1 Corinthians 15 – The Coming Resurrection

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

The Bard Card

Happy Easter, everyone. I’ve stumbled across yet another beautiful passage in the Bible that makes me think of Shakespeare.  1 Corinthians is another letter from the apostle Paul (whom we discussed at length earlier this year, starting with this post.) This chapter is the climax of the letter, and Paul is at his best: he manages an epic humble-brag that even Polonius would envy at the beginning. He then lays out an almost courtroom argument to refute anyone who doubts the resurrection. Finally he goes on to describe in lyrical detail the wondrous miracle of our coming resurrection.  His euphemism for death of people being asleep in Christ is gentle and beautiful, and sounds Shakespearian in and of itself.  I also love the imagery of the seed being planted as and analogy for the transformation that will take place at the resurrection. But the part that really got me thinking about The Bard was vv. 51-52, which reads (per the Geneva Bible, the translation Shakespeare probably used): “Behold, I show you a secret thing,  we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall blow, and the dead shall be raised up incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”  Perhaps “our bones of coral made” and “pearls that were our eyes” won’t be part of our new, resurrected bodies, as is the supposed fate of Ferdinand’s father in The Tempest, but the following lines “Nothing of him doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change” sounds like it could be inspired by this very chapter.

What will resurrection look like?

Easter is the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  As Paul says in v. 20, Jesus is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” and the rest of “those that belong to him” will follow after Jesus destroys “the last enemy,” aka Death.  This is what Christianity is all about: our hope and faith in Jesus Christ (and the power of his own faith) that allows us to beat death and enter into a glorious future as the children of God.  This chapter, particularly the passages about resurrection, are so beautiful that I want to take today to really meditate on them.

So, will the resurrection look exactly like Paul describes it?  There’s no way to answer that question.  But, looking at the Bible passages that describe resurrection, it seems that our resurrected selves will indeed be physical (not just spiritual), that we will retain those things that make us individuals, we’ll have metaphysical powers (like being able to walk through walls), and that we’ll glow.  More than anything else there is talk about the “luminosity” of the resurrected in the books of Matthew, Luke, Corinthians, Revelations, even way back in Exodus and Daniel.  I love how Paul describes it, likening our differing and individual degrees of luminous resurrection glowing to the heavenly bodies: “The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.”  I personally like the idea of glowing like a star.

Physical and Spiritual Resurrection

I do want to point out the one part of this chapter I take a slight issue with, and to do so we need to start with a little context.  In its formative days, newborn Christianity was developing alongside Greco-roman philosophies that often emphasized a division between body and spirit, or emphasized the spirit as being “truer” than flesh.  Some of that made it’s way into the teachings of this new Christianity, and has been coloring the religion ever since.  If you look critically at the Old Testament you can see how this division is just not there.  The Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) may be an elaborate metaphor for God and his Church, but it is a salaciously sexy metaphor.  I’ve talked at length about Hosea giving Gomer an orgasm in the desert.  The body (and saving the body from physical ailment) is a major theme in the Psalms.  Paul was “afflicted” in some way we don’t know.  Some suggest lingering vision issues, others lameness, but in some way he was weak, physically, in a broader society that (while emphasizing the separation of body and soul) was also one obsessed with golden ratios and perfect physical specimens.  Perhaps in part because of this perceived shortcoming, as well as being well-versed in predominant philosophy, Paul was a major proponent of this division between body and soul.

Now I’m not disagreeing with Paul that our new, resurrected bodies will be different, and perhaps even that there will be a larger spiritual aspect to them. But I do flat out disagree with Paul when he says in v. 50 “I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”  It goes directly against his point that our physical bodies will be resurrected.  Again, yes, they will be different – we’ll go through a metamorphosis like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, but that flesh will still be physical flesh of this world.  I firmly believe so, because Jesus came back in the flesh to appear to his followers, not just as some holy apparition.  He showed his fleshly wounds to Thomas to prove that he was indeed Jesus. Don’t you think that evidence of harm inflicted on the body would be the first thing to disappear if these bodies of flesh were also to disappear? I do. But they were there for Thomas to see and even feel.

Kintsugi is a Japanese method of repairing fine pottery with gold, and I’ve seen it used as an analogy for the healing of major trauma: The scars are still there, visible, but made beautiful.  I think it may also be an excellent analogy for the physical nature of these resurrected bodies to come.  We will be the same, but different, put together by God in a new way that makes us whole but acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of our past life.  This analogy probably wasn’t available to Paul, but as someone who suffered from some sort of physical impairment himself, perhaps it would have made him receptive to the idea of a more earthy resurrection.

