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Reflecting on 2020 at the empty tomb

Lots of people are making New Year’s resolutions but I’m thinking about Easter. Not Easter in the future, but last Easter in 2020. For me it marked the real start of the pandemic. My housemate and I were ill with covid, which I’d caught in hospital. I was lying on the sofa doing church not singing because I was too breathless and she was lying on the floor because it was the only thing that eased her chest pain. And yet we were full of hope because it was Easter Sunday and we knew Christ had risen. It was easy to remember that day, even to hold together with our experience of being ill.

But what about as the rest of 2020 unfolded? It was a really tough year in many ways and most of the hard parts haven’t really gone away. As we reflect on 2020 and think about the year to come, there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense. The victory and joy of Easter Sunday doesn’t seem to carry through. I want to take you on a journey through 1 Corinthians 15 to show you that the empty tomb really does change every day, no matter whether it’s actually Easter Sunday, New Year’s Day or just a Wednesday. 

Paul starts 1 Corinthians 15 with a call to the Corinthian Christians to hold onto the gospel and he reminds them in verses 3-4 what they’re meant to be believing: “Christ died for our sins…he was buried…he was raised according to the Scriptures.” Paul says that the key to standing firm in their faith is to hold onto these truths.

We’re probably more used to pointing one another back to the cross. What about the resurrection?

We’re probably more used to pointing one another back to the cross. What about the resurrection? How often do we point our brothers and sisters to the empty tomb? It seems that misunderstanding the importance of the resurrection had got the Corinthians in quite a mess. They’ve basically embraced the culture around them which seems pretty similar to ours: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (in other words enjoy life because that’s all there is – sound familiar?) They’ve been listening to false teaching which says that the dead are not raised. Paul immediately plays out the consequences of this…if there’s no resurrection, Jesus is still dead, their faith is useless because they’re still in their sins, everyone who has already died trusting in Christ is lost, there’s no eternal life. Plus they’re calling him and God a liar! (Verses 12-19). The situation would be pretty dire.

But don’t worry (verse 20) “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead.” This is GOOD news, probably even more so than we’ve understood. If we reverse our scenario from above that means Jesus is alive, their faith can be fruitful, they’re no longer in their sins, everyone who has already died trusting in Christ is safe, there is eternal life and Paul’s testimony and God’s promises are true. How does Paul logically argue this out? Well in verses 20-24 he talks a lot about firstfruits. It’s quite an unfamiliar term to us but it’s an old testament word. The Israelites gave the firstfruits of their crops as an offering. It represented what the whole harvest was like. Therefore, when Paul describes the resurrected Christ as the firstfruits he means that we can know where our future is headed – one day we will be raised like Christ. But notice the certainty of it. The firstfruits have come and so the rest of the harvest will follow. Christ has been raised, the Corinthians will be raised, we’ll be raised.

Skip on with me to verse 35. The Corinthians are as curious as we are. How will it happen? Paul pre-empts their questions. First, he starts talking about seeds, animals, fish, birds, the sun, the moon and humans. Sound familiar? (Read Genesis 1 – the account of creation). Then he gives a pretty realistic description of a body…perishable, dishonourable, weak and natural. If we think again back to Genesis, God creates a good world. Then suddenly two chapters later in Genesis 3 Adam has stood by as Eve is deceived and disbelieves God’s word, they’ve disobeyed God together, they’re ashamed because they realise they’re naked and they’re banished from the garden. Two chapters later Adam dies. Perishable, dishonourable and weak is a pretty good description of Adam and we’re descended from that same bloodline. We reflect the same image that is broken. We’re a bit stuck (verse 50). Unless…

We get a new Adam (v45), a new image (v49) and a new creation. That’s what Paul explains here in the next section of verses 42-49. The Bible refers to long time periods in redemption history (the whole story from Genesis to Revelation) as “ages”. Adam represents the old age. In verse 45 we see Christ is the new Adam (and the last one – this is the ultimate plan so don’t miss it). One day there will be a new age, creation will be renewed and restored. In Christ’s resurrection body (which is imperishable, powerful and glorious) the new creation that the world is headed to has started! Unlike the first creation where everything happened in one time period, the new creation is more stretched out. You don’t have to look far to know that the restoration is not complete. We live in the overlap of the old and new ages just like the Corinthians did and sometimes it’s not that easy to navigate. This is the “now and not yet” of the Christian life. We’ve been justified and brought to new life if we’re trusting in Christ. We’ve got new hearts and we’re being transformed but we don’t have a resurrection body yet. But we see in v49 and 52, one day we will.

We live in the overlap of the old and new ages just like the Corinthians did and sometimes it’s not that easy to navigate.

