Wednesday 11 April 2012

The most important thing (1 Corinthians 15:3-11)

“I have good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first?”

Most would say, “Give me the bad. This way, no matter how bad it is, at least I have the good news to look forward to. At least I have the good news to cushion the blow.”

Paul begins by saying, “Now brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel.” The word “gospel” simply means good news. But when Paul tells us what this good news is, it starts out sounding pretty bad. Jesus died. For our sins. But then he says, Jesus was raised. Bad news, good news: Jesus died, Jesus is alive. The problem is on a day like today, Easter Sunday, we go straight for the good news: Jesus is alive! That is great news, of course. Yet when we skip the bad news, many of us end up asking: So what if Jesus is alive? So what is the big deal about Easter?

The truth is many don’t see Easter as that big a deal. Not like Christmas. Everyone loves Christmas. Most people can tell you what Christmas is about: Jesus born as the baby in the manger; God becoming a man. Some might ask: Why can’t Easter be more like Christmas, with the festivities, the food and gifts? In an article which appeared in the Mail on Friday, Father Richie of All Saints Church was quoted as saying this:

The problem with the church is that we stay inside our building and occasionally come out and say “Why don’t you come to our church, it’s cool and funky”.
‘To be honest, it’s not.

Father Richie suggests that a good way of spending Easter Sunday, therefore, is simply to stay in. Eat chocolate.

In our passage today, the apostle Paul was writing to a church which didn’t think Easter was that big a deal. They thought spiritual gifts were a big deal - especially the impressive ones like speaking in tongues (see Chapters 12 to 14). They thought having a famous pastor preaching at their church on Sunday was a big deal (see Chapters 1 to 3). They thought studying theology, having fat heads and showing off to their weaker brothers and sisters in the congregation was a big deal (see Chapter 8). Yet near the end of his letter, Paul tells them what really is a big deal, what is of first importance.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
1 Corinthians 15:3-4

Not that gifts aren’t important. Not that issues about marriage and love aren’t important (Chapters 7 and 13). Not that dealing with serious sin, responding in love, exercising discipline as a church family aren’t important things (Chapter 5). But Paul says, This is the most important thing: The gospel. The good news.

The surprising thing is, this good news initially sounds quite bad, it looks rather unimpressive, and worse, it doesn’t seem to change anything. That’s Easter according to the Mail article. It’s bad, it’s dull, it doesn’t make a difference whether you spend it in church or at home watching The Mummy.

Yet in today’s passage I want us to notice three things:

(1) It is the bad news that makes the good news good
(2) It is unimpressive people who carry a surprising message
(3) It is a difference that results not simply in a better life, but a changed life

Bad news that’s actually good. Unimpressive messengers with a surprising message. A difference that’s more than incremental, it’s totally radical.

1. It is the bad news which makes the good news good

In the same article, Bill Mcllroy from the Brighton and Hove Humanist Society had this to say about Easter, “For Christians it’s a glorious celebration but I think it’s terrible that they mark what is essentially a festival of blood and gore.” Despite the negativity, I was actually encouraged by that remark because here is someone who understands that Good Friday is central to Easter Sunday. The cross is central to the resurrection. He thinks it is terrible, of course, but at least he doesn’t dismiss it. The blood and gore - referring to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross - is not a side point. You can’t ignore it. You shouldn’t leave it out.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
1 Corinthians 15:3

To be clear, all four accounts of the gospel - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - which all focus on the violent death of Jesus as a criminal on the cross actually choose to leave out details of the “blood and gore”. Oh, it was absolutely horrible. Moreover, it was utterly humiliating for Jesus to hang on the cross, stripped of his dignity, mocked by the crowds, abandoned by his friends. But more than telling us how Jesus died on the cross, the bible wants us to know why. Paul tells us, “Christ died for our sins”.

That’s why it is called Good Friday. Jesus died so we didn’t have to. Jesus was abandoned, rejected, punished, died on the cross - not for his sins, but for ours. In another letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). When Christians look at the cross, they see how awful their sin is but they also see how good God is. God takes our sin and puts it on Jesus. He takes our punishment for sin and pours it out on Jesus. Then he takes Jesus’ righteousness and covers us with it - his holiness, his love, his glory. A great exchange happens at the cross. A good exchange: My sin for his salvation.

