Easter 1, based on 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
The following sermon was preached by Todd Koch, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, April 8, 2010.
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. After our long, and at times dreary journey through Lent, Easter has finally arrived! After bearing through the frigid cold, early dark, and sometimes seemingly endless nights of winter, spring has finally arrived! (or at least it more fully had last week when I started visioning this sermon) We can see it in the bright green buds of the trees lining University St. outside LSTC; we can smell the coming of the rain in the cool breeze; and you can experience it by breaking free from your own stuffy tomb… I mean room, and spending some reenergizing time reading, studying or just socializing outside on your porch—(at least that’s what I’ve been doing.) Christ has risen brought with the him the promise of fulfillment of a new creation! Much of the dormant nature around us is buzzing! Indeed, Paul tells the church at Corinth and us today, that Easter morning has brought the promise of a new reign, culminated with the defeat of every power and authority in this world which imprisons or entombs God’s creation. The stone which blocked Christ’s release has been rolled away. He has broken free from the tomb of this world destroying the power humanity fears the most,--the prison of death! Christ IS RISEN!!! He is risen indeed.
And Easter morning promises us all a new life—through our baptisms often celebrated at Easter, and remembered on days like today, God reminds us of the promise that we are freed from the depths of our darkest tombs—on mornings like today, we are reminded that through our baptisms in Christ we are broken free from our own imprisonment to sin. On this day we are reminded of God’s continuous invitation towards repentance and forgiveness, and then offered the gift of a new freedom in life to serve God guided of the Holy Spirit.
Yet as we read today’s lesson and the remainder of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, we hear that some members need to be reminded that their new freedom, comes with responsibility. Once prisoners to Roman slavery, many of the members of the church in Corinth had experienced a very literal freedom from the dominant Greco-Roman patronage culture. Yet rather than opposing a culture which enslaved them, Paul criticizes them for using their new “freedom” to embrace the system of Roman prestige and honor thus damaging the entire body of Christ. Paul tells them that to live a life in Christ IS to live counter-culturally.
By emphasizing Christ’s journey to the cross, he expresses that living counter-culturally will unfortunately result somehow in a form of suffering. Michael Gorman expresses it much more succinctly saying “holiness for Paul is countercultural cruciformity in expectation of the coming day of judgment and salvation (Gorman, 237).” Thus the freedom of our lives cannot be just for this life. Quoting Paul, “for if for this life only, we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
This oddly, brings me to one of my greatest joys of working at the circulation desk in JKM library—I get see all he recent additions to the collection and peruse them when they’re first processed in. I last checked out the book, “the executed god” and it has profoundly effected me—written by Princeton Theological seminary professor Mark Taylor, “the executed god” likens the United States to Imperial Rome, and critiques the use of the United States "imperial power," to incarcerate 2,000,000 citizens, 70% of whom are people of color.
This figure which quadruples the number in 1980, amounts to "the largest and most frenetic correctional buildup of any country in the history of the world (Donziger, "The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission" 31). He criticizes our society where small towns in an economic slump seek recovery by organizing to host a big prison--using Crescent City, CA as an example, Taylor demonstrates that after obtaining contracts for the $278 million Pelican Bay State Prison, the city experienced population growth, new garbage contracts, an Ace Hardware, a new area hospital, a ninety-thousand square foot K-Mart and jobs to go with them all.
I don't say this to directly criticize Crescent City, CA or any small town which seeks to welcome new industry into their community in order to thrive or simply just survive. I'm also not criticizing those brave employees across the country who work in prisons, placing themselves in harms way in order to keep our communities safe or simply to provide for their families. But I am criticizing a society which has economized incarceration and I am also criticizing an economy which seems to encourage the booming business of putting people, more often minorities, in prison.
Since the 1990s over $7 billion a year has been spent on new prison construction. With over 523,000 full-time employees working in American corrections he we have created a culture which seems to actually encourage the incarceration of more and more people. Combined with the obviously unequal punishment when examining prisoner population and sentencing by race, Taylor asserts and I agree that our U.S. prisons are implicated in America’s long-standing, cruel sickness of white supremacy. A power which has oppressed, and continues to oppress at this very moment, so many of God’s beloved children.
But what really hooked me, was the way Taylor likened the 3,700 inmates on death row awaiting execution to another criminal of the state, and one who we worship today. Because the God we journeyed to the cross with, and the God we celebrate the resurrection of, is the “God who is executed, suffering imperial, state-sanctioned crucifixion.” Jesus lived counter-culturally—just one person who made a stand against all forms of oppression and who, at the cost of his life stood in solidarity with the community on the margins.
Yet Taylor implores that the executed Jesus of Nazareth, is more than just an executed God—instead Jesus as the executed God is a whole life force, a greater power, like Paul speaks of today—a God which is greater than any power of this world. For Taylor, this life force—and as I would put it, the calling of the Holy Spirit, is made up of three dynamics crucial to Jesus’ accepted journey to the cross:
1) Jesus is a God who is politically confrontational to the religiously backed imperial power, calling out the hypocrisy of the religious elite.
2) Jesus is a God who performs creative and dramatic instances of resistance to that imperial power, through not only miracles and healings, but also through his procession and parade into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
3) Jesus is a God who organized a movement (The Jesus movement) that continues resistance, and continues to flourish, even after imperial executioners have done their worst (Preface, xiii).”
So why have I shared all of this? I hope because you too might acknowledge the parallels between Christ’s own counter-cultural mission against the Roman Empire and Paul’s call for the people of Corinth to live counter-culturally (which admittedly could lead to their own suffering) in light of our own lives as Christians today, and the mission which God calls us.
Many are surprised when I tell them I graduated from West Point in 1999 and served 5 years in the Army. As a young man I could only acknowledge the idealistic virtues of the United States of America and so I became one who easily flowed with the culture it can promote. I do love this country. But, as a Christians today who worship “the executed God,” I feel we called to acknowledge that this country was founded and built on a premise of slavery—to acknowledge the imperial tendencies of the world’s remaining “super-power.” More importantly, in the face of blatant oppression seen within our current prison system and so many other facets of our society, to live in our freedom as Christians, counter-culturally.
In today’s reading, Paul professes that Christ will destroy every ruler and every authority and power. 25That Christ will reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. This is not a calling which Christ intended to continue alone. It is a call which Christ and Paul have invited us all to fully join. Christ has already conquered his own death—we proclaimed it Easter morning, and proclaim it again today.
Yet, this was accomplished so that all would be set free. Christ calls us to that mission now. As individuals we are free! As children God, KNOW that Christ has released YOU from every controlling power in your life! With term papers looming, student loans mounting, and unknown first-calls, internships, MIC congregations, and doctoral dissertation completion dates seemingly imprisoning us; with problems in friendships, relationships and marriages complicating our already complicated lives; with the tragedies of greed, arrogance and oppression both visible and at times invisible in our day to day lives—TRUST, BELIEVE, KNOW that in Christ you have been set free!
Set free to live into the promise of the Easter resurrection. To like Jesus, live counter-culturally and profess the love of God for all of this world. Through the fruits of our ministry, to proclaim to everyone who will listen, and especially those who would rather ignore, that Jesus is standing with the imprisoned no matter what addiction, oppression or steel bars that their cell is made. Know that Christ stands with us, having set us free, calling us to oppose every power of this world—our God is “the executed god”—but on this Easter Thursday, remember that our God is the risen God. Christ is risen! Halleluiah.