Sunday, May 12, 2024

Sermon: “Chrysalis Victor”*, 1 Corinthians 15:12-26, 51-55 (May 12, 2024

*In case you aren't a super-nerd about theology, this is a play on words - "Christus Victor" is the name of the atonement theory (explanation of why/how the resurrection reconciled humanity to God) that says that the Resurrection was God's ultimate victory over death. And this sermon talks about cocoons.

I’m glad that we’re ending Eastertide with a passage from 1 Corinthians. This epistle contains some of the best-known passages of scripture, both cherished and controversial, but its greatest value lies in what it can teach us about life *after* Christ’s resurrection. We know that the events of Easter morning aren’t the END of the story, but the BEGINNING, and Paul is an excellent reminder of that fact. He didn’t know Jesus during his earthly ministry, so the resurrected Christ WAS the beginning of *Paul’s* story, and his life’s work became helping the larger ecclesial community write its next chapters.

Paul writes to the Church in Corinth in order to address several of the issues (both practical and theological) that had arisen within the community since he’d left them. The final matter he tackles in this letter is the question of resurrection – not of Christ’s body, which the community would have understood as a given, but of ALL human bodies. It seems that the Christians in Corinth had a similar perspective on resurrection to many of ours. Certainly, we believe that Christ was resurrected; that’s what makes Easter worth celebrating. But we struggle to accept that physical resurrection is something that can and will happen TO US at some point. Metaphorical resurrection, sure; spiritual, institutional, or relational resurrection, of course; most of us have already experienced those at one time or another. But resurrection of our own bodies? That’s a different matter.

It’s not that we actively disbelieve the concept of our bodily resurrection, necessarily; it’s just that it’s so far outside of our lived experience that we prefer not to let the concept get in the way of the day-to-day practicing of our faith. We kind of gloss over it when we get to the “I believe in the resurrection of the body” part of the Apostles’ Creed: “Sure, I believe in the resurrection of *Christ’s* body; other than that,…this other stuff seems more important.” It’s one of those mysterious parts of faith that’s just too weird for us to think too deeply about.

But Paul takes issue with this position. He says we can’t just “sorta” believe in the resurrection of physical bodies; we have to embrace it fully and without exception. I like to refer to his argument here as the “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” polemic, named after the beloved children’s book: if we don’t believe in the resurrection of bodies in general, then we can’t believe in the exception of *Christ’s* resurrection. If we don’t believe in Christ’s resurrection, then Paul’s preaching is a false witness against God. If his preaching is a false witness against God, then ALL of our faith (which we learned secondhand from the apostles) is worthless. If all of our faith is worthless, then we are still enslaved to sin, and those who have already died are gone forever. If we are still enslaved to sin and those who have already died are gone forever, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else. Forget the mouse; *I* could use a cookie after all that.

For Paul, it’s impossible to affirm the resurrection of Jesus’s body while equivocating about our own. I mean, theologically, he has a point. If we say that Christ is our savior because he has been victorious over death, but maintain that this victory excludes the physical aspect of humanity, then it’s really only a partial victory, isn’t it? We haven’t been fully saved if a fundamental part of what makes us human will one day be gone forever. Regardless how we might feel about our bodies, that would be a significant defeat in the face of death. In that case, it’d be more accurate to say, “Victory has nibbled on death a little bit.” It’s only if we’re also confident in our OWN complete resurrection that we can truly say, “Death has been swallowed up by victory… Where, O Death, is your sting?”

So really, Paul is offering us good news. We truly do not have to fear any part of death because, although our lived experience is that all bodies die and decay, it’s not the end of the story. When God’s kindom comes in full, all of us will become whole in every possible sense. All bodies – including those which have gone before us in death – will be transformed into something imperishable and very much alive.

The problem is that this idea is SO far outside of our lived experience that, while our spiritual imagination might receive this assurance with joy, our logical minds struggle to integrate it into our system of belief. In other words, one part of ourselves has no problem accepting it, but another part, the so-called “rational” part, can’t quite get on board. I want to assure you that this doesn’t make you a bad Christian; it’s a natural consequence of humanity’s struggle to comprehend the unlimited divine with our very limited resources. The existence of this disconnect isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it does make receiving this particular teaching of Paul a unique challenge. How do we, as people of faith, reconcile this strange concept with our lived experience?