In other words, it is the bad news that makes the good news good. The crucifixion prepares us for the resurrection.

2. It is the unimpressive witnesses carry a glorious message

Easter Sunday is about resurrection: Jesus Christ was raised from death. It is not reincarnation, where someone is born again and again, as one thing and then another in the next life. It is not the immortality of the soul either, where your body dies but your spirit lives, floating up to heaven, like Patrick Swayze in the movie Ghost. Resurrection according to the bible is about this body dying and this same body renewed with new life, no more death as part of a new creation.

Which is why Paul adds that detail, “he was buried”. All four gospels focus on the fact that Jesus’ body, his real physical body, was taken down from the cross and buried in the tomb inside the rock. There were eye-witnesses at the tomb. There were the guards at the tomb put there to make sure no one stole his body. The point is, this same body which Jesus was born with, the body that was beaten and spit on and tortured and nailed and speared - this same body was raised on the third day. Resurrection means this body dying and this same body raised to new life.

This is also why Paul then gives us a long list of people who saw Jesus after he was raised from the dead. They saw Jesus in the flesh.

And that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
1 Corinthians 15:5-8

This list includes people who knew Jesus best - Peter and the disciples, who hung out with him for three years prior to his death. It includes a crowd of five hundred, who all saw Jesus at the same time. Meaning you could actually interview one of these eye-witnesses yourself, who would say, “Yup, I was there. We were all there. We saw him, alright.”

The one I personally found interesting was the mention of James. Now James was Jesus’ younger brother (Galatians 1:19) and the bible tells us that none of Jesus’ brothers believed him while he was alive (John 7:5). They thought he was nuts. None of them were at the cross, not even to comfort their Mom in her grief. None of them stood up for Jesus while he was being beaten and tortured, none of them came to his defence to say, “Get your slimy hands off my brother!” Rather, some of them might have said, “See, he had it coming.”

Yet Paul tells us specifically, Jesus appeared to James, his brother. I wonder what it was like for James to see Jesus again after the cross, after the resurrection. “Hey, James, remember me? It’s your Tai Ko.” James had known Jesus all his life, before any of the disciples met him, before Paul, before even Peter. James would have known what kind of cornflakes Jesus had for breakfast every morning, how Jesus liked his coffee, which basketball team he followed. James would have recognised his brother simply from hearing his voice. But more than just speaking to him, Paul tells us, Jesus appeared to James. Jesus wanted his brother to know, and to see for himself that he was alive.

Do you know how James introduces himself in his letter? In the very first verse he writes, “James, a servant of God and of Jesus Christ.” The Greek word doulos is actually the word for slave. I am a slave of God; I am a slave of Jesus Christ. What would it take for James to address his brother as his master, as his God? It took the resurrection.

So Paul gives us a list of individuals who personally met Jesus, who could testify to having met Jesus in person, after the cross, after the resurrection. Yet a valid question to ask at this point would be: If Jesus appeared to them then, in Jerusalem, in front of five hundred people, why doesn’t he do so for us today, here in Cambridge? If Jesus could say, turn up at the Chinese Church this Sunday and show himself to all our friends and family - Wouldn’t that be undeniable proof he really rose from the dead? No, it wouldn’t, and the bible gives us two reasons why. The first comes from Jesus himself.

In a parable about heaven and hell, Jesus tells us of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. If you remember, Lazarus dies and is carried up to heaven but the rich man dies, descending into hell. In the story, the rich man pleads with Abraham, asking him to send Lazarus to his family to warn them about the reality of final judgement. Abraham says, No.

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Luke 16:31

“They will not be convinced,” Jesus tells us. Why? Because the resurrection isn’t standalone evidence. It rests on the evidence of the bible - Moses and the Prophets - which is a way of referring to the Old Testament. Notice how Paul makes the same point by telling us that Christ died “according to the Scriptures” and the Christ has been raised “according to the scriptures”. The evidence lies not simply in the event but more so in the explanation for the events of the cross and resurrection - it lies in the gospel. Paul writes to remind Christians of the gospel, which was a message he received, a message he passed on. This is the gospel we received, on which we have taken our stand (verse 1). By this gospel we are saved, if we hold firmly to this word (verse 2). What is Paul reminding us to take hold of and to trust fully in? The gospel. “Otherwise,” he adds, “you have believed in vain.” If we reject the gospel, what makes us think we will accept the resurrection? Isn’t that what Jesus is saying? “The will not be convinced.”

