9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them– yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. 12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:9-20 NIV)
I have always been puzzled by Paul’s statement in verse 19. Why are we to be pitied if Christ has not risen? I am glad that I grew up in a family that followed Christ. I am convinced that my life has been better because of the choices that I have made based on my faith in Jesus. Yes, there are things that I have not experienced, and I regularly experience the fear of missing out. When I have made choices in response to that fear that are not consistent with my faith the long-term consequences have always been negative. I am certain that my life would be a wreck, if I were still alive, if I had given in to my fear of missing out and given up all desire to follow Jesus.
So, why does Paul say this? I think the primary reason is Paul’s understanding of the cost of discipleship. Most of the time in much of the world there is a significant cost to following Jesus. In Paul’s time refusing to say that Caesar was lord very often meant the loss of property, the inability to do business, and potential loss of life. Given society’s opposition to Christianity the need for Christians to share in meeting each other’s needs would have been essential, not optional. Until Constantine’s conversion, belief in the resurrection was essential given the high cost of following Jesus. The early Christians would not have questioned why Paul would consider them to be pitied without the resurrection.
Christians in much of the world today still share the experience of the early church. The decision to follow Jesus might involve a breaking of family ties, physical persecution, or economic struggle. Those who make this decision are placing their hope not in this life, but in the life to come. They are consciously choosing a life to be pitied if Jesus has not risen from the dead.
Our hope is in the resurrection. I pray that this hope will give us the strength to make choices that make us uncomfortable here as we seek to follow Jesus in all we do. I have been working on memorizing the following verse. I think it captures Paul’s mindset that leads him to think we are to be most pitied if there is no resurrection.
I want to know Christ– yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11 NIV)
Notice the two things that Paul links together: power and suffering. The power that we receive from the resurrection enables us to endure suffering. I think Paul is saying that the only way to know Christ is to share in His suffering. This is not suffering just for the sake of suffering. That would not be sharing in Christ’s suffering. Christ’s suffering was not about Him, it was about us. His suffering had a purpose. He was suffering for us. To enter into Christ’s suffering the suffering must result from actions that are motivated either by our love for God or our love for our neighbor.