Comments and Observations
I’ve always thought that Easter is one of the toughest preaching dates on the calendar. That’s counter-intuitive, I know, since the resurrection of Christ is arguably the most exciting event in the drama of salvation. The problem is that everyone already knows the story backwards and forwards. Even little children know that “up from the grave he arose.” So how can we preach something fresh and relevant on Easter? I’ve tried sermons on Romans 6, in which I focused on the present benefits of Christ’s resurrection; we’ve been raised with Christ to newness of life. And I’ve focused on the verses later in I Corinthians 15 about the future benefits of Christ’s resurrection; on “that great gettin’ up morning” our bodies will be raised to become like Christ’s resurrection body.
Our text points us in a very different direction this Easter. Rather than focus on the present or on the future, it takes us back to the past, to the factuality and centrality of the original event. Everything depends, says Paul, on whether it actually happened. After a whole series of chapters dealing with very practical matters, Paul devotes this entire chapter to the doctrine of the resurrection, precisely because the doctrine is so practically important. If Christ has not been raised, the entire Christian faith falls apart, we Christians are the most pitiable people in the world, and the world is without hope. An Easter sermon on this text should be a simple Gospel sermon, reminding people of the fundamentals of the Good News. We should call unbelievers to faith. And in the face of denials of the resurrection, we should call believers to hold on to what they have been taught.
Some members of the Corinthian church had problems with the whole idea of the resurrection of the body, on both scientific and philosophical grounds. Based on evidence known to absolutely everyone, it was an established “scientific” fact that dead bodies do not rise from the grave. No one had ever seen it happen, not in their own lives or in history. Once people were dead, they stayed dead. Furthermore, why would anyone want to come back from the dead and be reunited with their weak bodies? Contemporary philosophy taught that salvation consisted precisely in being liberated from the prison house of the body, so that you could be pure mind or spirit. Influenced by such evidence and such reasoning, some of the Corinthians had developed a doctrine of the resurrection of the soul. At conversion, we are spiritually resurrected to a new life, but we shouldn’t hope for a future physical resurrection. “They say that the resurrection has already taken place.” (II Timothy 2:18)
Paul combats this heresy by carefully arguing that Christ has been physically raised from the dead and that his resurrection makes all the difference for us in the present and the future. “I want to remind you of the Gospel….” The word “remind” is the Greek gnoridzo, which really means to make known, as though they had strayed so far from the Gospel that Paul needs to make it known all over again. As we preach on this text, we should ask ourselves if some of our congregants have wandered that far from the basics. Given the influence of modern scientism and philosophy, I wouldn’t doubt it. That gives a real sense of urgency to a basic gospel sermon on this Easter.
Note how carefully Paul describes the Gospel. It’s the word “I preached to you.” It’s what “you received,” in faith, when I preached it. It’s what you have “taken your stand on.” By this Gospel “you are saved.” The present tense there has a continuous sense; “you are being saved.” You’ve begun but you aren’t done. Then with a conditional clause, Paul calls them to maintain their grip on that old Gospel; “if you hold to the words I preached to you.” He closes this part of his argument with a thinly veiled threat. “Otherwise you have believed in vain.” Like a lawyer painstakingly building his case, Paul calls them back to the Gospel that means everything to him and to them.
But what is that Gospel? Ah, there’s the rub. Several years ago, The Christian Century magazine ran a fascinating article entitled, “The Gospel in Seven Words,” in which it asked famous Christian leaders to summarize the gospel in seven words or less. The results were very provocative. What words would you use? Here’s how Paul summarizes the primitive gospel. I say “primitive” because Paul makes a great point of connecting “his” gospel with the gospel preached from the very beginning. “For what I received I passed on to you….” Those are technical words for the transmission of tradition. I didn’t invent the gospel. It is not the result of my theological reflection on some simple and basic historical facts. There isn’t a gap between what the first apostles preached and what I preached. I simply took the tradition that was given to me and passed it on to you unchanged.
Now the Corinthians could have argued, as many have over the course of history, that Paul is not entirely honest here. He did, indeed, do considerable theologizing as he preached the gospel all over the world. His complicated letters are the proof of that. But notice how Paul puts it here. When it comes to matters of “first importance,” he preached the basic apostolic teaching about Christ. There are many dimensions of the Christian faith, but all Christians agree on these things as “of first importance.” These are the unalterable, undecorated truths at the heart of the gospel: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scripture, and that he appeared….”
Note all the “that’s.” There is a “that-ness” to the gospel. It is centered on facts about Jesus. It has content. I make that point because there is a strong movement afoot today to deemphasize the content, the doctrinal core of the gospel, in favor of the living out of the gospel, whether that living takes the form of social activism, or liturgical practices, or communal living, or spiritual disciplines. Take, for example, a stimulating article in the Christian Century by Amy Frykholm, in which she very honestly talks about her problems in reciting the Nicene Creed, particularly those 2 words, “we believe.”
As she struggled with her reticence, she consulted with Sarah Miles, the often provocative and frequently helpful Episcopal priest. “What do you make of belief as a part of the Christian faith?” I asked her. “Belief,” she answered, “is the least interesting part of faith. I can believe all kinds of stuff, whatever I choose—but what I believe isn’t the point. The point is to live in relationship with God that’s not controlled by my own ideas. Faith is about putting my heart and my trust—my whole life—in God. Christianity is at heart about relationship—and the nature of my faith rests in relationship rather than belief.” Frykholm says, “That makes sense: belief is just one part, perhaps a small part, of Christianity.”
