1 Corinthians 15:51-58
51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
55 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.
Commentators should be careful not to translate Paul’s poetry into clumsy prose, as the “rapture-experts” have done, turning a vision of mystery into an airport timetable for the very last flights.
Paul is clearly not talking about the survival of the soul or any remnant of present life but the transformation of the person in the presence of God. He sees death as the last link in the iron chain of credit and debt, reward and punishment which binds all life which is turned in upon itself: it perishes. But life which is turned outward, which opens itself to God and to the neighbour, is robed in immortality- “Man well-dressed” as George Herbert calls it in his great poem, “Prayer”
Those who are currently protesting against Capitalism, in cities all round the world, are focused on the economic aspect of that iron chain and can take hope from Paul’s confidence, that “we shall be changed.” Paul wants his converts to know that God’s great liberation begins wherever there are people who are steadfast and immovable. The Church should be pointing to Christ as the one who shows how the chain can be broken.
12At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ 3He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’
9 He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. 11He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ 13Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. 14But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
The Pharisees, as depicted by Matthew, have turned God’s gift of the Sabbath into a chain that binds, just as modern Pharisees still bind with chains the swings and roundabouts in children’s play- parks in parts of Scotland today. Something given for life is turned into a commandment of death, something liberating has been turned into slavery. In-turned religion always does this. It is one of the ways in which the devil turns salvation into forms of oppression.
Jesus’ argument cites David and the Temple priests as “breakers of the Sabbath” but challenges his hearers to see that his ministry is more urgent and important than either. God’s goodness must be done, and the Sabbath is a fine day to do it. The connection between in-turned religious Law and death is made clear in the sequel: “they conspired against him, how to destroy him.”
I am certainly not arguing in favour of the modern urban Sunday in which capitalism has replaced bad religion with a new chain that binds and sends people scurrying to the shops to keep spending. The true Sunday, inaugurated by the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, is the first day of a “new week” in which God’s goodness can be done.