Audio fileJohn 20:1-18, Isaiah 25:6-9, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, 51-58
Christ is Risen!
In the selection from 1 Corinthians, Paul rehearses for us what he says is "of first importance" (15:3). But he gives us no drama, no narrative, just a set of bullet points: Christ died, was buried, was raised – all according to the Scriptures – Christ appeared. And, I, Paul, am part of that story. It happened to me. But here, at least, Paul doesn’t tell us the story. You can check it out in Acts 9.
The next section of the chapter, which we skipped in today’s reading, is a mostly philosophical argument about resurrection and its implications. It is great reading, but not our focus today.
The final section, which concluded our reading, describes the victory of our faith and is loaded with drama. Not the drama of story, but the drama of poetry and metaphor.
A language note: The Greek root for "vain" or "empty" shows up five times in the chapter. First, in verse 2, where Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians to "hold firm" so their faith will not be "in vain." In verse 10, Paul speaks personally, saying that "[God’s] grace toward me has not been in vain". Then, twice in verse 14, "If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain." Finally, in the last verse, because of the resurrection, "in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (58). At beginning and end (Fee, 808), and throughout the whole, Paul is concerned that what we believe, as well as how – the actions, is not "in vain", not futile, not empty, not just a waste of time.
In this final section, Paul’s victory cheer, he declares "Death has been swallowed up in victory" (15:54). He is borrowing language from the prophet Isaiah, "[God] will swallow up death forever" and giving it the twist of common Greek alternate phrase, "in victory" in place of "forever" (Fee, 803-804).
I love that swallowing, gobbling image. Death thinks of itself as the big fish, gobbling everything up. The prophet Isaiah is borrowing the imagery of near eastern mythology. Every year, the gods would do battle. Death would run to and fro, swallowing up living things, until the chief god defeats him, and spring begins (Tucker, 217). In mythology, Death is not simply the end of life, but Death is a personal power always at work not just to end life or kill, but to diminish life, to make us less than what we are meant to be.
But this victory chant is no spring ritual, no spring training. This is decisive and final. Death is swallowed up "forever". Death is swallowed up in total "victory". Isaiah uses the language of mythology to engage our imagination, so that we visualize the struggle, we dramatize the conflict, we recognize the cosmic stakes.
I think our horror flicks provide us with a modern mythology. In those stories, it is always Death – personified as one monstrous creation or another – that "swallows up". Whether zombies or vampires, they come to eat you up. And, even if there is a hero or anti-hero who does battle with the beasts, they may kill but don’t "swallow up" the monsters. You have to leave room for a sequel! And, we all know that victory over monsters – whether the imaginary ones or the real ones at war within us – is only temporary.
But then Jesus shows up. And Death is going down.
"Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (15:58). The cosmic battle is already won. Fighting the monster is not hopeless. What we do lasts, what we do contributes to the victory of Jesus, what we do is guaranteed by the resurrection.
Like Paul, we become part of the story, our name shows up in the book, resurrection happens. Most of the time we fixate on all the ... stuff ... that happens, all the ways Death happens, Death swallows. But Christ is Risen! And, when Life happens to Death, everything changes. No wonder the prophet Isaiah says that "the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food".
It is not time to give up. It is time to party.
Christ is Risen!