In Closing

All of this is conjecture.  Perhaps I’m totally wrong, and perhaps Paul is too.  We do not know what the resurrection will look like, though it is fun to hypothesize.  Today we celebrate Jesus’ defeat of death and resurrection to life so that we may live as well, in whatever glorious form that will take.  I’ll close once again with Paul’s words: “thanks be to God! He gave us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” Amen, Paul, and Happy Easter.  Christ is risen. Hallelujah.

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Job 21 – God Loves You Even When You’re Angry

“Is my complaint directed to a human being?
    Why should I not be impatient?
Look at me and be appalled;
    clap your hand over your mouth.
When I think about this, I am terrified;
    trembling seizes my body.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

I saw a post in the Progressive Christians group I’m a part of on Facebook a few days ago that just broke my heart.  The writer said they had left Christianity in their youth, and spent a lot of time very angry at God, openly mocking the religion, Jesus, and God Xyrself.  The writer was worried that, even though they had returned to Christianity, they may have said things that were irredeemable, and that God would not welcome them back into the fold.

This is the damage that overbearing, fire-and-brimstone, purity-culture churches do to people.  These churches manage to obscure and pervert the most consistent messages of the Bible: God’s unending forgiveness, God’s bottomless love.  God so wanted us to be with Xyr that Xe sent Xyr only son to earth to make that happen.  (Perhaps the two most important blog posts I’ve ever written, you can read why this happened, and why I now believe in universal reconciliation, here and here.)  This love does not come with a bunch of conditions, or is offered to only a few, it is freely offered to anyone, even those who have committed the most heinous of sins.  So yes, God will still love the writer mentioned above even after their words of anger, because God loves us when we’re angry.

I mention this story because Job is clearly angry in today’s reading.  And not just vaguely angry – angry at God.  Everybody makes such a big deal about Job never cursing God through all his trials, but he comes pretty damn close in this passage when he says: “It is said, ‘God stores up a man’s punishment for his sons.’ Let him repay the man himself, so that he will know it!”  In other words, “What the fuck, God?”  Basically all of verses 17-21 are a rhetorical challenge to God on his dealings with wicked men (and their innocent children).  Job is clearly wrestling with the idea that God is a just judge when so many wicked men prosper at the same time an innocent man, such as himself, is so heavily burdened.

Job speaks truth when he says “Can anyone teach knowledge to God, since he judges even the highest?”  It is dissatisfying to say the least, but we don’t know the whole picture, as God does.  Perhaps sometime in the afterlife it will “all make sense,” but I must admit that’s pretty weak comfort right now.  I did, however, come across an analogy that may help it be a little easier to bear (I’m sorry I can’t remember where! Contact me and I’ll happily credit it!):  Imagine two men are sentenced to breaking rocks (a là prison yard work) for a year. It’s hard, hot, dusty, monotonous work.  Yet one man knows he’s getting a million dollars at the end of his year, the other man just thinks the drudgery will finally be over.  The work isn’t any different for the two men, but their attitudes are going to be markedly different.  Having faith in God doesn’t make the bad things go away, or mean we don’t have to do the hard things, but it helps us put them in perspective, and hopefully make them a little easier to bear.

That being said, we’re still going to get angry, it’s in our nature.  We may even get angry at God.  But if we view God as our parent, as we are taught to do over and over by Jesus and other passages in the Bible, then we know that God will continue to love us even when we are angry.  My youngest is almost three, and she gets angry at me all the time.  Sometimes I get angry back (especially if she’s trying to hit me or bite me), but most of the time I’m understanding because I know she’s just tired, or frustrated, or has more feels than her little toddler self can handle.  And in those times that I do get angry back at her, I don’t stop loving her, and I’m always ready to forgive her and give her a snuggle when she cools down.  Imagine all of that, but raised to the magnitude of God.

I hope you’re not angry with God, but  I certainly understand if you are.  And I apologize, on behalf of the broadest definition of Christianity, if the faith traditions you were raised in have anything to do with you being angry with God.  At the risk of annoying you further, please know that God loves you, as you are.  God wants you to heal and turn back to Xyr (however you may now comprehend the idea of “God”), but do it at your own pace.  If there’s a third truth we can learn from the Bible today, God is never one to rush things, even if we wish Xe did.  God will not rush you, but will always be there, waiting for you, because God loves you, exactly as you are right now.