Which brings us to our second reason: The resurrection is itself evidence for the gospel. Much effort is spent today presenting evidence for the resurrection, arguing that it really did happen. But the resurrection itself is meant to be a kind of evidence. It is evidence that points us to, and authenticates the message of the gospel.

Often, we try to prove the resurrection, that Jesus really rose from the dead. We can and yes, we should, don’t get me wrong. There was the empty tomb. There were the eye-witnesses. But Paul wasn’t writing to non-Christians convincing them that the resurrection really did happen. He was writing to remind them of the gospel, and that the resurrection was proof for the gospel. It was proof that Christ really died for our sins. It was proof that Jesus was really who he said he was - the Christ, the Son of God. In a sermon recorded in Acts, Paul preached the resurrection at the Areopagus, a gathering of the most powerful and influential philosophers of his age. Yet, he didn’t mention the tomb. In fact, he didn’t even mention the cross (though, the author Luke was likely summarising the points Paul made. Even so, at least in this account, the key emphasis in Paul’s message was the resurrection). Rather, Paul says the resurrection itself is God’s proof of something else.

For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.
Acts 17:31

The resurrection is proof that God will judge the world through Jesus Christ. You see, the resurrection itself is evidence of something bigger. Here, it is evidence for judgement. It is evidence that Jesus is the Son of God. If you go on to read the rest of 1 Corinthians 15, it is evidence that Jesus has conquered sin, death and the devil. It is evidence that Jesus’ words were truthful when he foretold the events of the cross and resurrection - hence the mention of to the “third day” in verse 4 (referencing Matthew 17:23 and 27:63). It is evidence that God himself gives of the identity of his own Son and the effectiveness of his work on the cross by raising Jesus from the dead.

The question for us is: as we consider the resurrection, have we considered Jesus? Remember how Jesus encountered Martha on the way to the tomb of her brother Lazarus. He tells her, “Your brother will rise again.” And she responds by saying, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Martha believes in the reality of the resurrection, even in her loss, even in this moment of intense grief. She holds on to the hope of the resurrection. But for Jesus, that is not enough.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
John 11:25-27

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof that he really is who he says he is. He is the Messiah (the Jewish term for Anointed One, meaning King. The Greek equivalent is the Christ). He is the Son of God. And the purpose of considering the evidence of the resurrection is to consider the identity of Jesus: It is to place our trust fully in his work on the cross. It is to place our lives fully in his hands. Yes, Lord, as Martha says, I believe you are the Son of God. You are the resurrection and the life. What does Jesus go on to do next? He raises Lazarus from the dead. He does the miracle which authenticates his message, which proves his identity.

The miracle points us to a message. And the point is, you have this message of the gospel. Paul writes to remind us of the gospel and he calls us to hold on to the gospel. It is an amazing message of forgiveness and new life but it does come to us through rather unimpressive witnesses like Paul, Peter, James - men who rejected Jesus. It comes to us through the witness of the women at the empty tomb - who were afraid of what they saw and heard, who ran off in confusion. But it is nonetheless a message that points us to Jesus, to who he really is as the Son of God, to what he really did by dying for our sins on the cross. You have this message, it is here in the scriptures. You can trust in this message, it is here in the gospel. And yes, you, even you, can speak this message, that is the power of the gospel. It is power to save. It has power to change.

3. A changed life and a new life

It is interesting how three names are singled out in the list of witnesses: Peter, James and Paul. Peter abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. James rejected Jesus his own brother his entire life. Lastly, there is Paul who persecuted Christians (and by extension, he persecuted Christ, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” - Acts 9:5). When Jesus Christ died, he died for their sins. When Jesus rose again, he appeared to them.

For Paul, however, Jesus appeared to him as one “abnormally born” (verse 8). The Greek word ektroma refers to a stillbirth or an abortion. It was a term of insult and offence. And it was likely what the Christians themselves in Corinth were calling Paul, their pastor. They referred to him as a freak. We know from the earlier chapters of the letter, that the church in Corinth hated Paul. He wasn’t impressive enough for them. He wasn’t as eloquent as the other teachers and orators in Corinth. He wasn’t as big a deal as Peter, the leader of the original Twelve, or Apollos, the gifted apologist and bible theologian. In fact, Paul might not even have been as impressive as their own church members, some of whom could prophesy and speak in tongues. So, they made fun of Paul, talking behind his back, probably picking on his name Paulos which meant “small one”, saying, “You’re a freak. Why don’t you go evangelise the hobbits, instead of telling us what to do.”

