God’s Final Work In Us
1 Corinthians 15:51-58
For a lot of us we believe that when we die we will go somewhere holy and perfect. When we hear the word “Resurrection” we picture ourselves being transported to a perfect place. But we often stop there, and believe that resurrection is simply us moving from one location to another. It’s a much better location, for sure, but we imagine ourselves in that place being exactly just like we are now. The place changes, but we don’t.
Scripture gives us a different picture than that. In Paul’s great closing to his first letter to the Corinthians, he wants to tell the people of Corinth all about Resurrection. It’s what Paul is building everything else in this letter up towards. For him, Resurrection is the greatest news, the most important message, the very reason he has been sent to these people. And so his message on it is 58 verses long. And right as it culminates, he tells us the biggest secret, the greatest mystery of all about it: “We will all be changed.”
For Paul, and for us, the Resurrection is more than going to a new place. It is each one of us being made complete and whole. It is taking off that which damages and demeans ourselves and others, and then re-clothing ourselves with beauty and joy and love stronger than we ever believed we could wear. Resurrection is us sharing in the holiness of God.
Two years ago I was standing upon the Basilica of St. John in Ephesus, Turkey. Legend in the area holds that this church was built upon the remains of John of Patmos, who wrote the Book of Revelation as a letter to Ephesus and its neighboring churches. All of that is left of it now, is a foundation, pillars, and some pieces of mosaic upon the floors. But our tour guide walked us through what this church would have looked like 1500 years ago when it was built by the Emperor Justinian. It was in the shape of a cross. The floors were covered in beautiful mosaics, the walls lined with frescoes, and the pillars built surrounded in marble.
But the part of the church that we spent the most time at wasn’t even inside the sanctuary. It was the baptistery located just to the side of the church. In those days, the first time you entered the church building was on the day of your baptism, usually on Easter morning. And before the baptisms there would be classes and then a vigil and then a procession to this spot. As you walked up to this large octagonal shaped pool where you were baptized, you came wearing your own clothes. Whether you were rich or poor, whether your clothes were old or new, clean or dirty, valuable or not. You came to the baptism dressed the same as you always were. You came with the fullness of who you were, both good and bad.
But before coming into the water, you stripped down to nothing. Just your birthday suit. There was a lot less worry about being naked in those days. And you would be dunked into the water just as you were created. But as you got out of the water, you didn’t put back on those clothes you came with. Those you were your old clothes for your old self. You would never put them on again, no matter how much they had cost you. Instead, you put on brand new clothes, clothes that were spotless. And you entered into this holy sanctuary for the first time clothed with something different, made into something new.
Now I don’t believe that one’s clothes makes anyone more holy than anyone else. But I love that image of taking off all that defined and labeled your old self and old life and leaving it all behind, then going into the water of baptism, and coming out clothed with something new. For the people of Ephesus, they weren’t just entering into a holy space. They were being told that you are holy. And you are what makes this place holy. It’s not the frescoes. It’s not the marble. It’s not the mosaics. It’s you. It’s God living and breathing and moving in you. Because you have been made into something new. You are the body of Christ.
The same is with the Kingdom of God. There are exterior things that will be made beautiful – pollution will end, water will be shimmering, fruit and vegetables will be abundant, light will be shining forth, disease will be no more, music will surround us. But if God’s Kingdom is truly going to be perfect, then we can’t be just like we are now. The Kingdom of God cannot be whole if we are still full of hatred and sexism and racism and judgmentalism and impatience and backbiting and selfishness. The Kingdom cannot be complete if we are still doubting ourselves, attacking our neighbors, and refusing to be the people God made us to be.
For the Kingdom of God to be made whole, for it to be that holy place, then we ourselves must be made whole. We must, like Paul tells us, “all be changed.” We must be made complete. We must become the best versions of ourselves.
And on our own, we won’t get there. No matter how hard we strive, no matter how many books we read, promises we make, lessons we learn, we can grow into better and better people, but we will never be made whole. We don’t have the ability to make ourselves perfect. We will still know sin and brokenness and prejudice and hurt. There will still be so much further to go.
The only thing that will get us there is God’s grace. The full amazingness of God’s grace is not just that it forgives our sins, not just that it saves us from death, but that somehow God’s grace will one day, in an instant, completely transform our hearts and minds and souls. Our brokenness will be healed. Our sin stripped away. And we will know what it means to be fully children of God.
One thing I like about the image of new clothes that Paul uses here is that while we are wearing something new, it does not strip away all of our character. While we will be made whole, we won’t be made uniform. I won’t become the same thing that Nick becomes. Instead I will become the best Alex Creager there is possible. And Nick will become the best Nick Schacht there is possible. Nick will still be playing Grateful Dead music on his guitar and surfing huge waves. And I will still be kayaking and bicycling and telling stupid jokes. Barbara Johnston will be creating beautiful pieces of art. Anthony Burcher will be storytelling.
As N. T. Wright puts it,
“God will take our prayer, our art, our love, our writing, our political action, our music, our honesty, our daily work, our pastoral care, our whole selves… and weave its varied strands into the glorious tapestry of God’s new creation.”
We won’t lose ourselves. We will become our best selves.
Today, we celebrate the baptism of three of our own: William, Charles, and Isaac. And in those baptisms, is a promise that each of us dies with Christ and will rise again with Christ. That promise includes everlasting life, forgiveness of sin, and welcome into God’s family. But it also means that William, Charles, and Isaac are of infinite worth and value. Because one day they will be a big part of what makes the Kingdom of God holy. They will be citizens of that Kingdom. They will be the body of Christ. They will be ones who bring joy and love and life fully to others.
Paul closes this message with words of encouragement for us all:
“Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
The journey for William will not be in vain. The journey for Charles will not be in vain. The journey for Isaac will not be in vain. The journeys for all of us will not be in vain. All we were created to be will shine forth. Our gifts, talents, personalities, love and interests, joys and struggles, they won’t fade away. Instead they will be made complete, wrapped in new clothes so they can shine even brighter.
Until then, let us all go forth in faith and fearlessness, trusting in that amazing transforming power of God’s grace. Amen.