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Romans 16 – Women in the Bible: Phoebe

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

The importance of the messenger

Paul greets a number of women in this chapter in addition to presenting Phoebe, the messenger delivering his letter.  In fact, Paul is reported (and reports himself) working closely with many women in the early church.  Phoebe caught my attention because, having read about how these letters were distributed and presented, I knew Paul must have held her in very high esteem for such an important task.

You see, these letters were not merely handed over by an impartial messenger.  The messengers, including Phoebe, read the letter to its recipients, and expounded upon it aloud, answering questions from the recipients and clarifying Paul’s words when needed.  The reading was often dramatic.  I think it was N.T. Wright who theorized Paul and his messengers standing in view of a crucified body for dramatic effect when talking about Jesus’ crucifixion.  If not that extreme, they certainly were impassioned public speakers who would have to know scripture inside and out – perhaps almost as well as Paul did – in order to fully deliver the message of the letter.  I’ve also seen it said that the spoken word was, in fact, the primary message.  The letter was a secondary or supporting document.  So whoever is doing the speaking has a very important role.

Phoebe’s background

So who was Phoebe?  The only concrete thing we know about her is that she comes from Cenchreae.  Cenchreae was a small but prosperous port town not far from the larger Corinth.  It had a deep, protected harbor that made it important for trade.  It was thought to have been inhabited since prehistoric times, and is still inhabited today.  If lifestyle magazines had existed in ancient Rome, Cenchreae might have been included in a list “Top ten small towns in the Empire” for it’s array of temples, historic attractions, strong economy, and proximity to Corinth.

We can assume that Phoebe was wealthy, and probably single (widowed or never married is harder to guess).  The Greek word, sometimes translated “servant” or “helper” can also be translated as “benefactor” or “protector,” which the NIV translation above uses. She was in a role similar to Lydia, the wealthy female dye merchant of Thyatira we meet in Acts, then.  Given her freedom to move about society, I think she was also Roman, or at least part of a very Roman-ized social class, as many contemporary cultures, particularly Greek and Jewish, were a little more restrictive for women.

The Roman Empire was not a bad place for a woman of means.  Rich Roman women could often keep their finances, particularly their inheritance, out of their husband’s hands.  A Roman woman who had borne a certain number of children could also legally request that her finances be her own affair (in payment for producing so many little Roman citizens).  Aside from politics, Roman women were visible and active participants in society: attending functions with their husbands, hosting mixed company in their own homes, donating to social, theological, and civic groups. As we’ve seen in the example of Lydia, they could even run their own business ventures.

A woman with a ready heart

The picture we develop of Phoebe is this: a wealthy, independent woman with a bright, creative mind (I doubt Paul would have entrusted her with this important letter otherwise) who is not afraid of adventure (traveling to Rome was no small undertaking).  Most importantly, she is a shining example of an open heart.  I don’t know what may have troubled Phoebe in her lifetime – because we all have troubles.  But overall, it sounds like she was doing just fine before finding Jesus.  She had enough money. She lived in a lovely little town.  She probably had friends and family – community – before joining the early church.  Honestly, she could have picked anything to attach herself or put effort (and money) into.  But Jesus’ message of love and reconciliation with the one true God was the one that caught her attention, the one she wanted to help bring to the world.

Perhaps she saw the plight of women with less means than her, and saw Jesus as a way to uplift them.  Or, perhaps it was the other way around, and Jesus opened her eyes to the plight of her sisters.  It’s just a suggestion, but speaking more broadly, I think concern for others led her to a love for Jesus, or, through the love she developed for Jesus a concern for others developed, also. Either way, caring and love went (and continue to go) hand in hand.  Phoebe, in short, is a woman who used what privilege she had – status and money to be sure, but also time and intellect – in service to  this fledgling movement of Jesus-followers.  Remember what I said last post, about how it’s the responsibility of the strong to bring justice and love to the weak?  Phoebe did that when she became a benefactress, helper, servant, or whatever other translation you want to use.

Listen, if being a churchy-church person isn’t for you, that’s fine. I think donating money to a worthwhile church and volunteering for church-based events that you believe in is great, but we can see Phoebe’s service to the young church as an example of service in the broader sense of the word.  I think God sees and approves of any work being done to fight inequality and hate, whether it is led by a church group or not.  The important thing is that Phoebe had an open heart, was willing to listen to this strange new message of Jesus dying and being resurrected, and hear God at work in it.  She let that message of love and reconciliation guide her to service and to action.  God bless Pheobe, and may she be an example to the rest of us.

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