It is good to be having a Partnership Sunday at this sad time of a Coronavirus pandemic. For we mustn't only be concerned for ourselves here in the UK. Our association with the Mburi Church in rural Kenya rightly should remind us of God’s wider world and the suffering wider world.
Recently in Kabira, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, there was a stampede during flour and cooking oil being given away. It left scores injured and two people dead. And in other parts of Kenya (and the South Sudan) there have also been terrible plagues of locusts. It is a fact that worldwide 135 million people already had been facing acute food shortages. But now with the corona pandemic, 130 million more could be hungry before the end of the year. That is according to Arif Hussain, chief economist of the UN’s World Food Programme. That’s 265 million people on the brink of starvation before next Christmas.
But how should we think about all this and what should we do about it? That is why we need to heed what Paul was saying in this morning’s New Testament reading – 1 Corinthians 15.20-28. So before we consider our passage, let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, we pray that your Holy Spirit this morning will open our hearts and minds to your word, and your word to our hearts and minds, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
By way of introduction, let me give you some context to our passage.
Paul is writing to the new church in first-century Corinth, the capital city of the Roman province of Achaia that covered much of Greece. The city was a wealthy port and thriving commercial centre. Culturally it was very like a city in the modern West. It was pluralistic with a number of belief systems and it had a reputation for sexual immorality. It’s temple to Aphrodite, the goddess associated with sex, was, sadly, a tourist attraction in the ancient world with its 1000 prostitutes. Not surprisingly, the Church in Corinth was mixed up theologically and morally. And some Christians evidently were mixed up by religious or philosophical views about the body and soul.
For there was a widespread Greek belief that a person’s body was bad, while only the soul was good and immortal. So it did not matter what you did with your body – it was going to be extinct sooner or later (hence some of the immorality in Corinth). And this belief seems to have led to some very mixed up views in the church about the Resurrection. Look back to verse 12:
"Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?"
There were some in Corinth probably saying if you have God’s Spirit you don’t need a personal resurrection. In any case there can be no resurrection body – because your body is bad and worthless.
Paul, however, will have none of it, as we heard last week. For the bodily resurrection of Jesus was proved (Paul was saying in the opening verses of chapter 15) not just by Jesus’ empty tomb but also by Jesus’ disciples actually meeting the risen Jesus again and again – the real Jesus and in his body but an utterly transformed body.
All that is the context for our verses.
And I want to consider them under two headings, first, the Promise and the Problem and then secondly, the Plan and the Purpose.
1. The Promise and the Problem
After his digression over these false views, Paul is emphatic in verse 20:
"But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [or died]."
That word "firstfruits" implies an amazing promise and is highly relevant. For it means that if anyone, sadly, has to go into the Intensive Care Unit at the Royal Victoria Infirmary and you are put on a ventilator and then told sensitively that your end in this life is near, you have a wonderful hope from the resurrection of Jesus. Because, if you trust in him as your Lord and Saviour you don’t have to act (as many on the media describe it)
"so that your loved ones can say, 'he (or she) was very courageous to the end'."
Rather you die not courageously but confidently (with Christ accompanying you by his Holy Spirit) because you are confident that Christ’s resurrection was the "firstfruits". That is to say, his resurrection was like that first grain or first rose of summer. And as surely as the firstfruits of grain in the first century, or roses in the 21st, are a guarantee of the coming harvest or many new blooms, so surely does Jesus’ resurrection guarantee your resurrection. So you can die confident of your resurrection to new life with a new body exactly as Christ was raised with a new body. You die confident of a wonderful future.
But, some may say,
'I'd like to die like that, if only I could believe. But why has God allowed so many Coronavirus deaths? And why did God allow death in the first place?'
The answer is so simple – it is in five words in the opening of verse 21:
"By a man came death."
And that man was Adam. And the great problem was Adam and his sin. The account of Adam and Eve in Genesis is so clear. It shows that their sin involved these five characteristics:
One, going your way and not God’s way.
Two, denying God’s word because you believe instead someone who lets you do what you like.
Three, ignoring God’s warning that disobeying him will sooner or later lead to death.
Four, putting someone or something else above God.
And, five, madly thinking you know better than our infinitely wise creator.
Who needs to check themselves against any of those characteristics, this morning?
But if those are some of the characteristics of sin, what is sin’s extent? Answer: it is universal. "Sin" is like the coronavirus to the 'nth' degree. For it has spread through the human race and causes directly or indirectly so much suffering and death. Chapter 15 verse 22 says, "in Adam all [not some but all] die". Paul spells that out more clearly in Romans 5.12:
"Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned."
Sin is like the pandemic of all pandemics – there are no exceptions. So that is the fundamental answer as to why there are deaths in the RVI and in nursing homes.
