Key text: I Corinthians 15 v 35–58
Transformation of the body
In a sermon on growth, it seems strange that the key text appears to be about dying. Jesus’ words in John 12 24, 25 go to the heart of the matter. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain: but if it dies, it bears much fruit’. Death is the pathway to life; spiritual growth comes not through insisting on living, but on embracing dying: then is the way open for there to be much fruit. Similarly I Corinthians 15v35-58 seems wholly taken up with arguments about life after death and what that will look like: how does it speak to us whilst we are still living?
In order to understand that, I think we need to step back a little and consider the way of discipleship. Douglas Davies, in his study on The Theology of Death points out that Christianity is the most death focused of all religions. At our baptisms, we go down into the deep waters of death; at the Eucharist we are invited to remember and participate in the death of Christ. The most pressing call that Jesus makes on his disciples as he bids them come to follow him is to take up their cross – the only reason to do that is to be nailed to it and die. And of course, through Christ’s death and resurrection, comes our life.
Death in other words, within the Christian tradition, is not simply the event that takes place at the end of our lives: it is the gateway to fullness of life which takes place at our baptisms and as disciples we are invited constantly to take the path of death in order to know life and growth. In that light, those words of Jesus in John 12 take on a different hue: they speak not just of his own forthcoming death, but point us to the way of discipleship.
The gospels are full of imagery of seeds being buried and growing. There are passages like Mark 4v32-34 where Jesus talks about a mustard seed as a tiny seed which is sown in the ground and becomes a great tree. Although we interpret Jesus’ words in John 12 in an individual sense – they are about the individual death as the way of discipleship – Mark 4 has been used in a more corporate sense. Thus, the mustard seed is like the church which can grow and make a difference. However, Mark 4 also challenges our individual discipleship: if we want to show growth in our lives, will we be prepared to be like a seed that falls into the ground and dies before growth can come?
It is in this context that we can understand Paul’s words in I Corinthians 15. It is a passionate discussion about what sort of life we have beyond the grave, but it makes no sense unless we can see that it is part of a continuum that includes our Christian discipleship before the grave. That is why Paul writes in the present tense in his second letter to the Corinthians that ‘all of us are being transformed… from one degree of glory to another’.
In I Corinthians, Paul is at his most argumentative with those to whom he is writing. There are people in Corinth who say that truly spiritual people – the pneumatikos person has put aside the body and such things are not important. They have scoffed at Paul’s teaching that the body will be raised at the last day and caricatured it by painting pictures of resuscitated corpses. Bodies are only good for decay, they say: what matters is the disembodied soul which will live for ever.
Paul argues strongly in this passage that the bodies we get at the Resurrection are not disembodied souls, but neither are they revived corpses. He too uses the analogy of a seed that is planted in the ground in verse 37, but then the seed is clothed with a new body by God at the resurrection. The point that he makes is that what grows from the ground looks as different from the original seed as our resurrection bodies look to our earthly bodies but they are completely connected to one another. In verses 43 and 44, he highlights the differences between them but stresses the link too: ‘it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power’.
I think these words have particular power for us as we get older. Young people’s bodies are still considered beautiful and glorious and the ideal to try and keep. It is noticeable that a recent BBC series about old people was entitled ‘How to stay young’ rather than ‘How to be old well’. Old age is seen as a problem; youth a gift. Most of this is because of our attitudes to old age are negative because our physical bodies are in a time of decline.
So when Paul talks about our earthly bodies being perishable and weak, those of us who are older or living with a chronic health condition or disability know exactly what he means because we are living it out! However, we need not fear the decline of our bodies because transformation of our whole selves is also taking place. Just as there are inevitable physical losses to old age – and they will be different for different people – so we all have the potential for gain in other parts of our life. We have the potential for greater wisdom, we will have greater experience, many older people are far more accepting of social change than those many years younger. There is growth that comes with age as well as decline. Madeleine le Sueur, the American author who lived to be 96 said towards the end of her life ‘I have become luminous with age’.
This is why Paul ends with v 58 which seem slightly out of place in the rest of his argument: ‘Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain’. We excel in the Lord’s work when we follow the path of discipleship, which leads to growth and transformation.
In Christian theology, the daily death that we are called upon to accept in order to know daily transformation will ultimately result in physical death in order to know ultimate transformation. That is why the cross can be seen as the tree of life for us all.
 See Douglas Davies The Theology of Death London: T & T Clark, 2008 especially Chapter 3
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