Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
1 Corinthians 15:29-34
May 12, 2019
I have been reading Chimamanda Adichie’s novel, Purple Hibiscus. Set in Nigeria during a politically unstable time, it’s the story of Kambili, a fifteen year old girl trying to make sense of this world. Her father is rich, generous, and a devout Catholic. But at home he’s abusive and a tyrant. He makes his children live by a strict schedule and demands perfection. The family have their prayer time, but even that is strict and void of joy.
When Kambili and her brother are sent to their aunt’s home one summer, they experience a different kind of faith. As with the dad, her aunty leads the family in prayer. Kambili is shocked at the difference. Like her father, she prays for those who don’t believe. But her father prays only that they be saved for the torment of hell, while her aunt prays that they be blessed. And she ends her prayer asking that they all experience peace and much laughter. This shocks Kambili, for laughter was something she never considered of asking for in a prayer. While her aunty isn’t her mother, in a way her “motherly touch” opens up a new way of understanding faith.
I hope you have had such mothers in your life, whether they were your birth mother or another woman like an “aunty”, who helps you experience the hope of our faith. My mother grew up poor and it made her sensitive to the needs and the feelings of others. She expected her children to always be kind to others. It seems, sometimes, that we learn about the gentleness of our faith from women. We should cherish such teachings for our faith is not grounded in judgment and fear, but in life, abundant life, everlasting life. This is why the resurrection, as we going to see today, is so important to our faith.
In my sermon today, I am going to continue looking at the 15th Chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, the resurrection chapter. Read 1 Corinthians 15:29-34.
There are those who see the resurrection as a “pie-in-the-sky” doctrine that allows us to endure life on earth, kind of like Karl Marx’s critique of religion being the opium of the masses. But for the Apostle Paul, this is not the case. The resurrection makes a difference in his life in the present. It’s why he can be so fierce and bold to act.
Today we are looking at the center of Paul’s argument for the resurrection. This is a rather problematic passage, especially the first verse which implies there are those who are being baptized for those who have already died. So let’s start out by digging into the text here. This is the only place there is any mention of baptizing the dead in the New Testament, which creates a problem. Should we be doing this, we might wonder? I don’t think so. The only groups who have baptized for the dead have always been considered heretical sects. So what does this mean? No one really knows. As Kenneth Bailey points out in his commentary on First Corinthians, there are at least forty different interpretations of what this passage might mean. But since it is the only place it occurs, we can’t be too sure.
But here’s a possibility. Perhaps Paul refers to a conversion of someone after the death of a believer. For example, someone in the faith dies: perhaps a spouse or a parent. The non-believing spouse or child then decides to be baptized and to become a believer in part in the hope to be reunited with their loved one after the resurrection. To get to the point Paul is making, if there is no resurrection, such an action would be foolish.
The only religious group I know of today who baptize for the dead are the Mormons. But their cosmology, their worldview, doesn’t conform to the Christian tradition—be it Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox. Essentially, they believe that salvation comes through their particular organization, which is why they think even the dead need to be baptized into their church. But we don’t believe that. For us, baptism is not a requirement for salvation; it’s a sign of our salvation which is grounded, not in the church, but in Jesus Christ. We focus on him: on his death and resurrection. Paul is driving this point home in this section of First Corinthians.
From how this verse reads, Paul never says if he agrees or disagrees with whether or not the dead should be baptized. Instead, he is using such a practice to bolster his argument that if there is no resurrection, the rest of the faith doesn’t matter. If God doesn’t have the power to bring Jesus from the tomb to life, God won’t have the power to bring us to life and, as he said earlier in the chapter, our faith is in vain. Again, for Paul, the resurrection is not a “pie-in-the-sky” doctrine, but one that has implications for how he lives his life in the present.
Paul is getting to the heart of the meaning of the resurrection here in the middle of this chapter. What difference does the resurrection make?” Paul essentially asks. His answer: “it makes all the difference in the world.” Because of the resurrection, we can face life with confidence and should live lives worthy of this gift.