But – and it’s a vital 'but' – you also need to listen to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and these words (Ezekiel 18.32):
"I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn and live."
You see our God is a life-giver not a death-giver. He pleads with people not to be mad but sensible and to "turn and live". And that life comes through turning to Christ away from your sin, and uniting with him by faith and living for him now empowered by his Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. As 1 Corinthians 15.21-22 say:
"… by a man [Jesus Christ] has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive."
So who needs to turn to Christ this morning and live?
Well, that brings us to my second heading and the Plan and the Purpose.
2. The Plan and the Purpose
Let’s look at verses 24 to 27:
"Then comes the end, when he [Jesus] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every 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. For 'God has put all things in subjection under his feet'."
The Bible is nothing if not a philosophy of history.
Basically there are only two views of history that you can have. One is circular with the religious idea of a cycle of rebirths, or the philosophical idea of a cycle of events. The other is linear where history has a beginning and it will have an end. It was Professor Herbert Butterfield, a Cambridge historian, who famously said:
"Our final interpretation of history is the most sovereign decision we can take and it is clear that every one of us, as standing alone in the universe, has to take it for himself. It is our decision about religion, about our attitude to things, and about the way we will appropriate life."
And the Bible is clear – history is linear. It had a beginning and it will have an end at Christ’s Second Coming referred to in verse 23 and verse 24, "then [at that point] comes the end." But what happens between the beginning at the dawn of time and this ending? Well, you have God’s plan to reverse the madness of Adam’s sin.
And the great agent for God’s plan is Christ, the Son of God, the second person in the divine Trinity, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And Christ has been reigning throughout history. Before the incarnation, we are told about his reigning creatively and juridically and after the incarnation also savingly and more. Let me spell out five facts.
Fact one, as verse 27 says:
"God has put all things in subjection under his feet".
So Jesus Christ, therefore, has all authority over everything – just think about that! Paul is taking seriously those Old Testament words we heard earlier – Psalm 110 verse 1
"The Lord says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.'"
So Paul could write in Ephesians 1.20-21:
"God raised him [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named not only in this age but also in the age to come."
But Christ’s reign didn’t begin with the Cross and Resurrection. Rather the Cross and Resurrection marked the final phase of a battle that has been going on since the Garden of Eden and that first sin.
So, fact two, Christ, the Son of the Father, was reigning incognito from the foundation of the world. Jesus himself said, before Calvary and the first Easter, Matthew 11.27:
"All things have been handed over to me by my Father."
And John reports him as saying, John 3.35
"The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand."
And we remind ourselves every Christmas, that as God’s Word he has authority over the material world from the beginning, for (John 1.3):
"All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made."
And because of Christ’s authority over the material world – this universe itself (of space and time and that includes us on planet earth) doesn’t explode into nothingness. As Paul writes to the Colossians (1.17):
"he is before all things and in him all things hold together."
And, then, fact three, before his incarnation we have to see God the Son behind Old Testament history. That was when people were learning fundamental lessons about God’s Holiness, his Righteousness and his Mercy, through God’s judgments in history. For God the Son is behind all the politics in the ancient and modern world. With regard to governing authorities, Romans 13.1 is clear:
"there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God"
So there is no king or queen, prime minister or president except those whom God, through God the Son, the risen and reigning Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, has put there and put there to rule righteously. Those words to our Queen in our Coronation Service are absolutely right:
"Receive this Orb set under the Cross and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our redeemer."
But how long is Christ to reign this independent reign received from his Father, that is for the good of all?
Answer, and fact four, he reigns until verse 24:
"Every [enemy] rule and every authority and power [has been destroyed]."
This is when everything and everyone, natural and supernatural, that opposes and hinders the fulfilment of God’s saving purposes for the world and that supreme purpose in verse 28, "that God may be all in all", are defeated. The metaphor of D-day is so helpful. For many enemies were destroyed or fatally wounded that first Good Friday and Easter, including death for Christ himself through his Resurrection. However, there are still battles to be fought with one last enemy, namely the defeat of death for us, and that will be at the general resurrection when Christ returns.
But practically, how do we get involved now, before then? Well, we obey Jesus' great commission, reminding ourselves that he has "all authority in heaven and earth" (Matthew 28). So we "go and make disciples and teach them to observe all that he has commanded" us.
But we remind ourselves, too, of heaven, and that point, verse 24 (and this is fact five) when …
"he [Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father, after destroying every rule and every authority and power."
And because, verse 28:
"all things are subjected to him [Christ], then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all."
That is the great purpose, "that God may be all in all."
What does that involve? So much that is wonderful and good. As Paul had written earlier in this letter to Corinth, it will involve things better than you’ve ever seen, or ever heard, or ever imagined. For 1 Corinthans 2.9, says, and with this I close:
"What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, [that is] what God has prepared for those who love him."