There is a lot that could be said about 1 Corinthians 15 from a scholarly point of view. Many books have been written both about the background, its place in the letter and the meaning of just about every word contained in the passage.
Once, many years ago, when I started on my masters my professor New Testament suggested Id spent the two years I had on this text. I didnt. Not because I was daunted by the mountain of already available literature on it, but mainly because I failed to see what the relevance of the text to the here and now could be at that time. Paul carrying on in his usual manner did not appeal to me at all at the time and I turned to the gospel of Mark instead and had a great time picking the resurrection story as it is written in Mark 16:1-8 apart.
Since then a lot has happened and I have grown up a bit as well as grown into a passionate love for Paul and all things Pauline. I have discovered his writings as some of the most relevant and profound in the Bible and can get really excited when I am to interpret part of one of his letters for a sermon.
He speaks to me through his efforts to put into words what really cannot be put into words: The living presence of Christ after Easter in the lives of people who were not even looking for that presence, making a difference and changing their lives, his life. He speaks to me through the discussions with people of his time who had questions like us and who made it very hard for him to just gloss over the mysteries of faith with some pious remark or simple easy answers. Paul wrestles and struggles and argues with an intensity that translates, by times, in a broth of words that is hard to follow but at the same time brilliant in its effort to try and say, to try and explain the unspeakable.
As he does in 1 Corinthians 15.
Now, rather than go into the back ground and all the scholarly stuff (I can lend you a good commentary or two if you are really interested and you can read it all for yourself) I would like, this morning, consistent with the spirit of this service, to meditate on the text and contemplate some possible connections to the here and now, to us as we have gathered here on this early summers morning. It will be by no means exhaustive, but it may give you a glimmer of an idea of what it is that moves Paul to write what he writes and why some of these words have become undying treasures of Christian tradition.
1 Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I have proclaimed to you unless you have come to believe in vain .
Id like you to think, for a moment of what that means for you: Who proclaimed the good news to you? From whom did you receive it in such a way that you can now stand in it, be confident in it, be secure in your faith? Was it your grandparents? Your parents? The Sunday school teacher? A friend? Your children perhaps? Or maybe even a minister?
How did the message come to you and who did you hand it on to? Did it proceed from where you received it to others who received it through you?
And how exactly did it save you? What does salvation, in a gospel sense of the word mean to you? Or doesnt it mean anything? And have you then come to believe in vain?
Why are you here? Because you received the good news! But what does it mean to you, really, in your everyday existence? Does it make a difference?
You might as well pack up and go home if it doesnt !
What then was it that Paul handed down?
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.
That is the Christian faith in a nutshell: That Christ died, that somehow he died for us, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.
And I wonder if that would fit your nutshell, your briefest summary of faith or if it would be something else. I know that for many nowadays it is something more like: That Christ was a guy who lived a good life and that if we all live the way he did the world would be a better place.
That is not what Paul says. The dying and raising up are an unalienable part of his creed. What makes Jesus special is not his life in Pauls eyes (he barely mentions it in all those letters) but rather his death and what came after. That God didnt stop loving the world after it had killed what was most dear to him, that is what gets Paul!
And he goes on to explain what the "raised up on the third day according to the scriptures means, listen:
5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Hundreds of people have seen Jesus says Paul, even before his brother James and his 12 special friends cottoned on to the fact that death had not been able to put a stop to him. And last of all, as to one untimely born, as to an unfinished foetus, he appeared also to me .
The first thing we might want to clarify in a time where the debate about the physical resurrection of Jesus still rages here and there is the way in which Paul speaks about this appearances. And here I do need to get a little bit technical: The word used in the Greek here, is a word used for insight rather than physical sight and the way Paul puts himself alongside all the other witnesses suggests the same: Paul is not referring to physical, bodily appearances in the flesh, but rather to revelations, moments of profound insight and awareness of the living presence of the Lord in once life in much the same way you and I might be able to experience it. The 500 probably a crowd similar to the one that is referred to in Acts 2 at Pentecost: After he died and was buried people experience Jesus, feel they have met him, been in his living presence and that this presence has changed their life in a significant way. And then it follows that this has never since stopped, that we are, simply by sitting here and being part of the Jesus movement, part of that chain of people who had the good news proclaimed to them, received it and took it on because they too had experienced the living presence of the Lord.
And Id like you to reflect where and how this living presence of Jesus takes shape in your life. Where you meet him, experience him, see him appear? Where you feel you are called, like Paul, to be part of that community of people that have somehow been touched by the living Christ.
9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of themthough it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
The least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle .
I wonder if you ever feel like that. That you are not worth to be called a Christian. That you have messed up, need a lot of straightening out before you could be any use to God. I wonder if you have ever felt like Paul: not much use and filled with guilt and shame, too aware of your own fallibility and failures. Not fit or worthy of proclaiming the gospel to others because you know what they perhaps dont know: that you are not perfect, but that you have serious, deeply unfortunate flaws that render you absolutely useless to be a representative of the faith.
But by the grace of God . says Paul. And that is the one sentence his whole faith hinges on: Only by the grace of God is it that I am what I am: an apostle, a representative of the faith, somebody who has been called to hand on the good news he received, someone who has been privileged enough to experience the presence of the living Christ, able to proclaim and hand on of what he has himself received.
And that is one of the basic tenets of our faith: Faith is something we receive, through others and from the hand of God, it is grace that accepts us regardless of who we are or what we do or have done and calls us to stand in that message that even when the world, when we, manage to actually kill what is most dear to God, there is still hope and the grace of God raising us up the other end, calling us to live a life of resurrection and witness to the deep and unending love of God. To have a go at life like Jesus did, to lead a life like God would want it, not to try and be perfect little munchkins, but to live out our faith as far as we can manage it, trusting that God will do the rest.