Sown Like Seeds

Scripture Readings: Mark 16:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15

Were you surprised by these scriptures? Mark 16:1-8 is shocking! It begins in a familiar way with women coming to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. We know the story, so we’re not surprised that they find the tomb empty and hear the message that Jesus "has been raised." But I expect few of us remember that the gospel ends with a report that the women "fled from the tomb . . . and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." (Mk. 16:8)

In our Bibles there are additional endings to this gospel with a note that these were present in other ancient manuscripts. Also, in these endings we find familiar appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples. Yet, it is simply a fact that the most ancient version of the gospel of Mark does not contain any appearance of the risen Jesus and ends with more fear than hope. Why would any gospel end this way? And, if the gospel of Mark is the earliest of the four New Testament gospels, as most Bible scholars believe, why would this first gospel end without an appearance by the risen Lord?

Before I suggest an answer, consider the surprising passages in 1 Corinthians. In the New Testament Paul’s writings are placed after the gospels, so we assume Paul’s letters were written later than the gospels. Yet, as Paul in his letters never refers to any of the gospels, it seems more likely that the gospels were written after Paul’s letters. This would explain why in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul does not refer to a gospel account of the resurrection, but instead summarizes the teaching he has received from the apostles of the Jerusalem church, the former disciples of Jesus.

Here’s what Paul says to the Christians in Corinth: "For I handed on to you . . . what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James [the brother of Jesus], then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me." (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

In this account of "the faith" of the early church nothing is said about women finding the tomb empty, and the order of appearances of the risen Christ differs with reports in the New Testament gospels. Yet, here Paul is summarizing the witness of the first church in Jerusalem!

Now listen to what Paul says about resurrection. Christ is "the first fruits of those who have died . . . for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ." (vs. 20-21) Paul explains that "since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being." (v. 21) And Paul has no doubts about the resurrection: "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain." (v. 13-14)

But Paul argues strenuously against the idea that resurrection is resuscitation. To someone who asks: "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" Paul answers: "Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as God has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body." (vs. 35-38)

Paul writes as if he’s unaware of the gospel stories of the resurrection, and so what he says is strong evidence that they have yet to be written. The testimony of Paul from the earliest period of the church is that resurrection involves a "spiritual body" rather than a resuscitated "physical body." He argues that: "So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body." (vs. 42-44) Therefore, Paul teaches that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God . . .." (v. 50)

Paul does not try to explain the mechanics of resurrection, but represents resurrection with the metaphor of planting a seed, which is the same metaphor used by Jesus in the gospel accounts to represent the kingdom of God. Death, as we see all around us in nature, is not the end of life but the beginning of new life. So it is, Paul proclaims, with human life "in Christ."

If the gospel of Mark was written to support Paul’s ministry, this might explain why it ends without any physical appearance of Jesus to the disciples. In the gospel of Mark the risen Lord does not give authority to the disciples, and throughout the gospel the disciples are depicted as lacking in faith — which leaves us wondering who will lead the church? The gospel of Mark ends with the resurrection, so referring to Paul would have been anachronistic, as he was not yet an apostle. Yet, those reading this gospel were the beneficiaries of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, and certainly they believed this ministry was inspired by the resurrection of Jesus, as Paul himself claimed.

Of course, this doesn’t explain why the other New Testament gospels report physical appearances of the risen Christ. These accounts may reflect an oral tradition dating back to the beginning of the church, which was not included in the teaching given to Paul by the apostles in Jerusalem. More likely, however, the emphasis on the physical nature of the risen Lord was a response to the Gnostic claim at the end of the first century that Jesus was not fully human, but was only a spiritual being who took the appearance of a man. The New Testament gospels relate stories that emphasize the physical resurrection of Jesus to confirm that Jesus was fully man as well as God.

In 2 Corinthians 5:19 Paul writes: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." Our faith is that God was crucified, died and was buried. Our faith is that in the man, Jesus, God embraced the sins and suffering of humanity, for our sake. Our faith is that in Christ the human and the divine are one, and that in Christ we may know God and realize our full humanity.

Paul passed on the tradition of the first apostles and proclaimed that only fools believe in the resuscitation of Jesus, because this false hope distracts us from the deeper joy that Easter offers. In the church we should not promise that those who die and return to the earth as dust will some day be restored to physical life in some heavenly place. Our Easter faith is that death is not the end of life, for we are "sown like seeds" in the kingdom of God. Our Easter faith is that death in Christ is also life in Christ. Our Easter faith is that in this loving and suffering and forgiving God, "we live, and move and have our being." (Acts 17:28) 

20 April 2003 © Robert Traer 2016