‘I handed on to you as of first importance’ says the apostle Paul to the Corinthian church ‘ what I in turn had received’.
I want to dive in and talk about what the apostle felt was the core of the gospel – the Good News: What it was that Paul felt was the heart of his preaching? What it was that he saw as being essential to Christian faith? He describes this in our New Testament reading this morning. He tells us in the first verses of the reading that the Corinthians had the good news proclaimed to them, they received it, they stand in it (by which I think he means they trust in it) and they are being saved by this message – it is making a difference to them and to their relationship with God.
‘Of first importance’: strange then that Paul needs a ‘run up’ of 14 chapters to get to this point – the apostle could talk and he could write (at length). But he needed to:There was much in the church of Corinth that needed sorting out, that needed his guiding hand in this letter. But (finally) he gets the chance to speak of these things of ‘first importance’, the things that had changed his life, that he himself had received. That simple word –‘received’ – suggests that, for all that the Damascus Road was a life changing experience for Paul, that experience still needed to be understood within the context of the first Christian community’s reflections upon the work of God that they had witnessed in and through Jesus. Paul’s ‘good news’ hasn’t just arrived ‘neat’ in his head despite the personal nature of the vision he had granted to him, he has spoken to others and has learned from them.
Of first importance: ‘Christ died for our sins.’ I have no doubt that there are really big books written about those 5 words: ‘Christ died for our sins.’ Each word is important. We think we know what these words mean…but Christians have taken chunks out of each other for centuries over them. It is important however to recognise the word ‘Christ’ in the sentence. This is a word of faith. Faith that Jesus was, and is, the Christ of God. What does that mean? Christos in Greek means the anointed one. The Hebrew word is ‘Messiah’: so Paul, the Jew, is saying that the Messiah has come, and with him has come God’s action in the world (embodied, lived out). And this work of God, seen in Jesus’ life also involved his death.
These are huge statements: we’re so used to them. The whole idea of the Messiah dying was anathema to most of Paul’s Jewish hearers but he says more. He goes on to say that the Christ’s death was ‘for our sins’. We’re not talking about Slimming World’s ‘sins’ here: a cream cake or a glass of wine – no. The death that Jesus suffers is both brought about by, and deals with, the brokenness of the whole world as far as God is concerned. Is that not Good News? This is God’s purpose – to reconcile all things to Himself. As Paul puts it in his second letter to the Corinthians: ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.’ God is at work in Jesus seems to be the message.
Christ died, was buried…and raised, according to the scriptures. Dead and buried. All human hope extinguished. All human attempts to survive: overcome by Death. A real death: this is where we part company with the followers of Islam as well as with Judaism. Jesus died and was buried: the resurrection we celebrate is so much more than the resuscitation of a corpse let alone the survival of a crucified individual, beaten and bloodied who then claims to be the source of Life itself. Good Friday is a full stop not a semi colon or comma.
The Christ of God, pours Himself out, totally, utterly for others. God, in Christ, shows Himself willing to accept everything we can throw at Him…and still love. God can do no other, really, it is His nature to love…and this is the extent of that love. It’s hardly a choice: it is who God is, revealed on the cross.
Of ‘first importance’ now seems to be the recognition of that love: love as the nature of God Himself
‘In accordance with the scriptures.’ Where do we start with this phrase? The first Christian communities ransacked the psalms (particularly) and the book of Isaiah to find this ‘suffering servant’. They found the vindication of God’s anointed in Daniel. But they dug deeper: they heard God weeping for his people in Hosea and Jeremiah, they saw his faithfulness in the long history of Israel right through their story from the Patriarchs on into the Promised Land, the Monarchy and the exile. Paul links the early Christian community into this story – all that has happened is ‘according to the scriptures’. Which is why (just in case you ever wondered) we have both an old and new testament in our bibles, a first and second covenant. We cannot understand who Jesus is without knowing the story of God with His people.
He died, was buried…and was raised. Note what is called ‘the passive’ voice of that verb. Jesus does not raise himself. He was raised by God. Another faith claim. God did something on Easter Day: God raised Jesus. The gospels, Paul Himself (especially in the rest of this chapter 15) all struggle to get a hold on what took place in those days after Easter. Paul here gives us an impressive list of people who met the risen Christ. Speaking of Christian hope, I sometimes have people say to me on funeral visits words to the effect ‘we don’t know what lies ahead of us. No one has ever come back’. Tell that to St. Paul. He and over 500 others met with Christ.
But that then begs the question ‘Was Paul’s meeting, his ‘seeing’ different to ours?’ Yes…and No. The Christian church now, (not just back then) is the greatest witness to the resurrection of Christ: People like you and I who have not ‘seen’ in the same way as the apostles or those first Christians but believe – remember the apostle John’s words ‘Blessed are those who have not seen but believe’. If we hold to that idea or faith that Jesus, the Christ, is God’s saving love and work in action – blessing, healing, accepting, forgiving, redeeming – then we witness the resurrection (we come close to that action of God) wherever we find these things. We come close to the indestructible life of God most especially where these things are practiced.
So I leave you with a question about the Good News, the gospel. Is St. Mary’s a gospel church? Has the gospel taken root in who we are and how we live? Is this community a community of truth and love? Truth, because Christ died for our sins: can we face the truth about ourselves and others confident in the grace of God to accept and forgive us. Love: because it is one thing for God to forgive, it is another for us to do so. Do people experience grace in this community or judgement? My guess is that you would not be in church this morning if you had not found grace here. You would not be here if the presence of God had not become real to you in and through others and you therefore leave worship having met (in some way) with the risen Lord Jesus. Paul reminds us to ‘stand’ in this faith, to persevere and to live the faith we proclaim. ‘ Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried and was raised on the third day according to the scriptures and he appeared…to me…and to you.’
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