With thanks to N.T. Wright, George Fox and Walter Wink, whose influences can all be detected in the message below, based on….
I Cor. 15: 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. 29Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31I die every day—I mean that, brothers—just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,
“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” 34Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.
Did you just hear the trumpet call to battle in this passage? The summons to war? It was there in Paul’s words in verses 24-26: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Before I call us into ranks and send us out marching to battle, I must first deal with a couple of enticing, intriguing side-tracks and detours in today’s passage, that we may all be wondering about, that may be distracting us from the main message of this passage. One is Paul’s curious words in verse 29: “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? Does that mean that some early Christians were getting baptized repeatedly, standing in for their deceased friends and relatives? Like the Mormons do, in their temples, with all their genealogy research? Maybe. But this obscure, tangential mention is the only biblical clue to such a practice. Paul doesn’t explain it, he doesn’t even condone it, let alone approve of it, he simply asks, if some of you in the Corinthian church don’t believe in a real flesh-and-blood resurrection, what would be the point of you getting baptized for the dead? Now, that reference alone hardly provides the case for a full-blown, industrial strength assembly line practice of looking up everyone’s ancestors and getting dunked in their names. If somebody was doing that in ancient Corinth, they seem to have stopped it pretty quickly, because there are no other mentions of it anywhere in either the Bible or Church history until you come to the Mormons, starting a hundred and fifty-plus years ago. Faith in the resurrection is the main point of this reference, not the baptisms themselves.
Secondly, if you’re scratching your heads over verse 32, so am I. Paul says, “If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained?” Does that mean that, because of his faith, Paul got thrown into the local coliseum with some hungry wolves, lions or leopards, for the entertainment of the crowds, perhaps along with other prisoners and persecuted people? If so, then this Paul is one very impressive rabbi. Because he obviously survived and lived to tell the tale. Paintings, icons, and movies about St. Paul usually portray him as rather small, bookish and old, maybe also stooped and limping from having been whipped so often and pelted nearly to death with rocks. If he also survived lions, wolves and leopards in the coliseum, perhaps he should be portrayed in movies by famous gladiator actor types, like Charleton Heston or Kirk Douglas. Oops, I’m showing my age. Today, the gladiator figures of Hollywoods’ toga and trident pageants would be Brad Pitt or Russell Crowe.
Much as I’d like to believe that the Apostle Paul, when he wasn’t writing parts of the New Testament, was wrestling lions to the ground in the Coliseum of Ephesus and tying their jaws shut with their tails, there’s more than one problem with that. For one thing, the Acts of the Apostles tells us that Paul spent three years in Ephesus and not once does it so much as hint at anything so important and impressive as Paul bare-handedly taming lions, without even a whip and a chair.
But the story of Paul’s time in Ephesus does include a city-wide anti-Christian riot, because the idol-makers in the Temple of Diana feared for their business if more people became Christian. And the leaders of some of the Jewish synagogues also seemed to have had it in for Paul. Sorry to break it to you, but it seems more likely that Paul is comparing the people who gave him so much grief in Ephesus to wild animals. Like whenever we say, “Its a jungle out there.” They certainly acted like wild animals. Any way, the main point of this word about wild beasts in Ephesus is again the resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection, and the meaning of it in our lives. In Paul’s case, it gave him the courage even to face death daily by wild animals. Uh, wild human animals most likely.
All of these distracting little side-tracks point back to the main point of the passage: the resurrection, and its meaning for us before it happens to us. Remember, the issue Paul is discussing is not simply whether there’s life after death, but what kind of life there is after death, and what that means for us here and now.
Now, death is a very personal matter. I’m talking about facing our own mortality, as well as about facing the deaths of friends, family, and loved ones. Whenever we stand at a graveside and say our last goodbyes to a dear and departing friend or relative, our focus is naturally very powerfully personal. What will become of us with this person gone from our lives? What will become of him or her? Will he or she be present to God in some way, conscious of God and others while awaiting the resurrection of the body and the renewal of all things? Will we meet again? If so, will we know each other the same way we did, until recently? These are the kinds of personal, intimate questions that occupy us as we deal with the reality of death and dying.
Paul’s words speak to those very personal concerns. But he is also putting the whole matter of life, death and resurrection into a much bigger perspective, one that ties us in together, one that even ties us in with all of creation, one that even ties us in with God’s great and grand project of restoration, re-creation and reunion for heaven and earth. Every life, death and life thereafter is therefore a major, vital action in nothing less cosmic, grand and glorious than what, from John’s Revelation at the end of the Bible, we might call, “The War of the Lamb.” That was the phrase that pacifist Quakers often used to describe their faith and their mission in the world, and I find it useful too: a war, but not the kind you fight with guns or swords. Rather, its “The War of the Lamb.”
John’s Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is a war story, about the great cosmic fight between a many-headed dragon and “the lamb that was slain.” To the surprise of all the universe, as a surprising reversal to all the “dominions, authorities and powers” that oppress, exploit and divide us, the lamb wins because he is also, “The King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” because he is also “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” He wins not by shedding other people’s blood, but by shedding his own blood to redeem for his God and Father a people of every tribe, tongue and nation. And his soldiers, the redeemed, also win by “the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; for they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death,” says Revelation 17:14.
