“CHRISTIANITY 101”

I CORINTHIANS 15:1-14

APRIL 4, 2010

 

Play Audio

 

            Last year on Easter Sunday, our nation was reeling.  The mortgage crisis was in full swing.  The roller coaster nature of Wall Street was making everyone sick to their stomach.  Long trusted financial institutions were being shut down or bought out at an alarming rate.  Unemployment rates were skyrocketing.  Sensing heavy hearts in his congregation that Easter, John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian in the San Francisco Bay Area, offered a powerful reminder about the hope of Easter—a reminder that still serves us well this Easter Sunday.  Ortberg said:

 

            I cannot think of an Easter in recent memory where there was a bigger need for hope, for something that would breathe life into the human spirit.  A year ago, so many people … felt like they were on pretty solid ground. [Now they] find themselves in circumstances they never would have predicted.

            Nobody ever wants a season of hard times … to come, but when they do, they have a way of making you … ask, “What am I really counting on?  Am I building my life on a foundation that's solid enough that circumstances beyond my control cannot take it away?”  That's why I've been looking forward to Easter … [a time when] we gather to remember the only hope capable of sustaining a human life through everything.

People have not gathered for the past 2,000 years to say, "The stock market has risen. It has risen indeed."  They have not gathered to say, "The dollar has risen. It has risen indeed."  Or, "the employment rate has risen."  Or, "the gross domestic product has risen."  Or, "General Motors has risen."  Or "the value of your 401(k) has risen."  Here's the one hope that has held up human beings across every continent and culture for two millennia of difficult times of poverty, disease, pain, hardship, [and] death itself: "Christ is risen. He is risen indeed."

 

            It’s the same hope voiced by the Apostle Paul in our passage of scripture for this morning.  Listen to these words ...

 

            Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I proclaimed to you - unless you have come to believe in vain.

            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, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.  For I am the least of the apostles, unfit 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 toward me has not been in vain.  On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them - though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.  Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

            Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.

 

            As we unpack Paul’s words this morning, I want to divide them into three sections:  the Centrality of the Resurrection, the Challenge of the Resurrection, and the Certainty of the Resurrection.  We’ll begin with the Centrality of the Resurrection.

            Have you ever participated in one of those “twenty-five words or less” contests?  I never have, but I have often been an admirer of those with the gift of brevity.  So did Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson said, “I served with General Washington in the Legislature of Virginia ... and with Doctor Franklin in Congress.  I never heard either of them speak more than ten minutes at a time, nor to anything but the main point.”  Irvin Cobb was close to the truth when he said, “No speech can be entirely bad if it is short enough,” and I know you came here today praying I would exercise the gift of brevity, and that is what we find here in this passage ... an example of brevity.

            If we had to boil down Christianity to its essentials, to twenty-five words or less, what would we say?  What would we include?  Well, the Apostle Paul does this very thing.  He boils down Christianity to three main points, and he does it with exactly twenty-four words, at least in my translation he does it in twenty-four words.  His twenty-five words or less summary of the Christian faith begins in the third verse ...

 

            Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day ...

 

            Did you catch his three points?  Point one:  Christ died for our sins, and note the pronoun “our.”  He did not die for “his” sins, but for “our” sins.  In other words, he died in our place.  Point two: he was buried, that is to say he really died, his death was not a fake.  Point three: he rose from the dead.  The resurrection.

            There it is.  Christianity 101: He died for us, he was buried and he rose, and if we were to boil down Christianity to just one of those three points, to just one that makes Christianity different from every other religion what would it be?  That’s right.  The resurrection.

            At the heart of Christianity is a cross and it is an empty cross.  More than anything else Christianity is a religion of the resurrection.  Without it, Christianity does not exist, and that’s Paul’s point.  Note verses 13 and 14 ...

 

            If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.

 

            To be a Christian, that’s what we embrace, the resurrection of Jesus.  He was dead as a doornail, and he was buried, and he rose.  The resurrection is the lynchpin of the Christian faith.  Pardon the pun, but it all rises and falls here.

            And that leads us to section two: the Challenge of the Resurrection. 

