1 Corinthians 15:50-58
Singing the Story: Victory in Jesus
The last hymn in our hymn story series is a southern gospel classic, “Victory in Jesus.” According to the Origin of Songs website, Eugene Monroe Bartlett, Sr. “was born on Christmas Eve in 1885 near Waynesville, Missouri … [He] dedicated his life to Jesus at an early age … Bartlett lived in the south and enjoyed a reputation as a fine music teacher. Based in Arkansas, he traveled the entire southern portion of the country holding singing schools for anyone interested. These … schools trained aspiring musicians in vocal technique, sight reading,” using a unique method called shape note singing, “and conducting and [they] were influential in the development of church music as a whole for much of the remainder of the century.
“Bartlett … was a very successful business man, and decided to invest his money [and eventually with it he] founded the Hartford Music Company in Hartford, Arkansas sometime in 1918. Within the first year of business he sold more than 15,000 copies of his hymnbook. Many writers, singers and musicians received their first opportunity in gospel music at Hartford Music Company including Albert E. Brumley who wrote ‘I'll Fly Away’” (which we’ll sing later on.) (1)
Of all of his songs, nearly all have fallen out of regular use save one, our focus for today, “Victory in Jesus.” “In 1939, a stroke rendered Bartlett partially paralyzed and unable to perform or travel. He spent the last two years of his life bedridden. Amid such bleak circumstances, he wrote his final and most beloved song … The … verses and refrain enthusiastically tell of one's own personal salvation experience from beginning to end. It's said that Bartlett missed traveling and teaching, but he could still study the Bible, a study from which he gave us this wonderful song during a time when much of the earth sat on the brink of World War II.” (1) Despite all of his successes, it is from this song, born of Bartlett’s faith through suffering, that we remember today.
“Victory in Jesus” draws on the imagery we find in 1 Corinthians 15. Our scripture lesson today comes from the first of two letters that we have from the apostle Paul to the growing early church community of Corinth. Chapter 15 is a weighty chapter, and I recommend you take some time this week to read this whole thing. In it, Paul tackles the themes of resurrection and eternal life. He starts by reminding the Corinthians of the good news that Paul has proclaimed to them, which he sums up as this: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and then resurrected, and Paul counts himself as a beneficiary and messenger of the grace of God received through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. On these points, Paul’s audience seems to agree.
But apparently, some of the Corinthians have been arguing that we, humans, are not resurrected after death. This isn’t surprising – in Judaism and in other religious traditions that would have been part of the culture of the Corinthian community, many dismissed the concept of eternal life. But for Paul, such a conclusion means that his whole life’s work is meaningless. He makes a kind of logic argument. He says: Jesus died and was resurrected as human being. He was fully human, even as he was fully divine. And if he was fully human, and Jesus was resurrected, then resurrection is possible. You can’t, Paul argues, believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but not human resurrection in eternal life. If humans don’t experience resurrection, neither can Jesus. And if Jesus wasn’t resurrected then Paul’s work and our faith are in vain, because Paul has been mispresenting God, we are still mired in sin because death was not conquered, and we have no hope. In fact, Paul says, if this life was all there was, how could he have the courage to risk this life for the work of Christ? But in Christ, the last enemy, death, is destroyed, because God has power over all things, power realized in Jesus.
Paul says another topic he’s heard being discussed by Corinthians is speculation over how we experience resurrection. What will our bodies be like? Paul uses the metaphor of a seed and a plant. A seed doesn’t grow unless it “dies,” that is unless it is buried, planted. And you can’t tell anything from the seed about what the plant will look like. So many similar seeds, and such an overwhelming variety of plants that grow from them. This is what it is like with us. We can’t be resurrected without death. And this body, this life – it’s perishable, mortal, weak. And finally, we get to the text from today, Paul’s conclusion in this long chapter. These words might sound familiar to you because they are often part of the graveside service at funerals. Paul says he’s going to tell us a mystery. We will be transformed – perishable to imperishable. Mortal bodies changed into eternal life in God. Then, Paul says, the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting … But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Trusting in this, Paul says, we should be steadfast, faithful, persevering, excelling in God’s work, because we know that our work is not in vain.
There’s a phrase, “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly good.” There’s a lot of layers to what that could mean, but to me, I think of how we can get focused on doing good so that we get rewarded with eternal life. That makes for a pretty shallow relationship with God. It’s like being in a relationship with someone because they buy you nice presents. Not very deep. But for Paul and some other early Christians who faced considerable persecution, threats and actual harm in so many forms, being heavenly-minded meant being fixed on life’s ultimate goal – being completely united with God – instead of on the promises of earthly rewards that come and go.