Now maybe this all seems a bit complicated. Will it really change anything if I try and grasp some of this? Well Paul (who was Pastor first and theologian second by the way) spent 58 verses in his letter trying to persuade the Corinthians it did change everything and so we should listen too.

It helps us face everyday life

Maybe today feels like yet another day in lockdown; another day by yourself, another day of trying to engage kids in homeschool, another day where zoom is tiring and you just don’t feel qualified to make those kinds of decisions. But remember in the big calendar of redemption history, today is one day in the last days, when the ages overlap. The Father has started his renewing of Creation when he raised Christ. Paul says that the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ shapes our priorities for today. We know where history is heading. So how does that change a day in lockdown?

Firstly, it means holiness matters today (v 32-34). It honours God and points to what he is like, even when we’re tired, stressed, stretched and struggling in lockdown. In fact, especially when we’re tired, stressed, stretched and struggling in lockdown. That moment when you pause and decide with the strength of the Holy Spirit to be kind or patient or self-controlled, glorifies God. Plus we know that one day we’ll have a new body and we’ll be like Christ. Might as well start practicing now!

Secondly, it means suffering and sacrificing for the gospel is right and never in vain (verse 31-32, 58). If we only had hope for this life then it wouldn’t be worth making it hard for ourselves. But we’ve got a guarantee we know where the world is headed. Our labour in the Lord is never in vain because the world will be renewed with Christ as King. When you’ve been on zoom all day at work and you don’t really fancy another hour at zoom small group, but you go anyway to encourage others who are struggling, it’s not in vain. When your children are always there needing something and you don’t have a single second to yourself and you take a deep breath, say a prayer for patience and carry on it’s not in vain. When you’re talking through your masks at work about how things are overstretched and really hard, and you pause and cross the painline and try and talk about your hope in Christ, and most people think you’re naïve, it’s still not in vain.

It helps us face everyday death

Maybe today looks like a normal weekday in lockdown on the outside, but on the inside your world has fallen apart; someone you love has died. Maybe it came totally out of the blue, maybe it was an expected, dreaded day. The empty tomb feels very far away because you know that at the funeral the coffin will not be empty. Maybe you’ve heard other Christians quote the words “Where O death is your sting?” but that doesn’t seem to ring true. It feels way worse than a sting. Every day is painful and heavy and Jesus’s resurrection doesn’t seem to make much difference right now. You feel anything but victorious.

Or maybe it isn’t someone you knew really well, but you’re overwhelmed by the number of dying hands you’ve held, the families you’ve had to phone with bad news, or just the sheer numbers reported in the newspapers. Death has become an everyday reality and you don’t know what to say to those around you. When you can’t sleep at night, the resurrection seems far away and it doesn’t seem to make sense.

Paul helps us again with “now and not yet.” He explains that the sting of death is sin in v56. Because of the death and resurrection of Christ the curse of sin has been removed. So in the present when Christians die they are not separated from God but go to dwell in his presence. That’s true now. BUT notice in verse 26 and 54 death is still not completely defeated. There is a big future tense to remind us of the “not yet”. Only on that last day, “when the perishable is clothed with the imperishable” (v52), will death be totally swallowed up in victory. Jesus’s resurrection is a guarantee, but the work is not completed yet. Especially in grief, truth and theology matters because it helps us to stand firm. Do not believe this is how life will always be. We grieve as those who are waiting with certainty for a new creation. Praise God that he has removed the curse of sin for the Christian and pray for that day when He will swallow up death forever.

Especially in grief, truth and theology matters because it helps us to stand firm. Do not believe this is how life will always be.

It helps us face 2021

Maybe you’re eager to put 2020 behind you and you’re still hopeful 2021 will bring better days. We should pray for the success of the vaccine, and of being able to meet in homes and hug one another and sing together again one day. But let’s let the empty tomb set our expectations. We have a God who has made big promises and he’s given us a guarantee in the resurrection of Christ. But unless the Lord Jesus comes back we’ll still be living in the “now and not yet.” We’ll still be fighting sin and striving for holiness. We’ll still have to suffer for Christ. We’ll still get frustrated with our perishable and weak bodies. Death will still have a sting.  We’ll still have to grieve with hope. Even the best days are to point us forward to the new creation, when beautiful and joyful days will never end. Don’t get distracted by the things of this world, don’t be discouraged on hard days. Fix your eyes on the empty tomb, the risen Lord Jesus, the future new creation and stand firm. Your labour in the Lord will not be in vain.

 

Photos by Ibrahim Boran, Pisit Heng, Soo Ann Woon, Engin Akyurt and Jeshoots on Unsplash.