            For many, this is a very difficult matter to comprehend, let alone believe.  The possibility of something like this actually happening is pretty far-fetched.  For instance, take Rudolf Bultmann.  Bultmann was one of the most influential Christian theologians of the past century.  He influenced countless men and women preparing for the ministry, and here’s what he said about the resurrection.  Again, Bultmann was one of the most influential theologians of the past century.  He said, “A historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable.”

            Bultmann, therefore, did not hold to the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  Instead, he held to a spiritual presence.  For Bultmann, whenever we share the gospel, or whenever we do something in the name of Jesus, Jesus is resurrected.

            Throughout the years others, even those pre-dating him, have shared Bultmann’s views.  In the eighteenth century, the U.S. Congress issued a special edition of Thomas Jefferson’s bible.  Being a man of science, Jefferson had difficulty with the supernatural, so in his bible he eliminated all the references to such occurrences, and he confined himself to the moral teachings of Jesus.  The closing words of Jefferson’s bible are: “There laid they Jesus and rolled a great stone at the mouth of the tomb and departed.”

            The resurrection challenged the world view of Thomas Jefferson, Rudolf Bultmann, and some church folk in First Church Corinth.  In fact, Paul wrote this fifteenth chapter to the resurrection skeptics in the church.  Note verse 12 ...

 

            Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection?

 

            I venture to say we have a diverse group of folk here today.  Some of us see the resurrection as a given.  It’s as certain for us as the law of gravity.  Some of us here, however, are not absolutely certain about the resurrection, but we are leaning in that direction.  More and more each year we are coming to believe in the resurrection.  Some of us want the resurrection to be true, hope it’s true, but deep down we wonder whether or not it is real.  Then there are a few of us here today, like the good folk in First Church Corinth, who are skeptical.  Like Thomas Jefferson and Rudolf Bultmann, we have questions concerning the resurrection.  For us, this sounds like ancient, mythological hocus-pocus. 

            So, the doctrine of the resurrection presents a challenge to many.  It presented a challenge to Jefferson and Bultmann, and a minority of folk in First Church Corinth, and it presents a challenge to some of us today.  I understand that, and if you are a skeptic, I encourage you later this week to read what Paul writes in this entire fifteenth chapter.  See if he can win you over. 

            Then, finally, section three: the certainty of the resurrection.  Note Paul’s argument in verses four through eight where he mentions specific appearances of the resurrected Jesus.  He mentions six in all.  He mentions an appearance to Peter, he mentions an appearance to the twelve, he mentions an appearance to over five hundred people at one time, he mentions still another to the apostles, and then one to James, and finally, one to Paul.  Six appearances.  The point?  He is saying to the Corinthian skeptics, “Listen, the resurrected Jesus appeared to over five hundred people and most of them are still alive.  If you don’t believe in the resurrection, ask some of them.  Check it out.”

            In other words, Paul says there are reliable, historical witnesses.  I like the way a British attorney, Sir Edward Clarke, put it in a letter to his pastor.  Clark wrote,

 

            As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter Day.  To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling.

 

            The poet Matthew Arnold called the resurrection “the best attested fact in history,” and I would not go that far, but the evidence for it is substantial.  In short, it passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians would have manufactured such a tale and then preached it among those who would have easily refuted their story by simply producing the body or who, under torture and persecution, would not have confessed to it all being a hoax.  People do not give their lives for a hoax. 

            Let me close with this.  In the early 1970’s, a theological seminary held a conference on the future.  Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock was all the rage, and an impressive group of scholars was assembled to “do futuring.”  They gave well-documented addresses, speculating about the sweeping changes moving toward us in education, economics, community life, and technology.  They envisioned the future and described it in dazzling detail.  The closing address was given by the president of the seminary, who said in essence, “I am only a theologian, and I have no idea what shape the future will take.    The only thing I do know is that the future will belong to a merciful God.” 

            Years later, when this seminary president retired, he was cleaning out his office and ran across the files from the conference.  He reread the papers, reviewing now with hindsight all the brave predictions about the future.  “You know,” he said, “I was the only one who was right!”

            The merciful one has risen!  He is risen indeed!