What about us, though, twenty-first century Christians? How do we wrestle with these questions that Paul discusses? What do you think about when you think about life and death and life beyond death? There are so many questions that we understandably have about death and life after death, because of course, we only know this life, and it is hard to imagine something so outside of our daily experience. So we find these questions in the scriptures, like when the Sadducees are trying to trap Jesus with his answers, but still ask: To whom will we be married in heaven if we’ve had more than one spouse? Or like the Corinthians, who wanted to know what kind of bodies we get at the resurrection? Or the questions we might have: I asked my pastor when I was in junior high – won’t heaven be boring? He, a math major in college, drew his idea of eternity for me on an x-y graph. (I was not convinced I had been wrong in my original question!) We wonder. We yearn to know. Paul himself calls some of these things a mystery, the same word we use when we celebrate communion to acknowledge that we don’t know exactly how God does what God does to present with us in communion. Just so, how could we know the mysteries of life, death, and life beyond death?
When I was in 4th grade or so, my older brother was teasing me in the way that older siblings do, but his teasing wound up with me being scared – I was thinking about death and trying to imagine would it would be like not to feel anything – as if even adults could get their minds around such a thing, much less 9 year olds. I talked to my Mom about it, and she realized that despite being a life-long Sunday School and church kid, it never occurred to me to be thinking about eternal life with God. She set me on a course of prayer and reading the Bible that shaped my faith in countless ways. I took so much comfort in the words of scripture. I didn’t understand everything I read, but I got the gist: when we follow God, our future is safe in God’s hands. For a long time after that, my image of eternity was shaped by C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. In the last book in the series, The Last Battle, the world of Narnia ends and several of the characters find themselves in heaven. Aslan, the Christ-figure, the great lion, keeps calling to them to go “further up and further in,” and they find that heaven is like the worlds they know – Narnia, and earth, only they discover that the Narnia and earth they knew were but shadow copies, as different as a shadow is from the real thing, as different as seeing a reflection in a window is from looking at the thing itself directly. In eternity, they experience at last the real thing. Lewis narrates, “The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looks as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there, you will know what I mean.”
It was not until I got into seminary that I really struggled again with thinking about eternity. I’ve told some of you about part of this before – I confronted in seminary that gap between what I wanted to know about God and life with God and what I actually could know. I wanted to know all the answers, and was suddenly confronted with all that I didn’t and couldn’t know. I had more questions about eternity than could be satisfied by my images of heaven from The Chronicles of Narnia, and I was overwhelmed with anxiety about what would happen to me, to those I love, to the world. I scoured the scriptures for God’s promises about eternal life. There’s certainly a lot in the Bible to consider. The pictures of eternity are as varied as the genres of writing in the scriptures and the authors themselves. I didn’t find the defining answer: this is what happens in eternity. But what I did find was this: God loves us. God is good, all goodness. God’s purposes are good. God is ever faithful. God promises that we will be with God. Therefore what is in store for us is good, and we can depend on that. That might not sound like much. But for me, it was everything, a step in trusting in God and not my own answers that marked a sturdier faith, one that didn’t depend only on what was in my ability to comprehend!
I don’t mind confessing: I don’t know what happens after this life any more than I believe a caterpillar knows what it is like to be a butterfly, or what it will be like to turn into a chrysalis of mush in order to get to the butterfly part of life. I don’t know the details of what happens when we die, what heaven might be like, or if any of our visions or imaginings are even in the ballpark of the truth of what comes after we complete this life. But what I do know is that I’ve read these words from 1 Corinthians at countless funerals, read them to countless families who are grieving the loss of a loved one. And these words that once felt strange to my tongue, when I frankly hadn’t experienced much in the way of grief in my own young life, these words have become some of my favorite: “Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ.” I’m not sure I always understood those words, and I’m not certain that in the midst of grieving, people always catch the impact of them, the punch of them, the taunt of them. But Paul is laughing at death! Because he knows that death has no real enduring power over life. Death thinks it has buried us. Ended us. But death doesn’t realize that we are seeds, planted. Perishable, but made imperishable in Christ. I’ve learned this as I think about the loved ones I have lost to death, but who are still so alive to me, to my family. Death was not able to cancel out the power of their lives. Of their love, or ours, or God’s. Even death has no power to stop the work of God, the love of God, our life in and through and because of and with God. Where, O death, is your sting? It is nothing, and Christ and life are everything! Injustice, defeat, and death are not the final words, because life and love will find a path, a place, a way to grow. Instead we just leave buried our doubts and fears. We leave buried our prejudices and hostilities. We leave buried our insistence on our own way, our grudges, our anger. But what God draws forth from us is new life. Resurrected life. Real life, which we experience in part now, when we let God resurrect us, a foretaste of the full realization of God’s hopes and dreams that are promised for eternity. And nothing will stand in God’s way.
And so we hope, even as we wonder! We put our trust in God, who is good, who is love, who is grace, and who promises us life with God forever. And in the meantime, we do the work of God, knowing that our labor is not in vain. For death is swallowed up in victory. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ. Amen.
(1) Clemons, Sylvia M., https://originofsongs.blogspot.com/2013/08/victory-in-jesus.html
(2) Wilder, Thornton, Our Town, Act III.