Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany February 15, 2004.
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
The wisdom selection from Jeremiah offers us a classic example of binary opposition. There is either A or B, blessing or curse. Trust in mere mortals and in the strength of flesh is contrasted with trust in the Lord. More specifically, a spirit of domineering control is coupled with forsaking God. On the other hand, a spirit that places one's life and identity under the power of the source of life and goodness is coupled with trusting God. To be "cursed" is to be nothing, to go nowhere, to have no meaning, regardless of how much domineering power one possess at any given moment. To trust the Lord is to be "blessed," to have life in all circumstances. Thus, a tree in the desert is vividly contrasted with a tree by a spring. The image of the living tree with deep roots and green leaves and bearing fruit becomes even more vivid in this Epiphany season as we consider Jesus' identity. Jesus so trusted God that from the tree of the cross Jesus revealed in the face of domineering power that love, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation are the purpose and goal of a blessed life.
In this week's reading from 1 Corinthians, which directly follows Paul's recital of the creed that all Christians affirm and hold in common, Paul shows the Corinthians that the belief that "there is no resurrection of the dead" (v. 12) can only be maintained at the cost of the heart of the gospel. The Corinthians assert that they fully experience Christ's resurrection without having experienced death; Paul contends that death is prerequisite for fully experiencing the resurrection of Christ. Paul outlines the implications of denying the resurrection of the dead: denial of Christ's resurrection (v. 13), proclamation and faith that are both "in vain" (v. 14), misinterpretation of the God as revealed in Scripture (v. 15), denial of the source of redemption (v. 16), and condemnation of those who have already died as not sharing in the resurrection (v. 18). Paul affirms the future dimension of Christian existence, though for Paul hope for this life is as important as hope for the life to come. Paul also affirms that we hope not only for a future but also for the new possibilities of God's future that become evident in any given moment through transformation and new life.
Whereas Matthew's beatitudes emphasize spiritual disposition, Luke's beatitudes are concerned with material inequities. Luke counters the blessings with a series of "woes." "Woe" is an expression of pain or displeasure. Thus, wealth brings the rich nothing but woe because wealth and possessions stand in the way of a person's full access to the reign of God. Lacking wealth and possessions, the poor experience the reign of God. Whether one hungers now of is full now reflects one's relationship to God. Jesus declares that this status will be reversed. Those who weep now will laugh, and those who laugh now will mourn and weep. Jesus says that how one lives now will impact one's future. Jesus makes this point clear when he contrasts those who risk being hated, rejected, excluded, and defamed for Jesus' sake with those who risk nothing for the sake of the gospel.
I'm beginning to understand why the people of Nazareth tried to toss Jesus off the cliff of their city and why the religious leaders of the day did Jesus in. "Woe!" Jesus says to all who are rich, full, laughing, and of good reputation. "Woe!" Jesus says to us. Our Gospel lesson is the beatitudes. We read Matthew's account of the beatitudes on All Saints' Day, and it comforts us and makes us feel good. But Luke's version of Jesus' beatitudes makes us squirm. For we can all identify with Matthew. All of us, at some time, have been poor in spirit or have been hungry and thirsty for righteousness. But the loopholes aren't there in Luke. Here the beatitudes are unnerving.
Blessed are the poor, Luke says. Period. Blessed are the hungry. Period. The poor that Jesus refers to are so poor that they have to beg. In Jesus' day, "poor" was the way of describing pious, though humiliated, people. And that isn't us. Even in a relative sense, few of us who bear these words today can claim with a straight face to be poor or hungry in the primary meaning of those words. This is especially true when we compare our situation with that of the tens and hundreds of millions of Christians around the world who are hearing these words today and whose physical plight we can only dimly understand. And if people don't always speak well of us, most of us have not been reviled or defamed recently (and probably not ever). What's more, not only are almost all of us far from poor and hungry, but virtually all of us are, at least relatively, rich and full.
Woe to us! says Jesus. Luke makes it plain that when it comes to being righteous, when it comes to making ourselves right with God, there is absolutely nothing for us to hang on to. Or, more accurately, there is only one thing left for us to hang on to when it comes to being right with God, and that is the unconditional love of God revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Of course, this is true for everyone. But the really poor and hungry, those who have nothing else to hold on to, are "blessed" because they have a clearer vision of this gospel truth. They know that the only thing that they have to hold on to is Jesus. For to be "blessed," as Jeremiah reminds us, is to trust in the Lord.
Jesus condemns a demonic attachment to wealth, to pleasure, to comfort, and to reputation because these things obscure our vision of the cross. These things make it harder for us to see and to understand and to accept the truth that the only thing we have to hang on to is the love of God revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, salvation is not to be found in becoming poor. Rather than in simply giving it all up, salvation is found in trusting God's promise that all human need will be met by God. And here is the good news. For Jesus, real, authentic life, the kind of life that the deepest part of our personality hungers for, is life that is nurtured in God. As Paul reminds us, our Lord is the one who has "in fact" been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are woeful unto death. If we put our trust in ourselves, if we put our trust in what we have, Jesus is right. Woe is us!
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2003|
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