The Firstfruits

By Paul Koch

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:19) This statement by St. Paul is a treasure. It gets to the heart of what this day is all about. If in this life only we have hope, then what’s the point? Why the celebration? Why all the joy and excitement? To worship a Jesus that brings hope in this life only is the type of Jesus that the world likes. He fits into boundaries of our expectation and He is easily controlled and contained.

People are always trying to reduce our Lord to something contained in this life only. A favorite is to view him only as a wise teacher. One who would rival the wisdom of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and so on. We are encouraged to not worry too much about His words regarding heaven and hell, sin and blessings, but focus instead on His words of compassion and love. The work of Jesus is reduced to ethical teachings that can and should guide our lives. This is a Jesus for this life and this life only. Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of our country, loved this sort of Jesus. He even published an edition of the Gospels where he removed all the religious instruction and miraculous events and left our Lord as only a wise teacher to guide us through our days. In fact, Jefferson’s Bible, as it was called, ends with Good Friday, with the stone being rolled in front of the tomb. After all, we don’t need the resurrection from the dead to have a moral system for better living here and now.

Of course there are those who prefer the Jesus that comes as a political instigator, a mover and shaker, inspiring voters and helping almost any campaign’s propaganda machine. If Jesus as the wise teacher is for this life only, then Jesus as a political pundit is a Jesus not only for this life but this year and this country. We hear about this Jesus from those vying for the presidential office. We hear about what he would and wouldn’t do. If Jefferson was looking to understand the great question, “What would Jesus do?” we are also reminded to ask, “How would Jesus vote?”

But Jesus cannot be reduced to these things. He cannot be defined simply as a wise teacher, no matter how powerful His teachings. He can’t be merely used as a motivation to vote, no matter how compassionate His words. For our hope in Christ goes far beyond this life, far beyond the politics of our day, far beyond the quest for living the noble and upright life. Whether we are inside the church or outside of the church, if our Lord has come to only make this life better then we’ve missed the whole point. Again, as St. Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” We have not gathered here to find a more ethical way of living. We have not come here to become informed voters. For what we celebrate this day goes beyond this life. What we celebrate this day changes the landscape. What we celebrate this day deals with today, tomorrow, and all eternity.

cross

And the thing is, though the world outside of the church may not welcome what we celebrate today, they cannot avoid it either. One of the greatest testimonies to this is the cross itself. Now the cross, of course, has over the years become the symbol of the Christian church. We find it both inside and outside of churches around the world. But it’s not just churches. We find crosses in jewelry stores cast in gold and silver. People wear them on necklaces and make earrings out of them. People put crosses in their homes and perhaps even in their cars. They are images on t-shirts and a common feature of tattoos. Crosses may be found worn by firm and devout believers as well as by the wayward child who hasn’t set foot in a church in years. And we may get all flustered wanting the symbol to mean something more, to be the exclusive image of the devout. But I think it’s casual use is a beautiful and unprecedented thing. And it boasts of the great hope we have in Christ alone.

Think about it, how many other devices of torture, humiliation, and death have become commonplace jewelry? The cross was the pinnacle of Rome’s brutality. Sure, lion attacks in the arena for sport were pretty messed up. But if you wanted to inflict the greatest amount of pain and suffering, if you wanted to drag out the dying for as long as possible and make a public spectacle of it along the way, there was no better means than crucifixion. And now it’s jewelry! Isn’t that awesome? Because of what we celebrate today, this ancient mode of capital punishment is hung in our homes and inscribed on our churches. We treat it without a single drop of fear. Here the world has learned from us, and it’s a beautiful thing. Our casual treatment of the cross flows from a hope that does not stop at the grave. It is a hope that is not bound by this life only. It is a hope that goes beyond this age altogether.

Paul declares, “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Our hope is not locked into this life only, for the tomb is empty. Christ is the firstfruits of the dead. The first to rise and never die again. He then sets that pattern that we too will follow. This is not based on our morality nor based on our politics, but in Christ alone we too shall live. In His flesh our sins were condemned and judged. In His death the price was paid, but the tomb is now empty!

skull

When my wife and I were in the Holy Land we went into a lot of churches, a lot of shrines built over holy sites. And there is a symbol that you find on crosses there that you don’t often find here in America. In more than one of those ancient churches there would be a large painting of the crucifixion of our Lord. And there beneath the feet of our Lord, at the base of the cross, there in the dirt, was a skull and crossbones. We might guess that it is perhaps a symbol for Golgatha the place of the skull, but it’s not. That ancient symbol depicts the skull and bones of Adam. That’s right. The blood of Christ pours down over the bones of Adam. Through one man comes sin and so through another man comes life.

The sacrifice for the sins inherited since the days of Adam, the sacrifice necessary for each and every one of our sins has been made in Christ our Lord. His blood covers our sins. And this sacrifice was received and accepted by our God, who then breaks the bondage of the grave and brings his Only Begotten back to life. The tomb is empty and our hope springs eternal.

And all of this, all the gifts of Christ are given then to you. From the blood that poured down upon the bones of Adam, to the cheers of the saints when He walked again out of the grave, all of it is given freely to you. In the waters of Holy Baptism all that was his is made yours. His pure blood washes over you, his victorious resurrection from the dead is given to you. Forgiveness, life, and salvation are yours. And all that was yours, all your sin and failure, all your doubt and darkness, he takes it all and burys it deep within that tomb – the one place God promises never to look for it.

On this day, our hope reaches far beyond this life. For we are joined with the Firstfruits of the dead.  He will destroy every enemy of life and salvation, and the last enemy to be destroyed is death itself. And we know how well death held out the first time it met our Lord. We know then what it is to declare with joy and confidence, Alleluia Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!

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