50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:50-58
I had never heard of Ewing’s sarcoma before she called. My old neighbor just down the street from church called me one day and said that her friend’s son, Ryan, just found out he had cancer. She wondered if I would be willing to go and visit him. The first time I met Ryan was in the hospital. I quickly learned how serious his condition was and that they were planning to do seven months of intense chemo therapy along with radiation treatments. It was going to be a long battle, but everyone was hopeful. Ryan was young and strong. He was 19 at the time and playing college baseball as a pitcher. It has been difficult to visit with someone in Ryan’s shoes because he is young, smart and a believer. It is hard for everyone who visits Ryan because they all wonder why someone like him is suffering. In those moments where cancer and death threaten a family, we all struggle with the right words to say to encourage someone to Stand Firm.
If Ryan had been living 2,000 years ago in the city of Corinth, the encouraging words of the Christians there might not have helped Ryan to Stand Firm in his faith in Jesus and the resurrection. Our sermon text for this morning is taken from the end of 1 Corinthians 15. This chapter of the Bible is known as the “Resurrection” chapter. Here Paul corrected a false teaching among some in Corinth that there was no resurrection. This teaching led some of the Corinthians to give up living godly lives and turn back to sin, but Paul quickly reminded them that they could not say,
32 “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Paul reminded them that there were consequences for their actions, and not just here, but eternal consequences. He reminded them that their faith was founded on Jesus and his resurrection, saying,
16 “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”
Paul had to remind the Corinthians that the resurrection of Jesus, of all believers who have died and for all believers still living is real, and it is intimately connected to the whole gospel message.
For the Corinthians and for all of us who hope in the gospel of Jesus, our hope in the resurrection faces its truest test when we face death. On the one hand, everyone likes the theoretical idea of resurrection. Everyone likes to dream about an afterlife of cute little angels flying around or having one of their Pinterest boards labeled “paradise” or “perfect vacation spots” coming to life. We all like to talk about the idea of an afterlife, but when death is right in front of us, the fear of what comes next often clouds our hope in the resurrection. We struggle to Stand Firm in the face of death because
56 “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.”
Yes, Paul said that God’s law gives sin the power of death. God’s law is good; it tells us to love God and one another. His law is good, but when we don’t keep it, we sin and the final punishment for that sin is death. Death shakes our faith in the resurrection because none of us can stand up to death, sin or God’s law.
Since, we can’t stand up to death, sin or God’s law, we all struggle with the right words to encourage someone with when they face death. In our Old Testament reading from 2 Kings 4, the prophet Elisha was faced with what to say to a woman who had lost her only son. It is no surprise that anyone who tries to comfort a mother who has lost her only son faces a struggle. In this case, Elisha had an extra difficult time because he had asked God to give this woman her son, even though she asked him not to get her hopes up. Elisha had asked God to give her a son because she had been kind enough to give him a room in her house to stay in as he traveled around, but now that her son was dead, she traveled to Elisha and said,
28 “Did I ask you for a son, my lord?… Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes’?”
And, Elisha sent his servant to the home to try to bring the boy back to life and assured the mother this would work, but she said,
30… “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So, he got up and followed her.
When they reached the house, Elisha found that his servant had not been able to bring the boy back, so Elisha went in with the boy and he was able to bring him back. Then, Elisha called for his servant to bring the mother in and he gave her the boy, alive again. Elisha had done so much for this woman and her son but notice what she was eager to have from the prophet when she faced death. The woman was eager to have the prophet himself and his words close when she faced death.
The needs of the woman who faced death are the same needs we all have when our faith is tested. Today we are here as the LWMS Red River Circuit Rally to discuss, celebrate, pray for and learn how to support mission work. And one key takeaway for us from this portion of God’s Word from 1 Corinthians 15 is that mission work is done with words and actions. The work of evangelism or telling someone what Jesus has done to save us from sin and death to give us forgiveness and life can be done rather quickly, as Paul said,
56 “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
That was the gospel in just three sentences. Now I don’t mean that we only share the message once and we are done, but the words and the message of what Jesus has done is simple. Often, what makes mission work difficult is the relationship after someone is brought to faith. For example, we struggle to Stand Firm when we hear believers wants to live together before marriage. On the one hand, that’s a juicy piece of gossip and an easy thing to lay down the law to, but it is much harder to share that information only when necessary, to go and talk with the couple and to give them financial aid if it means they will live separately or be able to pay for the wedding in time to begin living together after marriage.
On the one hand, to Stand Firm in the gospel means trusting in and sharing that simple message that the battle is won in Jesus. On the other hand, standing firm in the gospel means standing firm as the battle rages to hold on to Jesus.
As Paul ended his section about the resurrection, he gave all believers encouragement to Stand Firm in the Lord’s work. Paul said,
58 “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
Our work in the Lord is not in vain because his work for us was not in vain. Jesus came into our world bring the Word of God to life. He came to share the gospel hope in the Savior from sin and death. He came to walk with us, to endure temptation and to face suffering. Jesus came to die and to rise from the dead. His work to save us is done. This work that Jesus called, “finished,” on the cross is what allows us to Stand Firm.
We even Stand Firm in Jesus when the battle threatens us with death. In our Gospel reading from Matthew 24, Jesus said,
9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”
These words of Jesus come true for many believers, but for us the threat of physical persecution may never come. Instead, we face death from disease, accidents and time. Jesus also said that,
12 “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
Wickedness takes so many forms and often the subtle forms give us the most trouble. When we struggle to know the right words to say at the bedside of someone who is dying, the world would like us to avoid the subject of Jesus and the resurrection. This is our moment to show that our love has not grown cold, but that we have the fire of faith burning inside us that is confident of what our Lord Jesus has done. It is our time to stand or sit with those facing the fear of death and sing hymns of hope, hold their hand, pray and share the good news of Jesus.
Paul said that our
58…labor in the Lord is not in vain.
Our labor for God’s kingdom is not in vain because the battle to hold on to Jesus rages on. We are the ones who must be ready to fight with the battle cry as Paul said,
55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
They are gone in Jesus and one day, we will all be changed. Paul said,
54 “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’”
Paul began 1 Corinthians 15 by saying,
15:1 “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.”
We take our stand on the gospel because it is the truth. We take our stand on it because Jesus finished his work for us. We take our stand on it to keep our hold on Jesus and we take our stand on it so that we always know what to say, even when faced with death. Every time I see Ryan, it is hard because he is a young kid, smart, driven and a believer, and because he is losing his battle with cancer. Just a few weeks ago he heard that his seven months of treatment did not work, and it looks like he will be going home to heaven very soon. In those moments, we struggle to know what to say because of the fear of death. But all that fear is swallowed up by the victory of Jesus. When I meet with Ryan, I know to remind him of his Savior and the resurrection, and I know just to sit with him for a while too, so that he knows he is not alone, so that he knows the love for him by his brothers and sisters in Christ remains a burning fire, so I can calm any fears that might come up while we wait for God’s plan to unfold. I had never heard of Ewing’s sarcoma before I met Ryan, but I know Jesus and so do you. May God continue to keep you sure that the battle is won and strong to battle on as you Stand Firm in Jesus. Amen.