Would it help if I told you that it’s actually *already* within our lived experience? We’ve all seen a butterfly before, right? And we all remember learning about the life cycle of a butterfly way back in our early school days. After a period of preparation, the caterpillar encases itself into a cocoon, and all visible signs of life stop. But eventually, what was once a caterpillar emerges from the chrysalis, the same creature as before but with an entirely new, unrecognizable body. Bodily resurrection is a normal part of every butterfly’s life cycle.

Does anything I just said sound outlandish or difficult to believe? Why not? We don’t question that a caterpillar begins life with one body which later transforms into a completely different one. And yet, this is an almost identical claim to the one that Paul is making. Imagine how silly it would sound to us if someone who’d never seen a butterfly before insisted that this sort of process is impossible. And then, imagine that once they’d seen the transformation for themselves, they claimed that it was a miraculous exception rather than the rule and that it couldn’t ever happen again. And yet, Christians from the time of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians until today have been insisting that Jesus’ resurrection is strictly a one-time deal.

The scientific explanation for this bizarre and miraculous – but entirely natural – process only makes it sound more like the sort of bodily resurrection that Paul is describing. Paul is explicit that even long-dead bodies will be included in this resurrection, their rotting flesh being clothed in what cannot decay (Gross; I know). Listen to how Scientific American Magazine describes the first stages of metamorphosis “…the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out.”[1] Also gross, right? For all intents and purposes, the caterpillar physically disintegrates and ceases to be during this phase. You could make a philosophical argument that it has, in fact, died.

Yet at the same time, there are small but powerful pieces of this creature – called imaginal discs – that survive, and it’s these pieces that allow the butterfly to grow from the soup. This is definitely a resurrection, not a reincarnation or a new creature altogether – the butterfly retains important parts of who it was before, including its DNA and certain memories.[2] In short, as biologist Martha Weiss explains, “[The] ingredients that [make] up the caterpillar [are] completely reorganized into a butterfly, throwing away the leftovers…from the soup [that it doesn’t need], and [it’s] off.”[3] I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds an awful lot like something Paul might have said if he were a scientist instead of a tent-maker, writing to the Corinthians in the 21st century instead of the first.

Now, I’m not saying that humans have imaginal discs lying dormant within us. I’m not saying that bodily resurrection will work the same way for humans. I’m not saying that everything in scripture has (or even should have) a scientific explanation. All I know is that, if the main reason we object to the idea of bodily resurrection is that we just don’t have any evidence of it being possible, we either need to start looking for a new reason or admit that Paul might have a point.

I think that our real objection stems from the fact that we struggle to think about death as anything other than a permanent end. But God has PROVEN that it isn’t. It isn’t true cosmically, or spiritually, or even physically. Christ is victorious: even if we don’t understand the mechanics of how or why, we believe this to be true, and we believe this victory to be complete. So even though we don’t know what a “resurrection body” might look, or feel, or act like, we trust that God will reorganize the ingredients that make us who we are, throwing away the parts that we don’t need – the sin, the decay, the prejudices, and whatever else God in their wisdom deems nonessential – and we’ll be off into the next life, not AFTER death, but BEYOND it.

At the end of the day, I don’t think either Paul or I are trying to say that we “get it” better than anyone else. Bodily resurrection fits into my own lived experience as well (or poorly) as it does yours. What we’re trying to say is that we just need to have faith in Christ the Victor. Not in a “don’t ask questions” kind of way; more in an “I would explain it if I could, but I don’t have the answers, so we’ll just have to trust based on what we DO know.” And what we DO know, thanks to the Good News handed down to us, is that Christ has died but is now alive. Christ has already been given a new body. And Christ has defeated death on our behalf. Fully, entirely, for our WHOLE selves. However strange the implications of all this might seem to us, they’re worth believing in.

It's possible that we’ll never understand how it all works, even if there does come a day when we hear a trumpet blast and see the dead raised with bodies that won’t decay. Understanding often comes with a high cost – that’s one of the lessons we learn from Adam and Eve. Disturbing a butterfly’s chrysalis to see what’s happening upsets the metamorphosis. But isn’t it enough to know that even when we sense an end coming, even when our own bodies betray us, even when death has separated us from our loved ones, even when we’ve turned to dust (or goo, if you’re a caterpillar), that God still has more to say about it? Stranger things happen every day. We don’t have to be afraid of death just because it’s within our lived experience. Death isn’t in charge – God is. And God says the best of us is yet to come. Amen.


Bonus: My benediction, reminding us that it's okay to value both science and faith, allowing them to exist in tension.

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