Sermon for Easter Sunday
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
April 1, 2018 8:30 AM
Γνωρίζω δὲ ὑμῖν,* ἀδελφοί, τὸ εὐαγγέλιον ὃ εὐηγγελισάμην ὑμῖν,* ὃ καὶ παρελάβετε, ἐν ᾧ καὶ ἑστήκατε, διʼ οὗ καὶ σῴζεσθε, τίνι λόγῳ εὐηγγελισάμην ὑμῖν ⸂εἰ κατέχετε⸃, ἐκτὸς εἰ μὴ εἰκῇ ἐπιστεύσατε.
But I remind you, brothers and sisters, about the good news with which I evangelized you, which you received, in which you stand, through which you were saved—if you hold onto that word with which I evangelized you, unless you have believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:1-2)
Paul always plays with us like this. He’s going to tell us the Good News of Jesus again; but we’ve already heard it and believed it. Believing in the Good News has saved us. Well, unless it didn’t, in which case, why are we reading Paul’s words? This confusing formula introduces the Bible’s earliest story of Jesus’s resurrection; but Paul wants to remind us that the story has its pitfalls; and maybe we just thought we understood it.
Paul has to wonder about his Christians in Corinth because they have become a contentious lot, and Paul finds it hard to communicate with all of the religious and philosophical groups that have grown up in Jesus’s name on the Isthmus of Corinth since Paul’s most recent visit. He’d like to get down to basics with them once more, but he worries that they have forgotten even the first, most important things he taught them about the Savior and asks himself whether all his work in Corinth had been for naught. Hence the warning: I want to remind you of the Good News about Jesus I spoke of on my last visit, but you may have forgotten what was so good about it, why you wanted to believe it, and how it was able to save you from the powers of this evil age. He’s not sure he can merely recapitulate.
You can appreciate his quandary when you realize that Corinthian Christians had already divided themselves up into bickering groups based on who had baptized them. So we have Apollos Christians, Cephas Christians, and even some Paul Christians—though Paul’s happy to say he didn’t baptize many of them. Then there is the spiritual caucus, the bunch that doesn’t care who baptized them because they are sure their superior spiritual powers make them children of Christ alone. These folks speak in tongues and look down on you if you don’t. These super-spiritual people know its just fine and dandy to eat food offered to idols because nobody believes in the old Greek gods anymore, so what’s the harm? Those spiritual elite have their own Eucharists in which they eat a little bread and drink lots of wine. One of those elite Christians, perhaps under the influence of some of that excessive communion wine, has even shacked up with his step-mother, telling his fellow Christians that a little incest is perfectly OK for the spiritually enlightened free soul in Christ.
So, Paul qualifies his Good News with the proviso: “unless you have believed in vain.” Drunken Christianity, incest, and idol worship don’t really seem like the fruits of Good News to Paul, but he hopes that in telling them about it again, he might strike a chord of memory behind all that philosophy, all that rationalizing, and all that mean behavior.
At one level, the Good News tells the Corinthians that Jesus died, was buried, and rose on the third day. The first two could be said of virtually all human beings. That part about being raised from the dead, though, that part could be interesting. But that’s not quite all Paul’s Good News says. The death of Jesus, he tells us, was for our sins, although Paul must have known that could have been misunderstood. With the idol-worshipping, unabashedly sectarian, and happily fornicating Corinthian Christians, Paul certainly couldn’t be sure that his audience would know what those sins might have been for which Christ died. That dying and that rising again, Paul insists, was in accordance with the ancient writings. Would all the Corinthians have understood which “ancient writings” Paul meant? Jewish writings, perhaps? Homer? Plato? We almost translate the word away when we use the English word “scriptures,” but Paul’s Greek word just means “writings,” and Paul couldn’t expect every Corinthian reader to understand which writings he meant. Still, Paul has no better way to put it than to say that Jesus died for our sins according to the writings, was buried, and was raised on the third day according to the writings. The Good News contains some history, but it contains an equal amount of faith. All Paul says about Jesus, he is sure, was foretold by the Hebrew prophets of old.
But, you see, none of that business about Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection means much by itself. The question is not what Paul believes, what the Corinthians believe, or what the saints on Mt. Airy’s North Main Street believe. Religious principles can tell us something about the people that hold them, but they’re never Good News. They can divide us as often as they unite us—perhaps more often than not. If Paul had stopped there, we Corinthians might well have simply shrugged our shoulders and gone back to the Temple of Apollo for a gourmet meal from the mutton recently sacrificed there. Nothing Paul has said so far tells us why he believes something as preposterous as the resurrection of Jesus, let alone given us any reason to understand how we could believe in such a thing. Resurrection might be Good News, but it’s counterintuitive, unscientific, and, frankly, a little bit wild. Why would I even try to believe such a thing?
Paul believes in the resurrection because he has met the risen Lord. He didn’t deserve it. He was the least of the apostles because he had persecuted Christians. Nevertheless, Christ appeared to him in such a way that he was compelled to believe that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead. And because he believed that, he found he could easily believe the stories he had heard about the Lord appearing to Cephas, then to the Twelve, and even the story, otherwise unknown in Scripture, that Jesus had appeared to over 500 people at one time after his Resurrection. The lynchpin, though, was Paul’s own experience. Without it, he would not have believed any of the story.
Which is nice for Paul, but how can Paul’s experience help me believe? Some of the super-spiritual Christians in Corinth may have had similar experiences, but I’ve yet to have a vision in my life and might consider psychotherapy instead of religious counsel if I did. Among the super-sophisticated rich folk of Corinth, I imagine many would have said something similar. How is any of that Good News?
It was Good News for Paul because it changed his life. Whatever he saw or heard, Paul was at one moment a hate-filled, pompously pious persecutor of the Church on one side of his experience of the risen Lord and a man in love with God and in love and charity with his neighbors on the other side. It was the power to create Paul anew that made his vision of Christ Good News, and he is hoping that from his experience he can remind the Corinthians that they too once knew that power of God to change them into the human beings God intended them to be at the creation of all things. And they won’t need a certain kind of mystical experience or special revelation for that to happen. The Good News not about something that happened in Palestine under Pontius Pilate but something that had happened to them when the word of truth had met with the Spirit of Christ inside each one of them.
For us, the Good News of this Easter is that same power of
God. Many experiences, of course, can change us, not always for the best. Prolonged neglect can make us bitter. Personal hardships and reverses can make us angry. Sickness can take away our hope. Bigotry can make us thugs. The Good News isn’t that we can change but that God can make us into a new creation, a precious and holy priesthood. The Good News is that God is right now forming us into the image of his Son and making us fellow heirs with him of eternal life. The Good News is not a religious doctrine or an arcane belief but living hope in the God who molds us and makes us over and over into the image of God’s Son. That is the vision, and it is yours right now. It is free, and it is true. It is our alleluia and our resurrection.