OK, lots to say about these verses but to start: What do you mean, Paul, that Jesus appeared post-Easter to 500 people at once? When in the world did THAT pretty big event happen but that is referenced nowhere else in the Bible except in passing right here in 1 Corinthians 15? How did Luke (or John who has more to say about the 40 days after Easter than anyone else) miss reporting this one for us? The only stories we get at the end of Luke, at the beginning of Acts, and at the end of John show Jesus appearing to one, two, seven, or a dozen folks at a time but that’s about it. And so inquiring minds want to know: 500 people at once? Where? When? Who?
For the time being, we’ll just never know. But some of those folks are still around, Paul claims to the Corinthians. So go ahead and ask them about it. They’ll tell you: Jesus the crucified one was alive and well and undeniably a physically restored being. If Paul’s own encounter with the living Christ Jesus was not enough for the Corinthians to buy that story, then let’s bring in some more witnesses.
You would think this would have been unnecessary, though. Superfluous. Yes, yes, even the most casual reader of 1 Corinthians cannot fail to notice that this congregation—probably numbering fewer than 100 folks—had issues. Lots of them, a laundry list of questions they’d sent to Paul as long as your arm. Maybe as long as both arms. Lawsuits, sexual issues, prostitution questions, marriage questions, arguments about gifts and status and worship and the Lord’s Supper . . . Well, it went on and on.
But really? They also argued over whether a real resurrection was all that big of a deal? Some were denying it. Others were saying it was just a little too hard to believe that story so maybe it’s an optional add-on to the faith but one you could do without and still be a Christian. Still others mounted more sophisticated counter arguments, wondering how a physical body can be part of a spiritual being? What is a resurrection body? Isn’t that an oxymoron as nonsensical as “bright darkness” or “married bachelor”?
Surely Paul got to this part of the letter he had received from Corinth and he hung his head. You just CANNOT mess up this one! All the other stuff was important and he’d taken significant pastoral pains to deal with it all in the first fourteen chapters of this epistle. But in chapter 15 it was time to lower the boom. “Take away the resurrection” Paul will go on to say, “and it’s game over. Because if Christ was not raised—the first fruits of all the rest of us having the same thing happen some day—then we’re not just deluded, mistaken, or a little bit off base. No, we are pathetic, pitiable creatures offering up our very lives to an illusion.”
Paul will go on in this chapter to try to help people wrap their minds around an admitted oxymoron: a “spiritual body.” No, we maybe cannot understand all of this just now but that does not mean it’s impossible. Jesus has a real body and it is in the mode of resurrection life. It’s physical, it’s spiritual; it’s tangible, it’s imperishable. Both. And if that seems odd or weird or something hard to wrap your mind around, well, that’s often true of those things we call “miracles,” isn’t it? And Easter is in most every respect the grandest of all miracles and so it ought neither surprise nor unduly unsettle us that it defies our usual categories of thought.
But in this particular eleven-verse reading chosen by the Lectionary, it’s enough to note that proclaiming the resurrection remains our #1 message in the church, then and now. It is the unexpected but finally glorious in-breaking into our time and space of our very future in God’s renewed creation and kingdom. And it is Good News to everyone, even to the likes of the former Saul of Tarsus.
The Apostle Paul is painfully aware of how undeserving his former “wipe the name of Jesus from the face of the earth” self had been. Surely Paul was now and then haunted with the memories of the families he broke up, the men he brutalized, the women he dragged off to jail by their hair—all in his Pharisee zeal to rid the world of the Gospel and of the Jesus at the center of it all.
And yet, that very Jesus—undeniably alive despite having been definitively crossed out by the Romans—had compassion on Saul, lavished his grace on this violent man who had hated the very name and the very idea of Jesus. It was an out-of-the-blue salvation. But it somehow fit the Savior who had an out-of-the-blue resurrection one Sunday morning outside Jerusalem. The One who shocked everyone by coming back from the grave would go on shocking the world with a gracious salvation that knows no bounds and shows no signs—even 2,000 years later—of coming to an end.
You have to love the language of 1 Corinthians 15:1: “Now I want to REMIND you . . .” It’s a nice example of dramatic understatement. “Remind” is what you do when your spouse is headed out the door to the supermarket and you “remind” him or her that you’re low on toilet paper so pick some up. You “remind” someone he has a dentist appointment at 11am the next day or that the electric bill is due by Saturday. “Remind” seems several rhetorical rungs lower than “command” or “warn” or “urge” or even “implore.” But Paul needs to remind them of the centrality of the Gospel. He says “remind” because they knew this already but had obviously forgotten its central place.
Maybe sometimes in the church today we do, too, though we don’t mean to. Not usually. And you don’t have to be in some wholesale denial of the resurrection to forget a bit its true power, its centrality. Maybe we also need to be reminded of this.
Because honestly, when I listen to some of the more prominent church leaders today as well as to what rank and file Christians are concerned about politically and socially, the way they talk about issues and concerns are rarely if ever framed up inside the central and vital importance of the resurrection. Maybe we think it’s just assumed. But if the jaw-dropping reality of Jesus’ having been raised from the dead is not the animating center of all we do and advocate for and talk about as Christians, then what is? And if we’re not framing up our spiritual, social, political concerns inside the reality of Easter, then what is our central frame of reference when engaging the world?
“I need to remind you of what is of first importance” Paul wrote to the Corinthians.
Maybe he’s writing the same to us today as well.
From Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 42-3). Buchner is here pondering how the Christian idea of an afterlife stems not from some innate “immortality” but from the gift of God. Here is part of his reflection that fits Easter well:
“Those who believe in the immortality of the soul believe that life after death is a natural function of man as digestion after a meal. The Bible instead speaks of resurrection. It is entirely unnatural. Man does not go on living beyond the grave because that’s how he’s made. Rather, he goes to his grave as dead as a doornail and is given his life back again by God just as he was given it by God in the first place, because that is the way God is made. All of the major creeds affirm belief in resurrection of the body. In other words, they affirm the belief that what God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of a human being but a new and revised version of all the things which made him the particular human being he was and which he needs something like a body to express: his personality, the way he looked, the sound of his voice, his peculiar capacity for creating and loving, in some sense, his face. The idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of man’s indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God’s unspeakable love.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 1, 2018
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Commentary