In the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday Paul describes his theology of the resurrection. Yet he insists that the Corinthians’ confusion about it isn’t just one among many problems that he’s already addressed. Lack of clarity about the resurrection isn’t like confusion about, for example, sexuality, food offered to idols and lawsuits that plague his first readers.
No, Paul insists that the resurrection is at the very heart of the gospel. So we shouldn’t be surprised that talk of the resurrection composes a kind of bookend to his first letter to the Corinthians. It begins with his discussion of Jesus’ crucifixion in chapters 1 and 2 and now basically ends with a discussion of his resurrection.
Paul forges strong links between 1 Corinthians 1 and 15. In chapter 1:17 he argues that Jesus’ crucifixion is central to “the gospel.” In verse 1 of our text the apostle again reminds us of “the gospel” which is the great news of Christ’s resurrection.
In I Corinthians 1 Paul “preaches” Christ crucified. In chapter 15 he reminds the Corinthians about what he “preached” to them about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. In I Corinthians 1:28 the apostle insists that God chose “the lowly things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are.” Now he basically ends his letter to them by saying that God brings life out of death through Christ’s resurrection.
As one scholar writes, for Paul Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are really like two sides of the same coin. Neither makes any sense to him without the other. Our whole faith and life rest on the foundation that is both Christ’s death and resurrection.
Without Christ’s death on the cross, God’s adopted children would have put ourselves on a one-way road to hell. Because of Christ’s death, among other things, after all, God forgives our sins. Without Christ’s resurrection, however, God’s beloved people would have no guarantee we’d survive death in order to eternally enjoy that forgiveness. Because of Christ’s resurrection, however, we enjoy new life not only now, but also after we die.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that Paul says makes some strong things about the importance of Christ’s resurrection in our text. He recalls that the Corinthians have taken their “stand,” that they’ve rested all their hope on Jesus’ resurrection (1). Even now, he adds, we’re being saved through the good news of the resurrection if we “hold firmly” (2), if we clutch tightly what Paul teaches us.
So the apostle suggests that Jesus’ resurrection is like the towrope onto which God’s chosen people hold for dear life as we ride up the sometimes-snowy mountain that is our life before God and with each other. The apostle implies that if we somehow let go of that resurrection, we’re in danger of plunging back down a steep mountain.
Paul’s urgent appeal to the Corinthians suggests that some of them have already let go of that towrope that is the gospel of Christ’s resurrection. Some seem to have forgotten that faith to which God had called them through him. Others are in danger of moving the house that is their faith off its foundation that is the resurrection and putting it on sand.
Yet Paul refuses to give up on those wavering Corinthians. He begs them to listen to the gospel again. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t, after all, some myth that began with the apostle. Paul insists that the gospel is a testimony to what God did at a particular time in a particular place. It’s a witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The apostle’s1 Corinthians 15’s witness to that moves from Jesus’ crucifixion to resurrection much the way Paul’s whole first letter to the Corinthians moves. In verses 3 and following, after all, we read, “Christ died for our sins … he was buried … he was raised on the first day … he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve.”
This message isn’t, however, like some headline in the New York Times that appears today but we forget tomorrow. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are of what Paul calls “first importance” (3), the kind of things we remember as long as our memory lasts. They’re, in fact, a kind of headline over our lives every day that we live.
Paul goes on to claim that the risen Jesus somehow appeared to people. Yet he insists that the eyewitnesses didn’t just imagine or make this up. Paul, in fact, lists the witnesses to whom Christ appeared after God raised him from the dead. On top of that, he insists that most of the people to whom Christ appeared are “still living” (6). That means if the Corinthians somehow doubted Jesus’ resurrection, they could have checked with one of those witnesses.
The Jesus who died on the cross is the One who also showed himself to be alive after God raised him back to life. This calls for not a theory of resurrection, but a confession of faith from his grateful followers. Christ is alive!
However, the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection is also a profession of faith that his adopted brothers and sisters pray God will graciously use to help awaken faith in others. Profession, after all, through the work of the Holy Spirit, leads to profession. What God has done for God’s people in Christ helps others to see what God is doing for them in Christ.
Paul, in fact, adds his own profession to the Church’s profession. He says Christ “appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (5). Then, however, the apostle adds his own profession in verse 6: “After that,” Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers … Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, he appeared to me also.”
Clearly, then, the risen Christ was on the move, expanding the circle of believers, beginning in Jerusalem but now stretching across the whole world. Yet Paul admits that he belongs to a pretty select group of eyewitnesses. He is, after all, the last person to whom the risen Christ actually appeared.
That’s why Paul understands that he has a big job. Of course, the apostle also knows he doesn’t deserve that vital job. He didn’t, after all, know Jesus personally. Paul wasn’t one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. He didn’t experience the confusion that the risen Christ turned to joy on the first Easter. The Holy Spirit didn’t descend on and fill him on the first Pentecost.
In fact, Paul initially actually persecuted the Church. He witnessed and, in fact, approved of Stephen’s martyrdom. What’s more, Paul met the risen Christ only as he was on his way to capture and imprison Christians. That’s why Paul refers to himself as “one abnormally born” (8), literally as a miscarried fetus. When the risen Christ appeared to him, after all, he was basically dead.
So only by God’s grace are Paul, those who proclaim his 1 Corinthians 15 message, or, for that matter, any of Jesus’ followers what we are. By that same grace, God also equips Paul as well as his brothers and sisters in Christ to work hard at spreading the gospel of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
That proclamation both frames our text and sets an agenda for the lives of God’s beloved children. Paul begins this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by reminding his readers of the “gospel” he “preached” (1) to them. He ends it by reiterating that he and the other apostles “preach” that gospel (12). God wishes to use that preaching to graciously bring many other people to faith in the risen Christ.
In the rest of the chapter, Paul lays out the implications of that great gospel. He shows why his preaching and the Corinthian believing can’t be in vain. If, after all, Christ isn’t alive, we’re pitiful fools who are just wasting our time.
It’s that same message that both those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 15 and those who hear it bring to friends, neighbors, co-workers and the world. It’s our only sure hope in a world plagued by so much despair: Christ is alive and will someday return to redeem all things, including the messes we’ve made for our neighbors, the creation and ourselves.
In her shocking short story, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor describes the Misfit, a murderer with a conscience who’s about to kill an elderly woman. Before he does so, however, he talks about Jesus’ resurrection. It changes everything, he insists. It, in fact, seems to haunt him.
“’Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead’,” The Misfit … [said], “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,’ he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.“
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 10, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Commentary