I Cor. 15: 35But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. 42So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
Focus statement: just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
A young woman, about the age of 13, received a gift from her father. It was a pair of beautiful amber ear-rings. When she put them on and looked at herself in the mirror, she burst into tears. “Why are you crying?” her father asked.
“It’s like you’re making fun of me,” she replied.
“Why ever would you think that?” Dad asked. “I gave them to you because I love you, not because I’d want to hurt you.”
“But they just make my big ears look even bigger. And my big, fat, nose too, and my pimples stand out all the more. I already feel so ugly, and these beautiful ear rings make me feel even uglier by comparison.”
To which Dad replied, “I see those pimples, and yes, for now your ears may have grown faster than the rest of you, but that’s all temporary, the rest of you will catch up; it just comes with being thirteen. But when I bought these ear rings for you, I was not only thinking of you as a beautiful thirteen-year old woman, but of you as a beautiful twenty-year old woman, and a beautiful thirty-year old woman, and even a beautiful eighty-year old woman. You’ll change through the years, but my love for you will not. That’s what the ear rings are about.”
I don’t know the rest of the story, but I’d like to think she wore those ear rings for her high school graduation, her college graduation, maybe even on her wedding day, maybe even at her grandchildren’s graduations, and that all that anyone thought was, “What a beautiful, dignified woman, so tastefully dressed and confident of herself.” And what a Dad; he could see his daughter not only for who she was, but for whom she shall become. The ear rings were not only a gift to her then and there, but a down payment on who and what she would become. When we get this sense, a vision for what is to come, and of ourselves in the process of becoming, that has to have an effect on how we see and treat ourselves and each other even now. In that way, the future affects the present.
That’s what today’s passage from I Corinthians 15 is about: the importance of the future to the present. How what we shall become affects who we are now. For as powerful and all-absorbing as the present may be, one implication of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that the horizons of our lives are no longer cramped and shadowed by a looming, impassible wall of death. They open up with the promise of more to see beyond what we can see, like when we gaze at the horizon on the ocean or the prairie, and know that there’s more beyond the unending curve of the earth.
In this life, then, we are like caterpillars on the way to becoming butterflies. As someone has said, “God loves us just the way he finds us. But he loves us too much to leave us that way.” The Risen Jesus already shows us the direction and the goal of our own metamorphoses. More than merely a comforting hope for the future, that has to affect the way we see ourselves and each other, as people in the process of becoming, with a destiny and an identity not less glorious than the Risen Jesus.
Paul sums up this process of becoming in verse 49: “For just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.” The man from heaven is obviously Jesus. The earthly man to whom Paul refers is Adam, the first human, made from the dust of the earth, infused with the breath of God, and who fell into disobedience, from which came more sin, shame and death. Before his fall from grace into disgrace, Adam knew a perfect unity of his dust-borne body with the Spirit of God who animated him, maybe even a symbiosis of body and spirit. After his fall, the human condition became something more like a war between our dust-formed bodies and the spirit which God put in us. That’s part of the dishonor and weakness of our current bodily existence which Paul describes in this passage: that while our spirits may want to do one thing, our bodies often seem to have independent lives and contrary, stubborn wills of their own. As Jesus said to his sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
So, Adam’s fall to pride and disobedience is everyone’s story writ large. But the second Adam’s rise to divine glory through humility and obedience is the new story into which we are invited. The first Adam’s fall brought about death, while the second Adam’s resurrection and ascension brings about life for us all. As Adam was, so are we all, currently, now. As Jesus is, so shall we all be. That is, in a nutshell, Paul’s answer to the Corinthian question, “”How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?”
Remember again, please, that the controversy in Corinth was not over whether or not there was life after death, but what kind of life there would be after death. Some in the church seemed to prefer the idea of some sort of invisible, non-physical, matter-free existence, in which they would escape the world of matter and bodies. From their ancient philosophers like Plato, they’d grown up hearing that anything eternal and perfect has to be something immaterial, that you can’t touch or see. Because anything physical, material and touchable that we currently know of always decays and eventually disappears. So for the ancient Greeks, the idea of resurrecting whole persons, spirit, soul and body, probably sounded like something impossible and illogical, or worse, like something out of a zombie movie.
If that’s how we imagine the resurrection and the next life, like another round of the same thing here and now, only warmed over and served up again, then Paul’s words in verse 36 apply: “How foolish.” When we talk about the resurrection of the body, we’re not talking about a mere resuscitation, but something more like what happens with a seed planted in the ground. You already know about seeds, Paul says. Plant a tomato seed in the ground and you don’t get more of the same tomato seeds, only halfway decomposed now; you get something sharing the same source, the same DNA, the same history, also something material and physical, but also something new and infinitely more glorious, a full-grown tomato plant bearing lots of luscious fruit. But the seed had to be planted in the ground—in effect, to die– before that could happen.
And you already know about different kinds of flesh, such as that of fish or birds, Paul says. So why wouldn’t post-resurrection flesh be different from pre-resurrection flesh, even though they’re both still flesh, in the same way that bird flesh is different from fish flesh? And you know about different kinds of glory, such as that between different stars and planets. So why would it be so hard to imagine that the resurrection glory of the person, body, soul and spirit, would be different from, and greater than, the glory of the body that we already know here and now? And yet still be related to it, like a tomato to a tomato seed?
