The Third Sunday before Lent I Corinthians 15.12-20
There is a wonderful shop off one of the back streets in Hereford, my hometown, that sells bric a brac, curios, vinyl records, costume wear, 1960s psychedelia, fossils, joss sticks, bits and pieces of everything and…as the street sign outside the shop says ‘things that are not normal’.
Well we have something ‘that is not normal’ today. We have been given in our readings verses that follow directly on from last week’s reading in 1 Corinthians and, having preached on the epistle last week I’m going to do the same this morning. Next week?…well that’s another matter. I’m on holiday, the lectionary choices shift us away from 1 Corinthians 15 and it’ll be one of my colleagues preaching but (for one Sunday only) a bargain offer, Part 2 of a 2 part sermon series.
Just in case you weren’t here last week…or have forgotten, Paul (at the beginning of the chapter) reminded the Christians in Corinth of the things handed on to him of ‘first importance’: that ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was dead and buried and that he was raised on the third day and appeared’ to a whole host of disciples. In the rest of chapter 15 we will see Paul talking about the resurrection: Jesus’ resurrection and ours.
Paul begins our verses this morning talking about the resurrection. And he makes a fairly obvious point which it seems strange for him even to have to make: ‘if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?’ …a couple of verses later you’ll see that he says that ‘if Christ has not been raised’ then both his own proclamation and the Corinthians faith has been vain …worthless…a waste of time and effort.
It seems, that some people in the church in Corinth had stripped the preaching of the resurrection out of the faith. Maybe it seemed ‘too hard’, ‘too esoteric’, too wrapped up – perhaps – in Jewish ideas of God that they felt didn’t translate into the Greek thinking world. What these people actually believed is hard to piece together but I suspect they had turned the Christian faith into something little more than a moral code to be followed. Perhaps for them the church became a meeting of likeminded individuals who happened to enjoy one another’s company and practised some curious ritual behaviours around baptism and sharing a common meal of bread and wine. This might sound familiar, it may even be what you believe, but it won’t do. This alone isn’t Christianity. This isn’t the heart of our faith. For all that Jesus’ teaching is to be honoured, for all that the church (as a community) can offer to a lonely world a place to feel at home, the heart of Paul’s proclamation was that ‘the Christ’ (not just anybody but God’s anointed) had been crucified. Paul knew full well that this was a ’stumbling block’ to his Jewish hearers and ‘foolishness’ to his Greek audience but he never lets go of this. And, for him, the resurrection was the proof that what Jesus did on the cross actually achieved something of cosmic importance: it dealt with the sin of the whole world. That’s my first point: the centrality of the resurrection to us being here at all this morning.
My second point hangs on Paul’s words in verse 15. ‘If Christ has not been raised’ he says ‘we are found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that He raised Christ.’ Now try to hear these words as spoken by Paul a Pharisaic Jew: someone for whom the keeping of the Jewish Law was at the heart of his existence; someone for whom the Ten Commandments were divinely given; someone for whom the commandment to ‘not bear false witness’ actually meant something. Hear the weight Paul gives these words. ‘I’ he says, ‘have testified that Christ was raised. I have proclaimed the resurrection. I have taught tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people about the nature of God based on the fact that Christ died for our sins and was raised. If I, Paul, am wrong…then I am indeed lost. But if I am right than our understanding of who God is must change. If it is true that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself’ then the very nature of God is underlined as being faithful, enduring, suffering Love. This is a love that suffers rejection but doesn’t let go of us. This is a Love from which nothing in all creation can ever separate us’. This is a gospel to celebrate. This is Good News. My first point was that the resurrection is central to our faith: we are an Easter church or we are no church at all. My second point is this: the resurrection undergirds our understanding of the nature of God: without the resurrection we don’t have a credible gospel, we don’t have good news to proclaim.
Paul is getting all his ducks in a row isn’t he, so follow his train of thought to our third point.
If there’s no resurrection in your faith then Jesus hasn’t been raised.
If Jesus hasn’t been raised why on earth is Paul risking life and limb to preach otherwise?…and risking God’s judgement for misrepresenting Him?
If Jesus hasn’t been raised then the whole edifice of Paul’s teaching about the nature of this wonderful, faithful God collapses.
Because if Jesus hasn’t been raised then (verse 17) you are still in your sins? Cross and resurrection hang together here. Jesus on the cross may well give us a wonderful example of human courage and strength. Jesus on the cross may well give us a powerful image of human forgiveness – but it is the resurrection that gives us the divine approval of Jesus, his life and his death. Without the resurrection we are left with ‘My God, My God why have you abandoned me?’ Divine judgement worked out on the body of a failed, discredited prophet. Good Friday alone is not enough. It may well move us to tears but we are left unsure, not at all sure whether the purposes of God were truly being worked out in the life of this man who claimed to be the Christ.
This is not enough for Paul. It is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that says ‘God was in Christ’. It is the resurrection that says that God’s justice and His love are revealed as one and the same. Through the cross and the resurrection the rebellion of the world receives judgement ‘in Christ’ but a new redeemed world becomes possible through God’s love and we enter it by putting our faith in the risen Christ. We place our trust not just in Jesus of Nazareth but in the Christ of God…the risen Lord Jesus.
Paul’s preaching sounds as if it is about Jesus but it is very much about God: what God is doing, what God has been doing, what God is like, what God desires of us and for us. And what is it that God wants? This is our third point: he wants to deal with the consequences of the world’s rebellion. He wants to open up for us ‘a new and living way into His presence’ so the we can know Him, love Him, serve Him and worship Him. Cross and resurrection make this possible. So what do we have have? The resurrection is central to the Gospel. The resurrection tells us about God’s nature and thirdly, it is the cross and resurrection together that make possible a new world.
Elsewhere Paul will speak of the resurrection life as being now, here amongst us…something we can live in the present as we move towards experiencing its fulness in the future. But here, in our verses, he clearly ties our resurrection hope to the resurrection of Jesus. Notice those words ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ…’? Paul clearly looks to some form of ‘other life’ in the presence of God, a life that he presumes those who have ‘died in Christ’ already enjoy because he cannot countenance that they have ‘perished’. But note, finally, the last verse of our reading where Christ is described as the first fruits of the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection, He is the first fruits of a crop to follow. If Jesus has not been raised then I need to stop taking funerals because there is no hope for us, I have no gospel, I have no hope to offer, there is just nothing to say in he face of the final enemy ‘Death’.
But, the resurrection changes everything. It is central to our gospel. It reveals the nature of God’s loving faithfulness. It opens up a new world for those who believe and, this is my final point, it gives us a living hope for the future that is far more than just sitting on a cloud playing a harp but a hope that we can live out of now – that whatever we might face as individuals, as a church, as a community or country or world God has a future for us that exceeds all that we can conceive or imagine and we are called to lean into it, live into it, now.
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