We have a saying in our house that gets used in a multitude of different situations. We’ve been known to say it when we’re on vacation and are between exciting adventures. We’ve said it when we’re in the process of fixing something and it’s not going according to the YouTube video. We’ve said it when we don’t know what to do next with parenting, our vocations, or even health issues. Perhaps by now you have guessed our phrase: “Now What?” It does most often get said in a sense of irony or amusement but there are times when this question for us has been quite profound. It is always said in relationship to something not going quite according to our plan or when we know that we don’t have a good plan going forward. The astonishing thing that Mike and I have noticed every time we’ve asked this question is that the situations have (so far) worked out somehow. Not always how we envisioned it or wanted it to be, but always, always, even when the “now what” is answered with exactly what we don’t want, always answered with God preparing us for the next step, even though it might be a step into the unknown and unexpected. I highly doubt that our family has the corner market on this question either. I’m sure that if I polled this group of all ages, you have all asked yourself or someone else, “Now What?”
We like to know what’s coming next, what we should do, what choices should we make, what will the future hold, what certainty can we count on? Sometimes this question holds excitement and possibilities and sometimes it holds sorrow and fear. “Now what?” reveals for us the reality that we can’t see into the future with any real predictability or clarity and the best we’ve got is questions and some experience of the past. In some situations, that’s enough, but often we want more.
In this part of the letter to the people of Corinth, Paul addresses the “Now What?” that they are asking. We’ve heard the story Paul, now what? We know that Jesus is resurrected, now what? We know that we don’t understand it all, now what? It’s tricky, and Paul has already dealt with so many misconceptions and issues with this fledgling church. He’s told them that Jesus is found in the hard places of our lives, offered that the cross is God’s wisdom in a world that sees it as foolishness. Paul has told them that radical, counter cultural unity is at the heart of God’s community. Paul has told them that all are equal at the banquet that Jesus lays out, Paul has talked extensively about love, not love as the world gives but love that only Christ can give: love that is unconditional, unending and self-sacrificing. He’s laid out for them the story of what God has done, what God is doing and now he turns his attention to what God promises to continue to do in our lives and in creation forever.
You see, the Corinthians were confused. They had been told that Christ would return and they all assumed that it would be imminent…yet saints, apostles and other important leaders in this nascent movement were beginning to die. If these witnesses to Jesus’ ministry were dying before seeing Christ return, what did that mean for them, newbies to the community? What did it mean that they were struggling with getting along and understanding all that they had heard and seen? They didn’t have a long-term strategic plan for Jesus not returning immediately. This was not what they had envisioned. Now what?
It’s tricky for Paul, as he’s living in the “now what” too. Now what indeed? People are dying, we don’t know what’s next, what’s the plan? What’s God’s plan? When we don’t understand something we fill in the gaps ourselves. We make up a story that we can latch on to and we do grasp it with every fiber of our being, even if it’s not that helpful a story. The Corinthians were filling in the gaps of what happens when they die and this is still true today. Does our soul drift skyward like Casper the ghost? Do we become shapeless globs of spirit only? Do we become young and beautiful again? Do we stay in our graves yet able to know what’s going on around us? Are we more like zombies? If we’re cremated can we be resurrected? When does this resurrection thing happen? Immediately? What we refer to as the “last day”? There are as many ideas about the afterlife as there are people sitting in this room, I suspect. We wonder about this, if we’re honest, we worry about this. We’re scared of death. We’re scared to death about death. We get so preoccupied with what happens when we die, that we, like the Corinthians, forget to live.
Paul is clear that we are baptized in the DEATH and RESURRECTION of Jesus Christ. Both! Yes, we will share in a death like his, but we also share in a resurrection like his! God will do a new thing with us too! Paul doesn’t give us a step by step instruction manual on how this resurrection thing works, because that’s not what’s important. What’s important and his response to the “now what” is God’s promise to transform our death into life, God’s promise that in our grave, we are not alone, in pain or in sorrow. Paul in 1 Corinthians as in Romans 8 tells us that God promises that there is nothing that separates us from the life and love of God through Jesus Christ.
This is not just the “now what” response about what happens when we die, though. It’s the response on our lives as well! If the promise is that God doesn’t let death be the final answer to our lives, then God can transform and bring new life from any circumstance no matter how impossible it seems, then isn’t this good news for today. This free us to be bold with how we live our lives in this good news that transformation of any situation in our lives and the world is all in God’s power. How will you live your life knowing that God frees you from not just physical and earthly death, but death from our sins, death from our egos, death from our selfishness, death from our personal agendas, death from disunity, death from loneliness, death from whatever is keeping you from being all who God created you to be for the sake of telling the world about Jesus Christ? How will we engage our neighbor differently? Now what?
“Now what,” is that we are truly freed to be one people, gathered in this promise of new life, not just someday by and by but right here, right now. Freed to live your life for the gospel. Freed to risk inviting those who make us uncomfortable to worship, freed to risk being generous with our time, our gifts and our material resources, and freed to risk reckless and boundary crossing love for those who our society deems unlovable. “Now what,” is that no matter what you are caught in the promises of God that were splashed on you at baptism, that you ingest at the table, and that you live out each and every day in simple or more complex ways. “Now what,” is that God says no matter what happens to you today or tomorrow, God’s got you. God will be there. God will transform sorrow into joy, pain into wholeness and death into life-real life now and forever. Amen.