The Curious Verse We Didn’t Talk About

The last few weeks, I have been preaching through 1 Corinthians 15. But there’s a section I skipped — because I simply don’t know how to preach it. In fact, it’s not really a whole section, it’s one verse: 1 Cor. 15.29. And, specifically, one phrase in that verse: baptism for the dead.

What in the world? How does someone preach that? For that matter, how does one even make sense of that? What the heck is baptism for the dead? And why in the world is the Corinthian church doing it?

No shortage of ink has been spilled on this one phrase. By one count, there are over 40 different explanations regarding what was happening in Corinth. By my limited reading, two of the explanations seem to rise to the surface:

  1. The first interpretation is the easiest to swallow. Perhaps, it is suggested, Paul is referring to a practice where folks chose baptism so they could be reunited with those they loved who had already died. This wouldn’t be so unique; it still happens today. I had a guy tell me recently, while standing at the graveside of his loved one: “I want to be baptized so I can see him again.”
  2. The second theory is that believers are being baptized on behalf of those who died before they were baptized. If so, this might be one of the strangest practices of the early Church. But, hey, when we read 1 Corinthians, we shouldn’t be surprised at the odd things that happened there. This was the church, after all, that was okay with a guy sleeping with his step-mom. This was a church that was almost certainly less than 200 in size, and yet this small congregation couldn’t resolve their disputes — and fellow members of Corinthian Christian Church went to court against each other. This was the only church mentioned in the New Testament that had to have instructions regarding speaking in tongues during worship. And this was the church that prompted Paul to give an extended explanation on behalf of resurrection — because there were some who were saying that resurrection doesn’t happen.

And that’s the point. The heart of the message of 1 Corinthians 15 is: Jesus has been raised, and so will we. And ever after you sift through all the theories regarding “baptism for the dead” — the truth is, we simply don’t know what it means. But the bigger point — Paul’s bigger point — is that it makes no sense if there is no resurrection. Even if the Corinthians were having a mass “baptism for the dead” service, where members lined up to be baptized on behalf of deceased Uncle Charlie and my sweet Grandma who is no longer with us — even if they were doing this, and it was not something that Paul taught them to do or advocated himself — he was focused on his larger point. And so he asked: Why the heck would you go through the practice of going under the waters of baptism for the dead, if the dead are simply six feet under?

So, it’s safe to say that this Sunday — Easter Sunday — I won’t be preaching on the baptism of the dead. Or practicing it. But we will be focusing on Paul’s main point in 1 Corinthians 15 — that Resurrection is Real, and that it changes how we live, everyday. Because, the point of 1 Corinthians 15 — the point of the Bible; the point of life — is that if Easter is real; if Jesus is alive; then everything changes. Everything.

So, when you worship this weekend, make sure it is a celebration of the truth, and the power, and the game-changer that is: the Resurrection of Jesus. Because this really does change everything.

Life’s Many Goodbyes

Recently, our family has to had to learn how to say “goodbye” to some people in our lives. My wife’s uncle died this month, at the way-too-young age of 66. And this week, we said goodbye to a nephew who had been living with us for the past six months.

Isn’t it interesting that we even use the word “goodbye” when someone leaves? What’s good about goodbye?

The answer, it seems, is in history, and the history of language. The use of the word “goodbye” goes back to the 16th century — and began as the phrase “God be with ye.” As the phrase was used, it got shortened, and over time “God be with ye” became “Goodbye.”

Which means: what is good about goodbye is not that we let someone go, but that we let them go with God. Goodbye is good in the sense that God is still God, and He is still with the person we love — even when we cannot be. So, when we say goodbye to someone until we see them next week or next year — we do so entrusting them to God’s care. And when we say a bigger goodbye — the biggest goodbye — that comes when death separates us from someone we love, we do so entrusting them to God’s eternal care.

This doesn’t mean we ever get good at saying goodbye. On an episode of the show “CSI: New York,” one of the cops befriends Ruben, a ten-year-old kid from his apartment building. They go do an activity together, and on the way home, the cop notices a thief escaping the scene of the crime. He tells Ruben to go straight home, and then he begins to chase the criminal. Tragically, Ruben gets caught up in the chaos, and is killed.

Two detectives who work with the cop wrestle with how to comfort their friend: “What do I say?” one of them asks. “I’m not good at this kind of thing.”

“Just tell him you’re not good at this kind of thing,” her friend tells her.

I don’t think we ever get good at saying goodbye. And the bigger the goodbye, the harder it is. But because of Jesus — because of Easter — because we have hope, goodbye is not the same as The End. For even in our goodbyes, even in our biggest goodbye, we have a promise — that God really is with us through all our goodbyes.

You see, because of Easter, we can say goodbye. We can say, “God be with ye,” because through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we come to experience God’s presence — the kind that no separation can end. Not even the separation of death.

A Family Challenge: Prayer & 40 Bucks

We have had a five-year-old living with us for the past five months. He’s a cousin who needed a place to live; and for now, he is a part of our family. I’m learning what I once knew when my kids were younger: five-year-olds change things.

Before he came, everyone in our family was pretty self-sufficient. Our family — two adults and three teenagers — was a place where everyone was able to take care of themselves (most of the time). Then we added a preschooler.

One of my favorite things about having our cousin is knowing that at the end of the day (no matter how long it’s been; despite whatever challenges we have faced), bedtime is almost always a joyful experience. He loves reading from a kids Bible story book. He loves to sing a song. He loves to snuggle. The other night, my teenage girls helped put him to bed — and the four of us had a fun time just being together, and enjoying each other as another day came to an end.

This is family. No matter what the day has brought — no matter the challenges or stresses that life has brought — we can end the day with joy, knowing that we share the love of family.

In a way, every night I get to experience what I think God has in store for us — for all of us. To be family, no matter what we face. And to open our family life to others who need it.

In fact, I think this is a huge part of what Church is about. We are a family, no matter what we face. And having experienced the love of God, we open ourselves to share that love with others. If there is a door into God’s family, then I believe that on it hangs a sign that reads: “Always open.”

This past Sunday, I challenged our church to put family into practice in two ways. Between now and Easter (a traditional 40-day journey the Church has called Lent), let me encourage you to do these two things to help us be family — and extend family:

  1. Pray for someone in our church family who is different from you. If you are 50-plus, you might choose to pray for a child, or a student, or a young adult. If you are in college, you might pray for someone who is retired. If you are single, you might pray for someone who is married — and vice versa. If your primary language is English, you might pray for someone who speaks Spanish — and vice versa. Whoever it is, would you commit to praying, every day, for someone in the church who is different from you? If you do, I believe God will use your prayers, and you, to extend the unity he longs for us to have as a family.
  2. On Sunday, I gave $40 to four different kids in our church, and challenged them to take that money — and with their families — bless someone. Let me extend that challenge to everyone in our church family: set aside $40 to bless someone else. What would it look like if our whole church did that? What if every family in our church family set aside $40, beyond your normal giving, and as a family, put it to work for someone else? If you can’t do $40, do less. If $40 is too small, do more. But do something; bless someone else this Easter season. The only limit to how you do this is the creativity of your family. The key isn’t what you do, but that you do it. And do it together, with your family, or whoever you share life with.

Family takes work. Anybody who has ever lived in family knows that. Church is no different. Are you doing the hard work of building up our church? Are you looking for ways to extend church family to those who need it? This Easter, let’s do that. Together.