Notice how Paul builds his case, reaching a peak at verse 31 with his boast of Jesus Christ, in whose death we’re called to die through baptism so that we might live eternally with him… For Paul, everything is focused on the Lord. On both sides of this proclamation, Paul notes the danger the Corinthians and he face daily for their belief in Jesus Christ. And then on the outside of that, Paul is almost dripping in sarcasm as he begins and ends with a statement that includes “if the dead are not raised?” If there is no resurrection, why bother to do all this stuff? If there is no resurrection, why don’t we throw a party, eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die. But Paul doesn’t believe this as he shows in this central statement, his profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, he concludes with additional suggestions about how we’re to live our lives.
In verse 32 Paul suggests that if it weren’t for the resurrection, he’d not be fighting with wild animals in Ephesus. As we look back on this from our perspective, we recall Roman circuses and it is easy to imagine Paul fighting lions like other Christians who were taken into the coliseum in Rome. However, the practice of feeding Christians to wild animals in the coliseum didn’t start until a century later. So what might Paul be referring to here?
Although Paul spent more time in Ephesus that anywhere else in his missionary journeys and wrote this letter from there, Ephesus was a difficult place to be a Christian missionary. We see this in Acts, where the silversmiths in Ephesus have a problem with Paul’s preaching. Paul’s message is bad for business, for they make their living selling statues of gods and goddesses. If such gods don’t exist, why would anyone buy such a statue? This led to some difficulty for Paul and his ministry in Ephesus, a conflict that was like fighting wild animals for he may well have been fearful for his life. It wouldn’t have taken much for one of the merchants or craftsmen whose business was suffering to arrange for Paul’s body to be found floating dead in the harbor.
Paul’s point is that because of the resurrection, he doesn’t have to worry about his own life. In his letter to the Romans, Paul shows this confidence when he writes: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord, so then whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Again, for Paul, everything is focused on Jesus Christ. And it should be like that for us, too. Faith in the resurrection allows us to be committed disciples, without the fear of death.
After showing the importance of the resurrection in our lives, Paul concludes this section with two short proverbs. In the first, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals,’” Paul is possibly quoting the 3rd Century BC Greek playwright Menander. Just before this quote, Paul flippantly quotes from Isaiah: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Paul, throughout this letter, draws upon multiple texts so that there is something familiar to both the Greeks and the Jews in Corinth who are reading his letter. Paul wants to heal the divisions in Corinth and this is just another attempt at doing that—quoting two different sources, so that each group would have something familiar to help their understanding. Paul’s use of sources supports Christian preaching that draws on sources outside the Biblical canon for illustrations. Truth, wherever found, can be used to support the ultimate Truth.
Paul’s ending to this section of his letter reminds us there needs to be an ethical response on our behalf because of the resurrection. Because we have been promised this incredible gift, we should live righteously, avoiding evil and striving to do what is honorable.
Throughout this letter, Paul has pointed to the corruption and sin in the Corinthian Church, so his tag-on here comes as no surprise: “I say this to your shame,” Paul notes for the second time in this letter. Paul expects the Corinthians to change. They are to unite and get over their divisions. They are no longer to put up with outrageous sin. They are not to make a mockery of the Lord’s Supper and they are to worship in an orderly manner. If they accept and believe in the resurrection, they will change and live in a way that honors what God has done for them in Jesus Christ.
Does the resurrection make a difference in your life? It should make all the difference in the world; it should give us the boldness to live for Jesus. But does it? Reflect on the resurrection this week and ask yourself, what difference it makes? Hopefully, you will discover, like Paul, the importance of a core document of the faith that we’ll profess in a few minutes when we say the Apostles’ Creed. When you say the Creed this morning, focus on those last clauses: “I believe…. in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Amen.
 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus (New York: Random House, 2003), 127.
 William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, First Corinthians: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 335.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011), 449.
 Bailey, 450, agrees with G. G. Findlay (1900) and Joachim Jeremias (1960), who both independently of each other argued for this interpretation of the verse.
 Hans Conzelmann, 1st Corinthians: Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 275.
 1 Corinthians 15:14.
Orr and Walther, 338.
 See Bailey, 452.
 See Acts 19:23-41
 Romans 14:8
 Bailey, 453. See Isaiah 22:13.
 1 Corinthians 6:5, 15:34.
 Focus of 1 Corinthians 1-4:16.
 See 1 Corinthians 5.
 See 1 Corinthians 11-14.