Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 6, 2022
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Commentary
I am a child of the North American 60’s who grew up watching some Saturday morning cartoons. So I can hardly hear 1 Corinthians 15:10a without hearing Popeye’s, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam. I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.”
That might seem like a rather strange onramp to a consideration of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. But those who can get past images of Popeye’s raspy voice may hear very faint echoes of Paul. In 1 Corinthians 15 he professes that he is what he is, and that’s all that he is. He’s an apostle of Jesus Christ.
The RCL’s Epistolary Lessons spend this entire month in 1 Corinthians 15. While that’s a lot of talk about resurrection, there’s good reason for that. In verse 3, after all, Paul calls Christ’s resurrection of “first importance.” Yet 1 Corinthians 15’s intense focus on it may invite its proclaimers to prayerfully seek out emphases concerning that central event of the Christian faith.
Proclaimers’ attention may most naturally be drawn to verses 3-4’s account of the Christ’s resurrection’s historical nature. They, after all, contain what one biblical scholar calls the “gospel in a nutshell:” Christ died for our sins. Christ was buried. Christ was raised on the third day. The risen Christ appeared to almost countless witnesses.
Verses 9-12 may, in fact, at first glance seem like an interruption of Paul’s grand chapter on the resurrection. However, verse 10’s “I am what I am” is a vital part of his resurrection theology. He, after all, insists that he is, by God’s grace through the Holy Spirit, a living testimony to the transforming and ongoing power in and effect of Christ’s resurrection on the lives of God’s beloved people.
Paul wasn’t, after all, always an apostle. He wasn’t even among the initial witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. In verses 5-7 Paul lists a huge group of people who met the resurrected Christ before he did.
Yet it’s not just that Paul came to the apostle “game” long after all the others did. It’s also that when he did come, he did so very reluctantly. We can almost picture the apostle’s chin and hands trembling as he writes verse 9’s terrible lament: “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
We might imagine that memories of the families he’d shattered, men whose torture he’d overseen and women he’d ordered dragged off to an uncertain fate haunted him. So it’s not just that Paul wasn’t among the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. He also, in fact, did everything he could to eliminate those witnesses.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might cite the perhaps most famous martyr for whose death Paul bore responsibility. When the religious leaders execute Stephen for his faith, Acts 8:1a reports that “Saul [later called Paul] was there, giving approval to his death.”
But, of course, Saul wasn’t content to extinguish just one of the risen Jesus’ followers. Acts 8:3 reports that he also “began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” In fact, Acts 9 reports that the apostle expanded his lethal dragnet in order to try to capture even more Christians.
However, as Paul is hounding followers of the Way all the way to Damascus, the risen Christ appears to him (8). He knocks Paul off his mount and into God’s Church and kingdom. The risen Christ even changes his name.
Paul’s claim to be as one “abnormally born,” hosperei ekromati, deserves some attention. It, after all, isn’t just mysterious. “One abnormally born” (sometimes translated as “one untimely born”) also reflects how the apostle thinks about his pre-conversion self. It implies that he thinks of himself spiritually as a naturally prematurely or perhaps even still born child.
In some ways our exact understanding of what Paul means by “one abnormally born” doesn’t matter. His contemporaries seldom survived being born prematurely. So he’s basically saying that the risen Christ appeared to him when he was as good as spiritually dead.
This helps make Paul’s story all Christians’ own. Even the godliest people are naturally spiritually dead. So 1 Corinthians 15’s proclaimers might invite our hearers into a consideration of what Paul’s testimony to God’s amazing means for “walking dead” people.
It means that even people who struggle to receive God’s grace with their faith are not beyond the reach of that grace. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson also invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to never give up even on those who seem so spiritually dead that nothing can save them.
The net that is the amazing grace of God is, after all, huge. Even Paul’s Corinthian “target audience” testifies to grace’s enormity. The church to which he writes is a relatively small one that has what seems like disproportionately large issues. It’s as if Corinth’s Christians just couldn’t stop suing each other, being intimate with each other’s spouses, arguing about spiritual gifts and abusing the Lord’s Supper.
Yet it’s precisely to those flawed people that Paul writes his spiritual autobiography. So it’s almost as if this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s apostle implies, “If there was hope for me in God’s grace, there’s hope for you imperfect Corinthian Christians in God’s grace as well.”
Paul, in fact, affirms that he was once so spiritually dead that he still considers himself “the least of all apostles.” He admits that he still doesn’t even deserve to be called an apostle. No one, in fact, who proclaims the gospel’s great news deserves that privilege. God creates the good news’ proclaimers out of the dust that is our spiritually dead selves.
That’s essentially what Paul professes when he says, “By the grace of God I am what I am and his grace to me was not without effect.” He was as spiritually dead as the crucified Jesus was once physically dead. Yet just as God raised Jesus from the dead, God also raised Paul from the dead.
So Jesus’ resurrection story isn’t, as Carla Weeks notes, (Working Preacher, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11,” February 10, 2019) the only resurrection story in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. The apostle’s story is also a resurrection story. It’s also God’s adopted sons and daughters’ story.
Yet 1 Corinthians 15 story isn’t just a resurrection story. It’s also a story of God’s marvelous grace. Paul, in fact, mentions that grace three times in verse 10 alone. “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” It’s his affirmation that no one can raise her or himself from the dead. Resurrection is always and only a gift of God’s grace.
So Paul understands that even messengers of the greatest news the world will ever hear share the gospel only because God has graciously made them God’s spokespeople. Not only that, but that grace also isn’t “in vain.” It’s not ineffective, but has, instead, an enormous impact on Paul. God’s grace has made a huge difference in God’s adopted son’s life.
We’re not entirely sure to what or whom Paul refers when he claims that he worked “harder than all of them.” Is he referring to the work he put into persecuting the church or observing Torah? Is the “them” his fellow religious leaders? Or is the apostle referring to his fellow apostles? Is he saying that he’s done more work than any of them?
Paul’s “not I, but the grace of God that was with me” at least suggests that his hard work was as a messenger of the gospel. While he claims that he worked even more than any of his fellow apostles, he admits that it’s not because of any virtue of his own, but because “of the grace of God that was with” him.
John P. Burgess (The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI) suggests that Paul worked that hard because he knew that he was the last of the apostles whom God has graced with a vision of the risen Christ. He perhaps sensed that from him forward God would make known the risen Christ through the Word and sacrament rather than visionary appearances.
Burgess says the Spirit uses that realization to motivate Paul to work harder and more than anyone, including his fellow apostles. As the last of the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, he’s determined to make the gospel known as far as he can reach for as long as he lives.
Few people were simultaneously more rhetorically eloquent and morally flawed than John Updike. That eloquence extended to his Seven Stanzas at Easter (here excerpted): “Make no mistake: if [Christ] rose at all it was as His body; if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle, the Church will fall … Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty, lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle, and crushed by remonstrance.”
But the magnitude of Updike’s eloquence surpassed the magnitude of his character. “He was,” writes Gerald McDermott March 13, 2015’s Public Discourse, “both spiritual and religious, [as well as] a serial adulterer … Updike held on to parts of historic Christian belief … [But] as one critic summed it up, Updike ‘radically divorced Christian theology from Christian ethics.”
Yet I wonder if Updike’s lyrical defenses of Christ’s bodily resurrection expressed his longing for a greater impact of that resurrection on his own flawed life. Did they show that he realized that he too was a kind of “least of the apostles” who deeply longed to be something more?
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