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Paul’s Resurrection Theology Part One:
If Christ Has Not Been Raised

6th Sunday After the Epiphany

First Cor. 15:1-20; Luke 6:17-26; Jer.17:5-10; Psalm 1

John Dominic Crossan, in his collaborative work with Jonathan L. Reed (In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (HarperSanFrancisco 2004), proposes that Paul – a Pharisee – saw the resurrection of Jesus as the first indication that the general resurrection of the martyrs to God’s justice had begun.  Crossan points out that people rising from the grave was not an unusual occurrence in First Century Greek and Roman cultures.  Further, the people Paul was corresponding with in Rome were familiar with Platonic concepts of the immortality of the soul, and would have interpreted Paul’s “resurrection of the body” in that way.  So in his first letter to the community in Corinth, Paul presents his argument about why Jesus’s resurrection is NOT the immortality of the soul, but the beginning of God’s action in the world to restore God’s justice-compassion, God’s Kingdom, in direct contradiction and opposition to the divinity of Cesar and the injustice of Cesar’s empire.

The reading from 1st Corinthians 15 for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, is verses 12-20.  However, it is important to include verses 1-11 (from the 5th Sunday lectionary) as prologue.

Crossan argues that the writer of Luke/Acts essentially had no time for Paul as an Apostle.  Luke and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem maintained that only the original 12 called by Jesus could be considered authentic Apostles.  Paul was considered to be a missionary to the Pagan gentiles in the Roman world outside of Jerusalem.  So Paul is answering that criticism in verses 1-11 by claiming legitimacy as an Apostle because, Jesus “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time ... then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”  Even though Paul considered himself “unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God,” through the grace (free gift) of God, he was called to the work.

Then Paul proceeds with his argument (verses 12-20) – which seems circular to most Christians hearing these passages again for maybe the 6th or the 20th time, depending on the number of years spent in Sunday School, or listening to various preachers or lay leaders read these passages whenever Year C rolls around.  Believers’ eyes will generally glaze over as Paul obfuscates: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation ... and your faith [have] been in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God because we testified of God that he raised Christ – whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised ...”  The traditionalists know that Jesus rose from the dead, so why bother with this argument?  And postmodern exiles from tradition know that Jesus never walked in resuscitated body out of the tomb – stories of Elvis Presley notwithstanding, nobody comes back from the dead in the 21st Century.  It’s much easier for both traditionalists and exiles to stick with the story Luke writes (the “sermon on the plain”) and rail against sinful people who persecuted the prophets, killed Jesus, and continue to oppress the poor.

But if Crossan’s interpretation of Paul is correct, and the 2,000 years of Platonic gloss and church dogma can be put aside, Paul’s argument to the 1st Century Corinthians becomes a passionate call to participate in God’s Kingdom here and now.

Paul was a Pharisee, who believed that at some time, God would act to bring God’s justice to earth.  When that happened, it would only be fair that the people who had died before God’s justice was restored would be allowed to take part.  Otherwise, people who had given their lives in the service of God’s law and righteousness would have died in vain.  So the idea developed that when God’s justice was restored, there would be a general resurrection of the dead so that they could also participate in God’s Kingdom.  When Paul first heard the story about Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, he considered it blasphemy.  After his mystical experience on the road to Damascus, he realized that God’s great intervention to restore God’s righteous kingdom on earth had begun.  The signal for the general resurrection of those who had died in the service of God’s justice was the resurrection of Jesus.  In Paul’s metaphor, Jesus, the Christ, the one chosen by God for this task, “has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” 

The key to understanding what this means lies in the verb tense used in Paul’s argument.  “Christ has been raised.”  Paul expected that the task of restoring God’s Kingdom would be completed within his lifetime, but the point is that the task had begun, and was an ongoing process.  At the end of Chapter 15, he writes, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord [justice-compassion], because you know that in the Lord [in partnership with the risen Christ] your labor is not in vain.” 

In today’s world of reactionary literalism, the Christ metaphor is nearly impossible to reclaim.  Liberal mystics are just as reluctant as secular mystics to indulge in Jesus- and God-talk.  But if Christianity is going to have any meaning in a post-modern secular society, exiles must speak up and claim Christ crucified and transformed: God’s Kingdom come here and now in the choices we make for non-violence, justice-compassion, and peace.