John the Revelator was not the first one to describe Jesus’ mission in terms of a war. When Paul told the Corinthian Christians that, “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet,” he was using military and imperial-type language with which the Corinthian Christians were probably very familiar. Jewish Christians among them would have heard echoes of some of the Psalms, which speak about God putting pagan enemy nations under King David’s feet. “Sit at my right hand,” says Psalm 110, “until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” But in Jesus’ mouth, and in the writings of Paul, the meaning of that language has been interpreted to say that its not the human enemies of the new Son of David who are to die, but death itself.
And the Gentile Christians would have heard in Paul’s words echoes of Roman imperial propaganda in these words, “He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” Corinth was a Roman colony, where people would regularly have heard that Caesar reigns and is putting all enemies under his feet. In addition to hearing it, they could read it on their coins. Even while the emperor reigns, he is expanding and extending his domination, authority and power by means of worldly warfare.
But in this passage, Paul turns that imperial and militaristic language upside down and stands it on its head, when he says that, in this War of the Lamb, the Lamb is not imposing his authority, power and domination over others; he is making war against all authority, power and domination. If that sounds like an attack against the titles, hierarchy and power structures whereby people achieve superiority, domination and exploitation over others, I assure you, it most certainly is. A worldly society of fallen, sinful people may rely on some hierarchy, inequality and superiority of titles and power in order to keep some semblance of order. But in the kingdom of God, Jesus said, it is not so to be. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last; whoever would be greatest among you must be the servant of all; and even “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” We carry on this war against “dominion, authorities and powers” by our works and witness of love, service and faith.
What an odd reign this is. What a stranger conquest, when viewed from the perspective of the world. The Anointed King of Israel was anointed not by a high priest, as he should have been, but by a woman who was despised by her own community. His crown: not of gold but of thorns. His throne was a cross among criminals. Whom he conquers, he gives new life and hope, by dying for his enemies rather than killing them; by his conquest their hearts are melted, their spirits converted, and they willingly surrender their arms to him. Victory takes the form of softened hearts, reconciled relationships, and a just peace between former enemies and between the exploiters and the exploited. One by one, the tribes and nations of the world fall before the wounded lamb, as members of these communities repent of their oppressive and divisive tribal idols and acclaim the Crucified One king. When the last human tribe and community has been invaded on those peaceful terms, then there will remain one last bastion of oppression, injustice and domination to break down, the most oppressive, unjust and dominating one of all: death itself. That final victory was assured not by his enemies’ deaths, but by the king’s own death. And by his resurrection. Though the war is not over, death is already as good as dead.
This War of the Lamb, leading inexorably to the death of death itself, is the bigger context in which we live, die, and shall live again. For the resurrection of Jesus is our resurrection as well. We didn’t earn it; he bought it for us. And the Lamb’s way of making war is ours as well. As Paul told the Corinthian Christians in his next letter to them, Chapter 10:4: “Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” To which I would add, to remind us, “Beginning with ourselves.”
That makes of everyone here, and every saint we have known, living or dead, a soldier and a hero in the peaceful, anti-violent, domination-free War of the Lamb. That means that all our acts of loving and serving and testifying faithfully through life and death are not just tiny, insignificant little things, as pointless and impermanent as footprints in the beach at low tide. They are all major, crucial actions in the cosmic, earth-quaking, eternity-changing, soul-shaping War of the Lamb.
I thought about this last week as Becky and I walked and rode through the streets of Washington, D.C., where there is a monument at every corner. Some of them are huge, taking up entire city blocks, like the Lincoln Memorial or the Holocaust Museum. Others are smaller, like statues or mere plaques. Most of them have to do with war. Even as a pacifist, I honor the bravery and the ideals which these monuments commemorate.
But then I remembered a farmer in the congregation that I pastored in Kansas. Off to the edge of his pasture were three graves, side by side. Whose they were, no one knew, or could tell, because there were no tombstones marking them. You could only see the little mounds they still made in the earth, most visible in the early morning, when the sunrise cast long shadows and the dew still glistened on the grass, especially after the hay had been mowed. Perhaps they were pilgrims on the Santa Fe Trail over a hundred and sixty years ago, for it ran through the other side of that farmer’s field. The wagon tracks were still visible, too.
Though unknown to us, those buried along the trail are known to God. If they were enlisted in The War of the Lamb, then we can say of them, as Paul said to the Corinthians, “in Christ all will be made alive.” Then we will know who they are, and they will know us. As the words of the old revival hymn put it, “We shall know each other better when the mist has rolled away.”And as we contemplate the unique and priceless life that each person is, we will see each other for what we are: eternally living monuments to our own battles and victories of faith, hope and love, living and eternal monuments, fought on our front in The War of the Lamb, monuments that will make the mute stone monuments of Washington, Moscow or Paris look puny by comparison. For as C.S. Lewis said, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
That’s the big picture in which Paul wanted his Corinthian friends to think about the Resurrection—that of Jesus, their own, and that of their loved ones as they died and were committed to the hope of a future resurrection, together. More than a reason for the private hope of a personal life beyond death, the resurrection of Jesus is the promise and the down payment, or the first fruit, of a coming restoration, a renewal, a recreation, and a reunion of heaven and earth, at the conclusion of the peace-making, life-giving campaign to which we are called and enlisted today: The War of the Lamb.
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