Yet, notice how Paul responds here. He says, “You’re right, that is what I am. I am a freak.”

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 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.
1 Corinthians 15:9-10

That’s an amazing thing that Paul is able to do. He is able to look back on his life and see it for what it is - to see all his mistakes, to confess all his sin, and yet, to recognise all of God’s grace. That’s the power of the gospel. It is power to change the sinful life. But moreover, it is power to renew that sinful life - to change it completely.

What Paul is doing is giving us a third witness to the resurrection. The first two were the reliability of the gospel and the witness of Christians. But the third is the witness of the changed life. Paul once rebelled against God. That is what sin is, it is rebelling against God as king and wanting to be our own king. But now, Paul submits to God as his king. Once, Paul lived for himself. Now, Paul lives by God’s grace. It is a visible grace, seen in the lives of Christians. The three names mentioned - Peter, James and Paul - were once men who lived their own lives without God. Now, they gave their lives preaching the message of the gospel, literally. All three eventually died because of their witness to Jesus as the crucified King, as the risen Son.

“Yes,” Paul says, “if you look back at my life, you will see my mistakes. I persecuted the church. I hated Jesus so much, I took the lives of those who followed him. But now that I am Christian, I can look back and see God’s grace working through me. I hope you can see that, too.” What does Paul want us to see? That he worked hard? That he found religion? That he saw the error of his ways? No, he wants us to see a gracious God. Grace means Paul was guilty. Grace means Paul deserved to be punished. But grace means Jesus Christ loved Paul and gave his life for Paul even while he was an enemy of God. And grace means, Jesus is now working in Paul to display the power of his resurrection in changing him to be more like his Saviour. That’s what Paul wants his opponents to see.

But that’s not all. Paul is unembarrassed to draw our attention to God’s grace working in his life but he doesn’t end there. He ends by bringing us back to the message of grace. He points back to the gospel.

Whether then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
1 Corinthians 15:11

He says, It doesn’t matter whether you heard it from me, or from one of those other pastors you consider better than me, I really don’t care. What I want you to get is the gospel. Jesus Christ died for your sins.

For those who say: Show me this Jesus, let me see him with my own eyes, then I’ll believe him. Paul points them to the gospel. Jesus died for our sins, he was buried. He is risen.

For those who point at their Christian friends: That guy’s a jerk. A freak. All you Christians are hypocrites. You guys are the real sinners. Paul says, Yes, I am a sinner but Jesus is my great saviour. And he points them right back to the same gospel.

The most important thing

Paul began with the gospel. He ends with the gospel. Each year at the Chinese Church we have a service on Easter Sunday and each year we have maybe ten people here at the English service. It is a long bank holiday so it is ideal for taking that trip with the family. It is out of term so the students are either all away or in their rooms studying for their exams. It is tempting therefore to try and jazz up the service, to make it a big deal, by having food, putting on a skit, having livelier music. After all, that’s what we do at Christmas, at Chinese New Year, at Mid-Autumn Festival - at some of our most successful events every year.

I am in favour of all of these approaches, especially if done out of love, especially if it gives us an opportunity to share our lives together, to encourage one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. But I do hope we continue doing the one thing we have been doing so far; the one thing Paul does right here in 1 Corinthians 15. He keeps coming back to the gospel. That’s the big deal. That’s our focus.

It is the bad news that makes the good news good: Jesus Christ died for our sins. It is unimpressive people speaking an impressive message: I am a sinner but I have a great Saviour. It is message that results not simply in a better life, but a changed life: Not I, but the grace of God working in me. That’s the message we preach. This is the gospel you believed.

I end simply by restating Paul’s opening verses: Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

Heavenly Father,
Thank you for the wonderful simple truth of the gospel
That though we were sinners Christ died for us
And though we shall die, we shall rise again
If we continue trusting in this gospel
If we hold on to the word of our salvation
In Jesus name we pray,

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