1 Corinthians 15:50-58
“You Have Put on Christ”
“O death, where is your victory? O grave, where is your sting?…
“Come, let me tell you a mystery, for we shall be changed triumphantly…”
When we started to practice the choir anthem that Chloe selected for this Easter Sunday Service, I immediately recognized the wonderful and powerful Scripture text from 1 Corinthians 15, and I thought, “That would be a great text to read on Easter!”
After all, Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth is one of my favourite books of the Bible. One of the things I like about 1 Corinthians is that it’s a realistic depiction of a church community. They’re enthusiastic about their faith, and they’re trying hard to live according to the way and teachings of Jesus, but they’re struggling with differences between them, conflicts, and issues that require some guidance and correction by their leader.
They have cliques, with some saying “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos.” Some think they’re better than others because they have special spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues. And they’re not very good at sharing – when they get together to celebrate a holy meal, some get well fed, and others go hungry.
But rather than writing them off as a bad bunch of people, Paul writes to them, teaches them, and encourages them in their learning how to live together in humble, generous, unified Christian community. Today’s passage comes almost at the end of the letter, and it’s Paul’s conclusion in relation to this terribly imperfect Christian community that is marked by competition, conflict, and pride.
He’s just finished advising them on a number of different issues in their community, and calling them to some different ways of living together in love. But he finishes by assuring them that their ability to be good, kind, generous, and loving is not what is going to save them. Yes, they should strive for love and unity, but in the end, it will be God’s love that will transform them, and God’s power that will triumph over sin and death.
I love the way that Paul seems to taunt and mock death itself: “Where, O death, is your victory?” Where, O death, is your sting?” One commentator suggests that Paul’s poetic mockery of death echoes the mockery of Jesus by the soldiers at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion.
But even as the Apostle mocks death, knowing that God is more powerful, he acknowledges that death does have a sting. The sting is our human tendency towards sin, and the false message we so often accept that we can somehow make ourselves good enough to fulfill the law, living perfectly by our own determination and strength.
You and I know that we can’t do that. Even within our Christian families, we hurt one another, neglect each other’s needs, and often hold grudges that lead to broken relationships. Even within our Christian churches, we hold fast to our beliefs and convictions, but often at the expense of our unity and love for one another. It’s hard work to live together in love, and our patience, forgiveness, and grace towards one another often wears thin.
“But thanks be to God,” Paul says, “who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Although the Corinthians will not be able to correct and reform all the issues in their community, and although we also will continue to struggle with pride, jealousy, selfishness, and greed, it is by God’s power of love that we will be able to transcend sin and death, and to accomplish what God put us here to do.
We are blessed again this morning to be celebrating a baptism. Easter is a very traditional time for baptisms, especially baptisms of adults who have gone through a time of preparation and learning before they join the Christian community on the great day when we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ.
There’s a tradition still practised in some Christian Churches that after someone is baptized (especially if they are baptized in a pool or river and get completely soaked) that they are given a white robe or garment to put on. The garment meets a practical need to have something dry to wear, but it also symbolizes the new life in Christ that they are beginning.
Although we didn’t give little baby Sharon a new dress after we poured the water on her head, we did sing to her about the new spiritual garment that she now wears: “You have put on Christ, in Christ you have been baptized. Hallelujah, Hallelujah!”
You may have noticed that I often wear a white robe when we gather to worship God together. The stole that hangs over my shoulders is a symbol of my role as a Minister of Word and Sacraments. It represents the yoke of Christ, the particular responsibility to which I’ve been called as a minister.
But the white garment, called an alb, is simply a reminder of my baptism. We could all be wearing white robes, if we chose to do so. Because in our baptisms, we have each put on Christ as well, and the new life to which God calls us. And it is the beginning and promise of a life that will not end.
As Paul so poetically explains, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Our perishable bodies will put on imperishability, like a new white garment that reminds us that we are God’s beloved children, and God’s got us!
Yes, the good news of Easter Day is that God’s got us. Like the women at the empty tomb, we need not be afraid because Jesus has gone ahead of us through death and into new life. God has triumphed over evil, hatred, violence, and death itself. And that means that our conflicts and struggles in community will not be the death of us. And our personal sins and failings will not lead to our condemnation.
God’s got us. We have put on Christ. By God’s grace, our perishable bodies will put on imperishability, and God’s love will win over sin and death. So we can have confidence and hope to follow Jesus where he will lead us in this life and in the life to come.
As Paul said to the Corinthians, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”