Sermon from Pentecost: Nothing is a Waste

Nothing Is a Waste
Pentecost; May 23, 2021
I Corinthians 15:42-58

Paul didn’t know anything about DNA, of course, yet in his thoughts about resurrection he shows he would understand how it works. Using his thoughts as expressed in The Message, and the fact that today is Pentecost, here’s my plan: to follow his thought about resurrection, coming to the very encouraging conclusion that nothing that you or I do in the work of the Master is a waste of time or effort.

Those of you who read the whole chapter – I Corinthians 15 – have figured out that somebody in the church in Corinth was either questioning the reality of resurrection or flat out teaching that there is no such thing as resurrection. It is, frankly, easier to believe in a disembodied immortal soul than it is to believe in resurrection. Paul answers by saying, first, that Christ is resurrected; if there is no resurrection, then Christ is not resurrected. We didn’t read that part to you; we went right to the second part: Paul tries to help us understand about resurrection.

It’s gardening season; most of us who work in our community garden have at least the first round of plants in. The tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, and so forth are in; I’m waiting a little while yet before planting pumpkins. If you start with seed, then you know how remarkable the life cycle of a plant is. There is this small seed, barely visible, but in the ground something happens that it grows into a great plant that needs to be pruned to keep it from getting out of control. And then on the plant grow the tomatoes, or peppers, or pumpkins. How does that happen?

DNA. Water, nutrients in the soil, and the energy of sunshine cause interactions that form the proteins that grow into roots, stems, branches, leaves, and the parts we like to eat. Paul says that the seed goes into the ground and dies (v. 36), which isn’t strictly true, but it looks that way. The seed, which is of little interest to us as it is, goes into the ground, and from it grows the plant that is of interest to us for making delicious BLTs. The analogy is that our physical life, as we are now, cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven: the physical body must first die, so that the useful spiritual body may grow from it in resurrection. Just as there can be no tomato plant without the seed, there can be no resurrection without the body; but a change must happen. Just as the DNA is the same from the seed to the plant, so the reality of myself is the same from the physical to the spiritual. Continuity, but change.

Even better, I think, is the analogy of the butterfly. From the egg emerges a caterpillar, which has just the same DNA as the egg, but the activity of the cells has differentiated into the caterpillar – or larva. The caterpillar eats, ravenously, gathering the energy needed for the next stage: the pupa. Now you know that the caterpillar wraps itself inside a chrysalis, and the change from caterpillar to butterfly happens inside. What fascinates me is how it happens. I used to think that the worm-like caterpillar would sprout wings, and its body would gradually change shape until the butterfly would emerge. But that isn’t what happens. What happens is the caterpillar body is dissolved, it becomes an undifferentiated mass. And the cells in that mass begin to form all the parts of the butterfly, and when it is finished it emerges from the chrysalis.

Christians have for centuries used the butterfly as an image for resurrection: we see a caterpillar go into a chrysalis and a butterfly emerge; we see a physical body go into a tomb and a spiritual body emerge. Now I see how perfectly appropriate the image is, because the caterpillar doesn’t simply change into a butterfly; the caterpillar ceases to be as a caterpillar and something new and beautiful emerges. Yet it is still the same creature, with the same DNA, the same identity.

The Christian understanding of resurrection is different from the traditional understanding of immortality. In the traditional understanding of immortality, the spiritual is completely different from the physical. The physical dies but the spiritual continues unchanged. As Paul explains it, the spiritual comes from the physical, just as the butterfly comes from the caterpillar or the tomato plant comes from the seed. Continuity, but change.

Well, so what? We’ve had a nice high school theology lesson on resurrection, but why is that important? I see two things of importance. One, it helps me understand our need for both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Our life, to be whole, is both physical and spiritual; it is both earthy and heavenly. Jesus is earthy: a human being who carries the presence of God in his flesh. The Holy Spirit brings the heavenly, the witness to everything that is beyond what we sense and experience right now.

But something that I find even more encouraging. When I was a college student, I took a basic earth sciences class; I forget its real title, but we called it “Rocks for Jocks.” At the end of the class, the professor commented on what was often believed to be the life cycle of the universe, that the expanding universe would eventually turn back and everything that started with a Big Bang would end in a Big Crunch. His conclusion, after a term of studying the history of the earth and life on earth, was, “Nothing matters.” Yikes. Nothing matters.

My professor was wrong. Paul assures us that because Christ is risen from the dead and we believe that we shall be raised from the dead, what we do does matter. As it says here, “Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.” I will break that down into two things for you, because I of course asked myself, “Why? Why does resurrection mean that nothing I do for Jesus is a waste of time or effort?”

What you and I do has an effect on the Kingdom of God. There is a character in the New Testament called Barnabas; he is nicknamed “Son of Encouragement.” That’s because he’s constantly doing or saying something that encourages other people. He helps them grow in faith; he helps people forgive; he helps people welcome someone a little scary. Because of him, faith in Jesus is nurtured in other people. You may have that effect on the people around you and you may not even realize it; because of something you say or do, someone may trust God a little more, may be a little more encouraged. You have watered a seed for resurrection.

Simply helping the Church in any way can add water and nourishment and sunshine to seeds for resurrection. The Church is more than an institution or a building; it is people who are doing work for the Master, for the Lord Jesus. So when you spend some time caring for flowers at the place, so that those who come are greeted by beauty; when you listen to a young person’s fears or hopes and take them seriously; when you give a few hours to help refugees make their way in this strange land; when you give a thankoffering… nothing you do for the Master is a waste of time or effort. You may not see the butterfly that emerges from the chrysalis, but you have contributed to the nourishment of the larva that will become that butterfly.

And there is this. The work you do for the Master has an effect on you. You cannot change your DNA – I know, there is research ongoing and there has been some success in germ-line editing, but you can’t do it yourself so I’m going to stick to what I said – you cannot change your DNA, but you can change your personality, your priorities, the things you hold dear, the things you let go of, and the things you value. When you study Scripture, when you pray, when you worship, when you take communion, when you encourage someone, when you sit down with your journal and try to reshape how you react, when you engage in hands-on mission with people, when you pause and count to ten and ask, “What would Jesus do?” and on and on and on you are helping that pupa that is you to become a stronger and more beautiful butterfly.

I am convinced, although it would take me some time to work it out, that eating right, walking at the OPPD Arboretum, doing weight training and practicing yoga: that these all somehow also have a benefit for the resurrected, spiritual body. I guess what I am trying to say is that caring for your own being helps prepare you for eternity. Since we believe in resurrection, we believe that what we do in our lives right now has an eternal effect: it helps to shape the butterfly that will emerge from the chrysalis.

So, dear friends, “don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.”

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska