8] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1221. “Paul carefully portrays someone who has placed hope in Christ with nothing beyond, i.e., only so. ἐλεεινότεροι denotes more pitiable, more to be pitied, followed by the genitive of comparison πάντων ἀνθρώπων, than all human beings…”

[9] This and the remaining paragraphs taken from the introduction to this episode of my old podcast: Sancta Colloquia. https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/06/18/hope-in-the-mess/

To Be Celebrated

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Psalm 138:1-2 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing your praise. I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your Name, because of your love and faithfulness…

Introduction

In the relationship between the material and the spiritual, we find ourselves wanting to create order and hierarchy between the two to resolve the discomfort we feel realizing the binary isn’t so clear. Which one is more important? Some say the spiritual, others the material. An answer of both, crosses eyes. Make it clean and neat for me! We like things to be ordered rightly and when they refuse to exist in specific categories we get upset. Our language about and around the spiritual and material and the relationship of both stumbles as it tries to find location and substance. What is is yet it is also not all there is. Right? A table is a table and it is not a table because what is a table?

On a more personal level, we speak of our bodies as if they’re mere Edgar suits (a reference to the movie Men in Black) housing the soul, the spirit, the spark—the conglomerate of mutant alien cockroaches—as if the body doesn’t matter, and we’re above the body. But then when that body hurts from physical or emotional pain or sickness, we find ourselves restrained by the body and alerted to its importance. We call our bodies “it” rather than using our pronouns to speak of our body, reducing it to a thing that is other than us. And we can force others into the degradation of the body as we try to deny them the right to be as they are inside and out.

Religion is participant and culprit in creating a hierarchy and hard distinction between the material and the spiritual. Christian Church history is replete with instances of preference for the soul as being the thing that matters ultimately. The rhetoric around mission and evangelistic work is repent and believe and save your soul from eternal torment. The threat was death physical and then ultimate death spiritual, but the emphasis was on the soul’s primacy over the body. In our Christian tradition we speak of spiritual rewards for obedience and for faith while ignoring physical needs and demands of the human beings to whom we are called to minister. In modern church contexts, the gospel is used to justify the suffering in the body through oppression and marginalization with the promise of the future bodily resurrection—suffer now and later you will be given that liberation you so long for.

But there isn’t a hierarchy; both are crucially important.

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

On which account we are not growing weary but even if the outer self is being destroyed nevertheless the inner self is being received again day after day. For the light immediate [moment] of our affliction is working for us for the purpose of the surpassing eternal weight of glory surpassing into surpassing excellence. While we are not regarding attentively the things which can be perceived but things which cannot be perceived. For the things which can be perceived [are] temporary, but the things which cannot be perceived [are] eternal.[1]

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

It seems as if Paul advocates for a dualist interpretation of Christian life—the bifurcation of the “spiritual” from the “material”. However, the thrust of the Christian proclamation denies this interpretation. Paul acknowledges an inner and outer “self”, but what Paul isn’t making one better than the other or wrenching them apart as if they’re two distinct things. The inner self isn’t a full self without the outer self; for Paul, the soul isn’t poured into a body like a cup holding water. Paul is very aware of the paradox of human life in two forms (inner and outer) yet one.

Paul explains the common spirit of the faith is the thing animating the proclamation of the gospel which—when proclaimed and heard—generates faith (4:13). Despite challenges and tribulations Paul faced bodily, his faith propelled him forward to proclaim the gospel.[2] The believing isn’t just spiritual believing for Paul but leads to the material act of speaking/doing for the glory of God. In v. 14, Paul draws on the imagery of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead as the source of our hope: we, too, will be raised from the dead being incorporated into the eternal divine life of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. For Paul, that Jesus was physically/bodily raised is important and functions in the background of the following discussion on the inner and outer person.[3] It’s not that Paul’s noncorporeal soul will go to heaven when he dies wherein he’ll live forever with God, but that the trajectory of Paul’s life transitioning through death—believed to be imminent—will have its destiny in bodily life with God in heaven on Earth.[4]

Transitioning to vv. 16-18, we must keep the fluidity of activity between the spiritual and the material. When Paul speaks of the inner and outer self, it is anathema to assume he’s ripping the human person into two different things or parts inner/outer, soul/body. Rather, it’s about two perspectives based on one experience in the world: from within and from without. Both are the one person.[5] Just as the voice in my head when I complain about that messy room and the voice that I use to request the room be cleaned are one and the same voice in two experiences: inner and outer.

For Paul, the resiliency of the outer self is dependent on the inner person untouched directly by the violence of the world though the experience of the world endured by the outer person informs how the inner person responds to the world. As the outer self migrates through chronological time into divine time, the inner self changes but doesn’t decay like the outer self. The more experience the outer self has (through aging, experience, trials and tribulations), the more the inner self accumulates knowledge and wisdom. It’s literally why we grow more confident as we age, why our gray hairs speak to wisdom, and our wrinkles tell profound stories of experiences of delight and disappointment.

