Easter Day B
March 30, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Suppose a grandfather calls his granddaughter over and says to her, “Sweetie, out on the back porch I have a special surprise for you: a new bike!” Upon hearing this news the little girl will probably quickly run out to see the bike. If so, you might describe her as sprinting away from her grandfather, maybe skipping out to the porch, or perhaps as dashing or bounding out with glee. You would not, however, say, “Upon hearing about the new bike, the little girl fled from the presence of her grandpa.” End of story.
End of story?? Really? Fled?
Not much of an ending.
The first Greek word of Mark’s Gospel is arche, “beginning.” “Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Now the last word is gar “for . . .” The beginning seemed promising. But what about this ending?
“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . .”
“They said nothing to anyone as they were afraid because . . . “
Mark tells us that the women fled. They ran away but not with a skip in their step. They were bewildered. They didn’t even tell anyone a single, blessed thing because, as Mark tells us in the end, they were flat out “afraid.”
“They were afraid because . . .”
And that 8th verse really is the end of Mark as there is now near-universal agreement among biblical scholars and commentators that the last seventeen verses of Mark 16 were not written by Mark but were added on later by someone who clearly believed Mark had not ended his gospel very appropriately. True, my former Greek professor from college told me that it’s not too unusual for a Greek sentence to end with gar the way it would be in English, so grammatically maybe we cannot make too much out of that final Greek word in Mark 16:8, but the sense of ellipsis, of incompleteness, persists even so. “For they were afraid . . .” Really? End of story?
Mark concluded his gospel with the bewildered silence of women who were too afraid to speak. But why? Surely Mark knew what profoundly good news this was. Surely Mark knew that these women did not remain silent forever–if they had, how could he have even written even verses 1-8? Mark was not there in person but somebody told him this story eventually and if it was not the women themselves, then it was someone (perhaps the Apostle Peter, who may have been Mark’s source for this gospel) whom the women did tell. They did not remain silent. That much we know and can infer. So why end the gospel in that silence?
Maybe it fits a larger theme Mark is working on. One of the most striking features of Mark’s telling of Easter is how it is framed by motion. The women begin in verses 1-4 moving toward the tomb, and they end in verse 8 moving rapidly away from the tomb. Indeed, that last verse shows them almost exploding away from the tomb, hurtling outward like projectiles from the middle of an explosion.
Verse 8 is almost like some freeze-frame which catches the women in mid-flight. Picture them with eyes wide in surprised terror, their arms outstretched like some sprinter racing for the finish line, their feet a blurry smudge of rapid motion. They flee the tomb, and Mark snaps a photo for us, freezing the action, showing the women in motion.
But in between this to-and-fro movement of the women is still more motion: Jesus is also on the go. The women arrive at the tomb and encounter a young man who says, “You are no doubt looking for Jesus.” Yes, they were. Since he was, as the young man admits, “crucified,” it made sense to seek Jesus in a cemetery. But he’s not there.
“You just missed him,” the young man as much as says.
Why couldn’t Jesus have waited!? Why do the women need to deal with a proxy, a stand-in, a substitute whose only purpose seems to be to tell the women that, indeed, they just missed Jesus. He’s gone, on the road, moving right along to Galilee. “He’s going ahead of you,” the young man says. So if they want to see Jesus, they need to get going once again themselves. Because for some reason Jesus did not hang around to be encountered at the tomb. Easter morning, according to Mark, is not about running over to where we think Jesus is and then sitting down with him for coffee and conversation. Easter morning is not about throwing a party, it’s about Jesus in motion. It’s about our being in motion, too, if we hope to catch up with and so see him.
Jesus was not there that morning because there was too much work to do! A dying world was in need of the renewing grace which only the resurrected Jesus could give. This was a task that could not wait. Jesus could not and would not hang out at a tomb he no longer needed just to greet his friends and have a little celebration. He had to go on up ahead of them, demanding that if they wanted to see him, they’d have to get moving, too.
