1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Do you remember what we were doing just two months ago? We were digging out of one snowstorm, and getting ready for the next. For the first time in my lifetime and ministry, church was cancelled for two Sundays in a row. While laity were playing in the snow, clergy across the Mid-Atlantic were emailing each other, convinced that the apocalypse had come, at least with respect to church finances.
Today, with temperatures in the mid-80’s, it’s hard to believe that was just two months ago. I have never looked forward more to spring than I have this year. It must be spring – baseball begins again tonight (even though it’s only the Red Sox playing the Evil Empire), I mowed my lawn Friday, and, oh, yeah, there’s this Easter thing.
What was the first sign for you? It wasn’t a robin, at least in my yard. Our robins didn’t get the memo that global warming is a fraud – they stayed through the winter. Was it that first warm day, when you opened the windows and took off your sweater? Was it a crocus, or a daffodil? Was it a pear, a redbud, or a crab apple blossom? Was it March madness, Spring Training, or soccer? What was it that told you the long, cold, grey winter was finally behind us, and there was hope and color and warmth ahead?
In one of my first churches after seminary, Avery Mays and Maxie Hunt used to have a race to see who could grow the first ripe tomato. Maxie used to walk through our parsonage garden behind the church on Sundays and laugh, for good reason. She was a dedicated gardener, as was Avery. Every year in late June or early July, one of them would bring their first ripe tomato to Bethlehem Church to give to the other one. Without fail, the loser would refuse to accept that the tomato was actually ripe: You call that ripe? Lord, have mercy, I’ve got a whole row of tomatoes riper than that! If I’d known that was what you call ripe, I would have brought you a bushel two weeks ago! And so it went, year after year. All you Hanover Countians think growing tomatoes is serious business: in Orange County, it was a war.
In Jerusalem, it had been a weekend colder, darker, and more dismal than the longest winter. A week that had begun with such ecstasy and promise with a parade on Sunday turned into a catastrophe on Thursday night. When Jesus had thrown the money-changers out of the Temple, it looked like the revolution the disciples had been expecting for three years, and the Jews had spent hundreds of years praying for, was finally beginning. Thursday night in the Garden when the guards came to arrest Jesus would have been the perfect opportunity to begin the overthrow of the Roman oppressors and their Jewish priestly collaborators. But Jesus had told his followers to drop their swords, because violence only breeds violence. Then Jesus just gave up. He was led away in shame, to be condemned by a kangaroo court and executed by a governor determined to stamp out any uprising, no matter how small. It turned out this carpenter in whom so many had placed all their hopes was just another dead pretender to the throne.
On Sunday morning of the worst weekend of their lives, things didn’t make sense. The grave was empty. The wrappings were lying on the ledge. The women said they had talked to Jesus, and touched him. As the dazed disciples gathered to eat, suddenly there he was, in the midst of them, just as he had said he would be whenever they broke bread and drank wine together. Two followers headed home to Emmaus later in the day realized the stranger who had walked with them discussing the prophets, and who had stayed for supper and then disappeared, was Jesus, very much alive. A week later Thomas touches the wounds from the cross. Later still Jesus eats breakfast with the fishermen by the side of the lake. And later still, a very living Jesus appears to a Pharisee headed to Damascus to kill Christian heretics.
Years later, that Pharisee, now renamed Paul, writes a letter to other struggling believers about the one thing he now knows is absolutely sure, even if everything else in life is a lie: Jesus is risen from the dead. This, as Carl Holladay says, is the lynchpin of Christian belief. Not the Virgin birth, not how many days Creation took, not how much water it takes for baptism and when, not whether the Bible is literally true word for word, not whether there should be universal health care or legalized abortion or gay marriage: if Jesus is not risen from the dead, then nothing else makes any difference. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied, Paul writes. If Christ is not risen, then not only is there nothing after death, but all bets are off before we cross the bar. If Jesus is not risen, then there’s absolutely no reason to follow him. He’s just another dead carpenter, not the Lord of life.
Have you paid attention to the grammar of Easter? We never say Christ was raised. We always use the present imperfect, signifying this is an action that begins here and now, and is unfinished: Christ is risen: the Lord is risen indeed! He is, Paul says, the first fruits of those who have died. Jesus is like Maxie and Avery’s first tomato: the first sign of what is to come. Just as the blossoms on the branches I brought in this morning tell us what kind of tree they are on and what lind of fruit we can expect, the resurrected Jesus tells us who he is, to whom he belongs, and what is coming, to all who belong to Christ.
This image of the first fruits comes straight from the Hebrew Bible: in Exodus, the people bring the first fruits from their fields as an offering to God. The first vegetables, fruits, and animals belong to God, and are signs of what is coming. Yesterday at the Easter egg hunt, Jordan Gregory gave me two of the surest signs of spring: a clover, and then a dandelion. Bishop Pennel says that the real Easter flower isn’t the lily, it’s the dandelion: you just can’t kill them. When the first fruits appear, it’s time to celebrate and give thanks to God who gives the harvest. When Paul says that the risen Jesus is the first fruits of those who have died, he means that this tells us what is coming for all who follow Jesus. Death does not have the last word any more than does winter. Despite two feet of snow, daffodils and dandelions, clover and crabgrass, tomatoes and green beans, baseball and beaches are just around the corner. Easter tells us that no matter how cold and dark and long the grave, resurrection is just ahead.
There is one small wrinkle in all this good news, Paul writes. While the forsythia and the pear trees in my yard are already trading their blossoms for green leaves, the walnut trees have not yet begun to bud. There is an order to resurrection: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father. Resurrection is not guaranteed. The trees and shrubs in our yard and the bulbs in our flower beds are waking up. The tomatoes and the pansies and the peppers didn’t make it. They won’t wake up. That’s what Paul means when he says that Christ is the first fruit of all who belong to Christ. Last year Vicki planted pansies under the crabapple trees. The crabapples are in full bloom, but the pansies are dead. It’s not enough to just be in the general vicinity of Jesus. If we don’t belong to Jesus – if we haven’t surrendered our allegiance to ourselves, or to ideologies or convictions or prejudices or attitudes -- then we are as temporary as a tomato. We may be beautiful and delicious, but we will not survive the winter.
Those who belong to Christ are those who are grafted into him, who are fed with his body and blood, who stay connected continuously to Christ’s vine and branches and people. Most of the world consists of cut flowers: beautiful for the moment, but already dead. You can put those flowers in water or chill them so they’ll last longer, but they have no root. Not only will they not last the winter, they won’t last the week. Those who belong to Christ are those who have put their roots down deep into Jesus, and who don’t let a day go by without feeding from him and from his people. Those who belong to Christ will make it through any winter, any darkness, any death. Day by day by day they prune away all that is not Christ, so they can be more like Christ. And if they follow Jesus in life, then following him in death will be as natural as Spring following Winter.
Are you an annual, or a perennial? Are you a great fruit tree of Christ, or just this year’s tomato? Or are you just a cut flower, pretty for the moment, but already dead?
In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. . . Christ the first fruits, then, at his coming, all who belong to Christ.