So yes, the body will be resurrected along with the spirit. Because both body and spirit are important to who we are. At our best, we are a symbiotic unity of body and spirit. God still says of his physical, material world, “It is good.” So, he’s not about to surrender any part of his beloved Creation, physical or spiritual, to all the forces of chaos, corruption and sin that he already defeated with Jesus’ resurrection. Only, this body will be “a spiritual body,” no longer just an earthly body, or a physical one.
What is that, you ask? A spiritual body? As we think about a “spiritual body,” don’t think about spending eternity in some sort of ghostly, floating, substance-free ethereal body-shaped cloud like Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Past. Or Casper the Friendly Ghost. That’s precisely what Paul is arguing against. Let me recommend instead an idea offered by one of my favorite Bible scholars today, Bishop N.T. Wright, who compared Paul’s doctrine of resurrection body to cars, of all things.
Let’s say you go into a show room and see a new kind of car. Like most other cars it has four wheels and a windshield and doors. The connections to previous models of cars are obvious. But this new generation of cars, it is said, runs on a different kind of fuel that will never run out, let’s say, air. It uses air and spits it back out, as clean as when it went in. And it does so with such perfect efficiency that no energy is lost to heat. Obviously, it has a different kind of engine, one that will never run out, and a totally different kind of steering mechanism that will never permit a crash or a collision, and a different kind of body that will never rust or wear out. Because the previous generation of cars ran on some form of petroleum until they wore out or fell apart, we might call them, “short-lived petroleum cars.” But since this new generation of cars runs on air and can conceivably last forever, we might now call them “eternal air cars.”
And that’s how we might understand the difference between the perishable “natural bodies,” or “earthly bodies,” and our coming imperishable, incorruptible “spiritual bodies.” Not that the first are more solid and material than the latter ones, but because the first ones run and function according to natural, animal and earthly laws, which include a law of thermodynamics: everything eventually falls apart; when left to itself, a complex system, like the body, will eventually revert back to its simplest components, in our case, dirt. This body, made from the dust of the earth, feeds and runs on reconstituted dust in the form of vegetables, fruit, milk and meat, and finally, it reverts back to the dust of the earth.
But the spiritual body, though no less material or physical than the natural body, will run on spirit, be one with spirit, and, through union with God’s Spirit, be eternal and indestructible. We’ll still be creatures and creations, but then, the creatures and creations we were meant to be: in harmony and unity with the Spirit of God, whom God breathed into the very first of our dust-formed parents. Should there one day be indestructible cars that run on air, we shall look at them and say, “This makes sense; this is what cars were developing towards; this is what cars were meant to be; it had to be so; it could not have been otherwise.” I believe we will say the same thing about our indestructible, eternal bodies that are totally united to, motivated by, and in harmony with our spirits and God’s Spirit. “This makes sense; this is what we were developing towards all along; this is what we were meant to be; this had to be, it could not have been otherwise.” And don’t worry. Being so united and infused with, and sustained by, God’s Spirit will not make us any less our true and unique selves. We’re not talking about the Eastern idea of re-absorbing the illusion of the self back into the impersonal Nothingness and Everything-ness of the universe. Our resurrection, spirit-united bodies will be more our true selves than we ever could have been whenever we are slaves of society or of our basest fears and passions.
For that’s the direction that our Christian lives want to take even now. And when it all comes to pass, it will all be by grace and gift. But it will also be something of a reward, because such unity and harmony of body and spirit, self and God, are the goal and nature of Christian life and growth even now, on this side of the New Jerusalem. Its what we labor for and cultivate in our prayer, our worship, our discipleship. And as painful as aging, illness and dying are, they also serve to remind us that we are destined for something better, all of us, body, soul and spirit.
If that’s hard to believe, just as hard as indestructible cars that run on air, remember that we have already seen the proto-type of the eternal, indestructible and complete human being, united bodily to God’s Spirit, and who runs only on God’s Spirit: the Risen Jesus. The resurrection accounts record a body that was visible, material, touch-able, one that even consumed a smoked fish and which made a beach-side breakfast for his disciples. But also one that seems to have appeared inside rooms with locked doors, and disappeared from others, as God’s Spirit led him.
Does that make sense? Well, I’m stumped about a few things too. I’ve got some questions left unanswered, like what my junior youth students have asked me during our Christian education classes. Questions like, “What age will my body be in the next life? Will it be my thirteen-year-old body, or my thirty-year old one, or the one I had when I died?” And will we look the same as we were here and be able to recognize each other?” Or “Why did the Risen Jesus still have his scars? Will we have ours?”
Beats me. Paul’s answers to the Corinthians’ questions leave us with even more questions, whose answers must wait. But that’s just as true for most other worthwhile things in life, including science. Each answer opens up lots of new questions. The main point again is that God loves us, just as he finds us, with body, soul and spirit in a confusing and sometimes contradictory relationship. And God loves us too much to leave us that way. Therefore we are being changed into something holy, eternal and incorruptible, spirit, soul and body, after the manner and image of the Man from heaven, the second Adam, Jesus Christ. In this life-long process of metamorphosis, God takes even the defeat and disgrace of death and turns it into our triumph. That has to make a difference even now, in how we see and value and treat ourselves and each other, as bearers of the glorious image of the Man from Heaven, an image that is emerging in us even as our natural image ages and wears out. And that’s the good news today.