So why does Mark end so enigmatically? Why this puzzling final image of bewildered women, silent in their fear? Well, certainly fear was an appropriate thing for these women to feel. Not only did something totally unexpected take place, but this particular unexpected thing was fiercely cosmic. It shattered reality. It changed everything, and the first people to ponder that mind-addling fact were right to feel a little afraid. Any other reaction would have been downright weird!
But what about Mark’s leaving them that way? Why this snapshot of the flight in terror as Mark’s final word? Well, at the very least it creates some tension, a challenge for all of us. We see the silent and fearful women and exclaim, “But the gospel can’t end in silence! There’s just got to be more to the story than this!”
The Gospel cannot end in silence . . .
Yes. Just so.
Perhaps this, then, is where we come in.
For a sample sermon on the John 20 alternative RCL text, you can see my sermon “While It Was Still Dark.” http://yardley.calvin.edu/sermons/2002/easter02.html
“He’s not here. He’s going ahead of you to Galilee.” Thomas Long has offered a clever interpretation of those words. Long thinks that Mark was about as highly skilled a writer as you could hope to find in the ancient world. And so for us readers of this gospel–for those of us who cannot and do not literally travel over to Galilee to see if we can find the risen Christ–this reference to Galilee may be a clever framing technique for Mark’s gospel. Jesus is risen, and we are directed to Galilee. But in Mark’s gospel where is Galilee? It’s in Mark 1:14. John the Baptist gets imprisoned and so Jesus launches his own ministry by going to Galilee and there preaching that the kingdom of God was at hand.
So Mark 16:7 may be Mark’s way of saying that as readers we now need to return to the beginning of the gospel and read the whole thing again. Now that we’ve been to the cross, now that we really understand what being the Messiah was all about for Jesus, we need to go back and read the gospel again. We need to hear Jesus’ parables afresh, see the miracles anew. We need to re-consider Jesus’ every word and act in the light of the cross and empty tomb. Because only then will we, by the Spirit, see and understand the nature of God’s kingdom. And the nature of that kingdom is grace, grace, grace.
Now that we’ve seen Jesus take our place on the cross, descending to the derelict agonies of hell and death, now we understand that so long as we think we can make it on our own we’ll never really “get it.”
Computers are powerful tools. Most people under the age of 30 can’t imagine what it was like back in the days of typewriters when every revision of a paper required re-typing the entire thing. Now we store our documents on disks and, even if we have already printed a copy, can easily make a few changes, and then re-print it without having to re-type.
One of the advantages of word processing is something called “global replacement.” Let’s say you had written an essay in which you used the word “society” a lot but when you finished you realized that you really should have used “culture.” With global replacement you can tell the computer to find each place the word “society” appears and automatically change it to “culture.” Even if you used “society” 200 times, the computer can change every one of them to “culture” in the blink of an eye.
Sometimes churches utilize this tool for documents that get used a lot. Some time ago I read about a church office which had stored onto its computer the standard funeral service. Each time a funeral had to be held the secretary would tell the computer to find the name of the deceased, replacing it each time with the correct name for this specific funeral. So one week Mary Smith passed away and the secretary had the computer put Mary’s name into all the right spots, such as when the minister would say, “We remember our dear departed sister Mary” or “May the Lord now give Mary his eternal peace.”
The next week Edna Jones died and so the secretary made the appropriate global replacement of names. But it was quite a surprise at this particular funeral when, in the reciting of the Apostles’ Creed, the congregation learned that Jesus had been “born of the virgin Edna”!
Well, that’s a true story but if my relaying this struck you as humorous, it did so because, like a joke, this story concluded with a surprise ending that took you off guard. A few years ago I heard about a curious tradition of the Orthodox Church–each year on Easter Monday they get together to exchange jokes. The idea is that since the Easter story has the ultimate surprise ending, they enter into the spirit of the season by exchanging other stories which also have surprise endings.
