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Special Readings for the Feast of All Souls

October 24, 2023

● Psalm 130

● 1 Corinthians 15:50-58

● John 5:24-27


Our Commemoration of the Feast of All Souls forces us to confront our shared reality of death. Vivid and violent reminders of this reality have barraged us these past few years: a global pandemic; an epidemic of mass shootings; horrendous acts of racism; the war in Ukraine; the tragic deaths of migrants seeking a better life; and now the war in the Holy Land, all among so many other global atrocities that bombard our daily newsfeeds. Meanwhile, we continue to mark the passing of time with personal partings in our private lives, as well. To borrow Paul’s words from an earlier chapter in his Epistle to the Corinthians, no matter how it confronts us—and it always will, in one way or another—our experience of death is a reality that forces us to cease thinking “like a child” as it begs us pass into something like spiritual adulthood, a maturity through which we understand how we indeed currently see only in a “mirror dimly” (see 1 Cor. 13:11-13). And in the face of that reality, we can only cry out with the Psalmist to God “from the depths” (Ps. 130:1): “If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:2)

Our Scriptures for this week point to an almost defiant hopefulness against death’s finality.This theme is echoed first of all in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, which falls within what’s known as the “Book of Signs.” Whereas the synoptic Gospel writers often report many of the same miracles of Jesus, John’s Gospel deviates from Matthew, Mark, and Luke in both content and form: therein appear some miracles that show up nowhere in the synoptics, and John’s narrations of these miracles are often much longer than the stories we encounter elsewhere in the Gospels. John calls these miracles “Signs,” and he intends through them to demonstrate Jesus’s divinity and unity with the Father (see, for example, the famous Johannine prologue in Jn. 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, etc…”). Through this emphasis, John lays the theological groundwork for what would later be called the doctrine of the Incarnation: Jesus is fully human and fully God, and the miracles John reports throughout his Gospel are “signs” of Jesus’s divine authority as such. 

Our Gospel reading for this week follows John’s narrative of one of these “signs,” specifically by serving as the conclusion to the story about Jesus’s healing of a paralytic at Bethzatha on the Sabbath (see Jn. 5:1-18). This miracle angers the spiritual authorities in first-century Jerusalem, because by performing this particular “sign,” Jesus “was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal with God” (Jn. 5:18). Jesus answers this reproach not by denying this blasphemous claim, but rather strikingly by owning it: “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (Jn. 5:19).Consequently, Jesus’s message in Jn. 5:24-27 underscores why this emphasis on his unity with the Father in this retort actually matters for us, as David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament quite elegantly portrays: “I tell you that whoever hears my word and has faith in the one who has sent me has life in the Age, and does not come to judgment, but rather has crossed out of death into life …. an hour is coming—and now is—when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, he also granted it to the Son to have life in himself…” It is precisely because Jesus enjoys unity with the Father—or in other words (to move beyond the gendered and patriarchal language for God that might make some of us uncomfortable), precisely because Jesus is nothing less than the Incarnate God—that John’s Gospel can emphasize how we might have hope for life even when confronted with the inevitable reality of death. Since Jesus is “one with the Father,” all humanity may taste the very life of God—which “now is”!—through the very human life of Jesus. We must all cross through death, but John’s “Book of Signs” assures us that even in that most mysterious of experiences, we will be “one with God” in the Word of Life because that Word descended to our humanity to taste death along with us.  

Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians expounds upon this theme at length, especially in the fifteenth chapter, which boasts perhaps one of the most important descriptions of the Christian belief in the Resurrection in the entire New Testament. Throughout 1 Cor. 15, Paul emphasizes the idea of the bodily resurrection in Christ. Notably, he is not discussing how our spirits will leave our bodies in death, but rather—using the Resurrected body of Christ as his own sort of“proof text”—Paul here argues that all persons will “at the last trumpet” also be bodily resurrected: “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52), and “When 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. Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55). For Paul, the very human “physical body” of Jesus died and was raised a very human “spiritual body” on Easter morning because he was also “fully God” in his birth, life, death, and resurrection (see esp. 1 Cor. 15:42-49). So, too, may we hope to be thus transformed when that last trumpet sounds.

All this leaves me wondering about how the “hope” of these texts speaks to the experience of death that confronts us in our newsfeeds and in our day-to-day living. Both John’s Gospel and Paul’s Epistle suggest an immediacy to that hope—in John, the hour “is now” when we shall be alive in God, even as Paul assures us that death’s sting has already been removed! I suspect, however, that anyone who has tasted grief, anyone who has walked alongside a fellow human person in the process of dying, or anyone who has confronted the possibility of their own deathmight feel like this kind of hope is itself somewhat “childlike.” As I wrestle with my own such suspicions when reading these texts, their message of hope yet remains remarkable when I consider how they embrace rather than ignore all these painful realities: the Christian hope for life does not at all negate the pain of death; rather, John and Paul both point toward the hope of life through the experience of death—and more specifically, to the death of the Son who is “one with the Father.” Indeed, our hope for life lies in the conviction that God is certainly no stranger to our deepest suffering and grief, but walks there with us until that last trumpet sounds, that we might finally behold God and one another “face to face” beyond this mirror dimly. —Katie Wrisley Shelby



• In 1 Corinthians 15:51, Paul encourages the Corinthians by exclaiming that “We will not all die.” This comment sprang from his belief, as the footnote to the NRSV translation of the text suggests, “at least some Christians (likely including himself) will survive until Christ’s return.” How does that information change your reading of this passage? 

• If you have time, give the entirety of 1 Corinthians 15 a read! New Testament scholars often agree that a better translation of the phrase “physical body” would be “psychical body”: go through the chapter and write the latter above each case of the former. How does this change your reading of the text? What do you make of this chapter as a whole? 


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