“It ain’t what you don’t know that makes you a fool. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Josh Billings
While I do not want to assume too much, I am willing to guess that if you are reading this in preparation for a sermon, you either grew up speaking or have an acquired fluency in Christianese. While this term could simply be descriptive, I am not sure I have ever heard anyone use the term ‘Christianese’ in a charitable way. It is typically used to name words and phrases drawn from the Bible and theology that are used by some Christians in a manner that is exclusionary of those not “in the loop.”
There is a rich seam of irony to be found in many believers’ use of Christianese because the meaning of so many of the words and phrases that Christians use in this way are unexamined and imprecise. Developments and evolution are to be expected in any living language. The meaning of some words change overtime. New words are brought in from other languages. This dynamism is part of what makes language so beautiful and fascinating, but we run into problems when we allow the same kind of dynamism to characterize Christian doctrine and theology. While faithful interpretation and contextualization are vital components of faithful theological work, careful attention must be paid that a core continuity exists between what was communicated by the Biblical authors and their interpreters, and the language of faith today.
If we were to compile a modern concordance of Christianese, I would wager that a large portion of the terms listed could be found in Paul’s letters, and several the heaviest hitters of the words and phrases on that list can be found in the New Testament reading for this Sunday. Pastorally, it will prove beneficial to take stock of the things our people know “for sure that just ain’t so.”
Is there any topic that has led to more confusion and misunderstanding than the resurrection of the dead? This passage certainly shows that such confusion and misunderstanding isn’t a new development. What questions and imaginings of the resurrection do our congregants engage in that might lead Paul to scold them as vigorously as he did the Christians in Corinth? Would Paul balk at our pining for streets paved with gold or mansions in the clouds? Would Paul condemn our ideas of studding our heavenly crowns with the jewels of good works (or the avoidance of evil works)? Perhaps doubt of the resurrection that Christians harbor today isn’t manifested in an unwillingness to accept some idea of a resurrection, but in the way an un- or misbelief in the resurrection plays itself out in our daily lives.
The contrast between the ‘physical’ or ‘natural’ and the ‘spiritual’ stands out in this passage as a primary concern for Paul in understanding the meaning of the resurrection of the dead. If your pastoral experience is anything like mine, I imagine you will utter an “Amen” under your breath when I say that the gnosticism(s) that Paul struggled against in congregations like that at Corinth is still present and active today. This pair of assumed opposites may very well sit at the top of the list for Christianese terms that are deeply misunderstood and misused still today.
Taking stock of the confusion and misunderstanding in our congregations will be helpful in preparation for the sermon, but while delivering the straw man type sermon this work will lend itself would certainly be cathartic, this might not be the most effective sermon for a congregation. A more positive approach, one that points the congregation a picture of a holistic, incarnational paradigm might be a better option. Such a sermon might involve drawing out the truth Paul communicates through his analogy of a seed that has been sown.
Paul is almost certainly echoing Jesus’ own teaching found in John 12: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the round and dies…” It is important to consider that the first century understanding of what happens to a seed after it is planted was much different that our modern scientific understanding. The notion of life springing spontaneously from dead and decaying matter was common in the ancient world and was not challenged until the modern period. In the ancient conception, unless the seed dies completely, the creation of something new is impossible. How do our imaginings of eternal life prevent us from embracing completely the death into which we are baptized? To what extent are our assumed ‘spiritual’ hopes obstacles to embracing the incarnational reality of our faith?
Paul’s use of the imagery of a seed implies a continuity in the resurrection. When a person plants an acorn, they can assume an oak tree will grow. When a person plants a maple seed, they can assume that a maple tree will grow. The resurrected Jesus, our primary source for reflecting on the resurrection, was recognizable by those who knew him prior to his death, but he was materially different in a way that made him unrecognizable at times. While we can assume such continuity for our own experience of the resurrection, getting caught up in the exact nature of that continuity can serve as an obstacle to participating in Christ’s death, the prerequisite for being caught up in the resurrection of the dead.
Our imaginings of the resurrection and eternal life usually focus on the remaking of our own individual bodies and wholly ignore the transformation of the social and political bodies in which we exist, the church included. It will not just be persons’ physical bodies that are transformed; the relationships between persons will be transformed, as well. The death that Paul speaks of as a requirement for the resurrection is not primarily the physical death and destruction of the body. Paul actually says that we must bear the images of both the first and the second Adam. Instead, the death believers must embrace is the putting aside of all our expectations and conceptions of “normal” that prevent us from loving others, welcoming them into the body of Christ, the church. This is no easy task. It requires not just an instantaneous conversion, but a repentant heart, the continual conversion of a heart that has put to death its assumptions and expectations and maintains a posture that is open to the work of the Spirit of God.
The issue at the heart of all the strife and discord that marks the life of the Corinthian church is self-interest, an unwillingness to set aside their expectations and assumptions of how things work in favor of a Kingdom Way of being together in the world. These people have imported the pursuit of wealth and status that marked the Roman world (the ‘natural’ or ‘physical’ body) into the community of faith. The life of their congregation is contaminated with their strivings to get ahead within the body of Christ. History has proven that whenever someone lifts their head above everyone else, they are only able to do so by stepping on others. The gifts of the Spirit were sought by the Corinthians as means to secure status and position within the body of Christ. What Paul describes confusingly as the “spiritual body” is not a body that is comprised of spirit. It is, rather, a body that is animated by the Spirit. The mark of a Spirit-filled individual or community is the practice of the self-giving love of God as revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ. This is what marks the people of God as not just new creations, but a new creation community. Not impressive spiritual gifts, not professional-level worship music or lighting and stage effects, not how much we thank we know about the Bible or theology. The practice of the self-giving love of God as revealed in Jesus is the mark of a participant in the resurrection of the dead.