While there is much true and helpful in what Miles says, I doubt that Paul would agree that belief in stuff, belief in facts, belief in teachings about historical events, is only a small part of Christianity. It surely isn’t the whole of Christianity, but the Good News at the center of the Christian faith is precisely about certain “that’s.” It is because certain things actually happened that we can have a relationship with God, that we can worship God in liturgical ecstasy, that there is a Christian community characterized by loving relationships, and that we can work at promoting the kingdom of justice and peace in the world. For Paul, “what I believe” is the “still point” on which the world turns.
In four cryptic phrases packed with meaning Paul lists the essential facts of the Gospel. First, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture.” I won’t spend a lot of time on this, because this is an Easter sermon. I’ll just note these things. You can’t preach Easter without Good Friday. They are inextricably intertwined in the Gospel. The Gospel is about a crucified Christ, an idea so offensive to the Jews of Paul’s day. That death of the Christ was not for his sins, but for ours. The idea of substitutionary atonement was at the heart of the gospel from the very beginning. Finally, all of this was in fulfillment of the Old Testament Scripture. The early church didn’t invent this stuff. They experienced it and then found it in the Old Testament. The Gospel has deep roots in God’s old word.
Second, “he was buried.” Why did this seemingly insignificant fact become part of the “first things” of the Gospel? Because from the very first days, skeptics explained away the next phrase in the gospel by saying that Jesus didn’t really die. He merely swooned; he seemed dead, but he didn’t really die. So he didn’t actually rise from the dead. No, said the first Christians, he died. We know he did, because we buried him.
But then, third, and centrally, “he was raised on the third day according to the Scripture.” He was so dead that he couldn’t raise himself. By using a perfect passive verb, Paul says that God raised Jesus from the dead and he remains alive to this very day. This startling claim was not some novelty invented by gullible first century fanatics. It was predicted in the Hebrew Scripture. The Christ went exactly as it was written of him. Even the outrageous news about Christ’s resurrection has deep roots in God’s old word. This is how God always planned to bless the world.
That brings us to the fourth essential of the Gospel; “he appeared….” How do we know he actually rose from the dead? Perhaps the deluded disciples invented the story to perpetuate the memory of Jesus and promote his cause. No, says the basic Gospel, he appeared to numerous people in multiple places at various times. The appearances began with Peter, proceeded to the core band of apostles, expanded to a group of 500 followers, and concluded with Paul himself. Contemporary skeptics may argue that the early Christians were wrong, but at least we have to admit that Peter and James and John and Paul were convinced they actually saw the risen Christ. To them these sightings were a crucial part of the Gospel. The actual, historical, physical resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the Gospel. Indeed, in the succeeding section Paul goes to great lengths to show what happens to the Christian faith and to Christians if this resurrection stuff isn’t really true.
Paul concludes this section on the Gospel with a passionate defense of his apostleship. He does this, of course, because the Gospel depends on his credibility. Why should they listen to him? Why should we listen to him? This was a very relevant question in Paul’s day, as he was dogged by critics who questioned his apostleship. It is relevant today as critics dismiss Paul for his alleged distortion of Jesus’ simple message and his hatred of women and gays. Is Paul a reliable representative of the Christian faith? As one scholar put it, Paul’s defense of his credentials moves from self-recrimination (“I am the least and do not deserve….”) to apparent vanity (“I worked harder than all of them”) to second guessing (“not I but God’s grace”) to shrugging (“whether it was I or they”) to confidence (“this is what we preached and this is what you believed”). Those last words are the point. What I’ve just told you about the gospel is what all true Christians preach and believe. So “how can some of you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?”
On this Easter Sunday, this text invites us to preach the old Gospel—not just us preachers, but all of us as the people of God. Paul’s last words about the grace of God can be the basis for a very personal appeal to our congregants to spread the Good News. They may feel unqualified, but look what the grace of God did through Paul. He was a persecutor of the church. He compared himself to an aborted fetus. He thought he was unworthy. Yet he worked harder than anyone else and his work was very effective. “By the grace of God I am what I am.” That’s true for everyone who believes the Gospel. And by that grace, we can preach the Gospel, too. It’s simple. “Christ died for our sins, and was buried and was raised and appeared.” By that Gospel we are saved.
Paul’s appeal to eyewitnesses might not be helpful for modern audiences. Anyone who has ever played the Telephone Game, in which a piece of information is whispered from ear to ear around a circle, knows how word of mouth reporting can get twisted. And scientific experiments with eyewitness testimony have so discredited the value of such testimony that it hardly counts in courts of law anymore. The interesting thing about Paul’s use of such testimony, however, is that there were many eyes, not just a few. That’s precisely why he gives the list of witnesses. Ancient Jewish law knew about unreliability, too. That’s why testimony in court had to be “at the mouth of two or three witnesses” to be considered reliable. Further, in an oral culture the transmission of tradition was far more accurate than the Telephone Game, especially when it concerned something as important as the essentials of world changing Good News.
Paul’s words about grace reminded me of Leif Enger’s wonderful novel, Peace Like a River. In it, Davy Land guns down two school bullies who have broken into his home. After he is arrested, jailed and convicted, Davey breaks out of jail and heads for the Badlands of North Dakota. He is pursued by a federal agent and by his own father, the one representing law, the other love. That’s a picture of Paul and of every one of us. We’re all outlaws hiding in the Badlands of sin, pursued by law and love, by justice and grace. Paul was a representative of law and justice as he tried to destroy the church. But the grace of God pursued him and changed him dramatically. The rest of his life was devoted to telling the Good News that the grace of God sent Jesus Christ into the Badlands to die for our sins and be raised to new life. Preaching that old Gospel is not a narrow minded, old fashioned, overly rigorous insistence on doctrine. It is the most gracious, loving, redemptive action we can perform, because by that Gospel the world is saved.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 5, 2015
1 Corinthians 15:1-10 Commentary