So, even as Paul’s outer self suffers destruction from time and experience, his inner self renews; this then animates his material continuing in the world until the outer self no longer moves—at which point he’ll await the raising up with Christ of his full self.[6] In other words, the inner self (that which cannot be perceived) is resilient even when the outer self (that which can be perceived) breaks down but these aren’t two separate selves, but one in the same from two difference perspectives of and experiences in the world. Even if the outer self is halted by death, manifesting its temporality, the inner self will be the continuity between this life and the next in the resurrection of that body in its glorified eternal form.[7] The material and the spiritual participate together to the glory of God.

Conclusion

The supposed dichotomy between the spiritual and material is a false one, and it’s violent. We must, in all urgency, reject such a dichotomy. Through the false dichotomy of inner and outer, body and soul, spiritual and material we’ve been complicit in subjugating fellow human beings, forcing them to ignore the violence done to their bodies for the hope of something better in the future. We’ve kept people from liberty and freedom, life and love now with the promise of something else in another life. We’ve deprived people of justice and dignity by wrongly prioritizing the suffering of the menial body as the purification of the majestic soul, asking them to endure what we don’t have to endure. Our God took on flesh and walked the earth, healing the bodies of those cast out and neglected by the dominant culture of state and religion; when we deny bodily, material, and outer necessity to bodily and material outer beings we are denying the incarnation of the Christ, God of very God. As those who confess Christ born, lived, died, raised, and ascended, we cannot deny the importance of the body, material, and outer self for anyone, neither for ourselves nor for others. For God so loved the world and everyone and everything in it like this: God became human to love and rescue the Beloved.

There’s that which can be perceived and that which cannot be perceived, that which is temporary/mortal and permanent/eternal, but not good and bad, better and worse. I want you to have a profound sense of the beauty and importance of the whole person. The body matters. The soul matters. The inner and outer selves matter. It is by the body we go through the world. We feel in the body, we understand through the body, we’re treated according to the body. Thus, our experiences in the world are not uniform because bodies aren’t interchangeable. My experience in the world is different than yours because our bodies are different and unique. The experiences of the outer self influence and inform the feelings and storytelling of the inner self. The way the inner self identifies influences and informs the material expression of those feelings and story in the outer self. We’re paradoxical mixes of that which is perceived and that which is not perceived; and we’re all unique expressions of this vibrant multifaceted humanity—each human worthy to be celebrated as they are, as the beloved children of God.


[1] Translation mine unless stated otherwise

[2] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A commentary on the Greek Text. NIGTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 352, “As the principle applies to his case, Paul is affirming that in spite of the inroads of θανατος in his life (v.12a), his unswerving belief in God and in the gospel as God’s powerful instrument to bring salvation to everyone who has faith…made it natural and necessary for him to declare…the good news.”

[3] Harris 2 Corinthians 353, “…but also his Christian conviction that Christ’s resurrection was a pledge of the resurrection of believers (v.14). If persecution or toil should precipitate his actual death, he knew that a resurrection comparable to Christ’s was his destiny as a believer.”

[4] Harris 2 Corinthians 354, “…it should occasion no surprise that here he speaks of his own resurrection, at the same time tactfully assuming his readers’ survival until the Parousia… ‘I, Paul’ as Christian who expects to die before the Parousia from ‘you Corinthians,’ who may well be alive at the time of the second advent. 1 Corinthian’s 15 indicates that in Paul’s thought both the living and the dead will be ‘transformed’ on the last day…but only the dead will be ‘raised’…’Resurrection’ implies prior death.”

[5] Harris 2 Corinthians 359-60, “Because Paul’s anthropology is aspecitival not partitive, and synthetic not analytic, when he speaks of ‘our outward self’ and ‘our inward self’ he is not thinking of two distinct entities, ‘the body’ …and ‘the soul’…with the former as the receptable for the latter. He is, rather, contemplating his total existence from two contrasting viewpoints. The ‘outer self’ is the whole person form the standpoint of one’s “creaturely mortality,’ the physical aspect of the person…The ‘inner self’ is not to be equated with the νους … ‚that which survives death,‘ or even  with the corporate new humanity in Christ. Rather it is the whole person as a ‘new creation’ (5:17) or a ‘new person’ (Col. 3:9-10)…the spiritual aspect of the believer.”

[6] Harris 2 Corinthians 360, “For Paul, the spiritual body was not simply the state of the renewed ‘inner self’ at the time of the believer’s death, but it seems a priori likely that he saw a relationship between the two, that he regarded resurrection not as ta creatio ex nihilo, a sudden divine operation unrelated to the past, but as the fulfillment of a spiritual process begun at regeneration. The daily renewal of the ‘inward person’ …contributed toward the progressive transformation of the believer into the image of Christ in a process that would be accelerated and completed by resurrection.”

[7] Harris 2 Corinthians 373, “Compared with the earthly and therefore transient character of the σωμα ψυχικον, the σωμα πνευματικον is permanent, transcending all the effects of time. Compared with earthly corporeality, with its irreversible tendency to decay, which finally issues in death, the heavenly embodiment provided by God is indestructible, incapable of any deterioration or dissolution.”