Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 4, 2021
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Commentary
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul tries to clear up some theological misunderstandings about 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 this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers shouldn’t be surprised that talk of the resurrection composes a kind of bookend to his first letter to the Corinthians. The letter that basically begins with his discussion of Jesus’ crucifixion in chapters 1 and 2 now basically ends with a discussion of Jesus’ 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 the apostle without the other. Our whole faith and life rest on the foundation that is both Christ’s death and resurrection.
After all, without Christ’s death on the cross, God’s adopted children would be walking a one-way road to hell. Because of Christ’s death, God, among other things, after all, 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, Jesus’ friends also enjoy new life not only now, but also after we die. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Paul says 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 and steep 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 hill.
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.
Paul goes on to claim that the risen Jesus somehow appeared to eyewitnesses who 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. In fact, 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 just 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, by the power of the Holy Spirit, leads to profession. Speaking of 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.”
That’s why while Paul understands that he has a big job, he 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 the apostle 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 to spread 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 text 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 we bring to friends, neighbors, co-workers and the world. It’s our only sure hope in a world plagued by so much hopelessness: 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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