Author: Scott Hoezee
C.S. Lewis famously claimed that the deepest longings of the human heart are hints and echoes of the same things God desires for us. Just as a fish washed up on a beach longs to be back in the water (because that is its natural element), so also if we find ourselves pining for something, it is because we, too, have been thrown out of our natural element. Our longings are often reflections of what also God as Creator desires for us. Our desires reveal what we were made for.
If so, then might it not be the case that the near-universal hunger for good food and drink indicates that these are the very gifts that also God himself wants us to enjoy? Because across the range of human experience, in nearly every culture and society, again and again you encounter dreams of feasting and delight. If ever a better day would arrive for people in difficult circumstances, one of the first places they’d expect to see evidence of their improved lot in life would be on the kitchen table. You know you’ve moved up in life when you go from having nothing to eat (or only bad things to eat) to having delicious food to eat.
In stories like the novel The Grapes of Wrath or in the Little House on the Prairie books, you see repeatedly that especially for children who live in poverty or other economically strapped circumstances, what those kids dream about as much as anything is getting the rare treat of a bag of licorice or an ice cream cone or fresh strawberries or a juicy hamburger with ketchup and mustard. And not just kids. In The Grapes of Wrath the grandfather of the Joad family never makes it to California but dies along the way on the journey from Oklahoma. But up until his death grandpa would talk over and over about how great it would be to arrive in California and when they did, the first thing he was going to do was go find himself a bunch of grapes in one of those fabled California vineyards and just tuck into that juicy fruit with abandon. He dreamed of how delightful it would be just to let that grape juice dribble down his chin and all over the place and he wouldn’t care because, Oh!, having access to such great fresh food would be the best indicator of them all that their days of struggle were over.
So when Isaiah repeatedly invites us to envision the shalom of God’s coming kingdom as a feast, a glorious banquet, how do we understand this?
Among other things, as an Easter morning Old Testament reading—or as the preaching text for Easter evening—Isaiah 25 reminds us of several key features to the resurrection of Christ—features that we might otherwise miss seeing.
After all, the gospels are stories very much tied to a particular time and place. Indeed, a key truth of the incarnation of Jesus is that his being truly human meant that he was tied to one place at a time the same way every other human person is. Jesus could never be exactly nowhere and neither was he just everywhere. He was always here or there. He was in Galilee OR he was in Jericho, he was in a boat OR he was praying on a mountaintop. And so even in the resurrection—although Jesus was able to get around a lot faster and more mysteriously than before his death—the stories in the gospels tend to be local, not global. Jesus is in Galilee. Jesus is in a hotel room in Emmaus. Jesus is by the side of a lake cooking breakfast.
It’s all very specific and very local, with each post-Easter gospel story pinpointed to a particular spot on the map. And so that may make us forget sometimes that the meaning and the salvific scope of Easter is universal. It involves not just those few people who saw Jesus after he rose again from the dead but it involved all people from the ends of the earth. It involved a renewal not just of Jesus’ own body but of the entire creation and its every creature and feature.
Shalom, as Neal Plantinga well reminded us in his fine book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, involves the webbing together and the mutual enhancement of every creature to and with every other creature. In fact, in describing the vision for shalom as proffered again and again by the Old Testament prophets, Plantinga reminds us of this lyric quote from one of the earliest writers in the Christian tradition, Iranaeus:
“The days will come in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty meteres of wine. And when any of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, ‘I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.’”
The vision is of a creation that teems with life, that abounds with fruitfulness, that cannot be exhausted. But, as Plantinga himself goes on to write, “Above all . . . God would preside in the unspeakable beauty for which human beings long, and in the mystery of holiness that draws human worship like a magnet. In turn, each human being would reflect and color the light of God’s presence out of the inimitable resources of his or her own character and essence. Human communities would present their ethnic and regional specialties to other communities in the name of God, in glad recognition that God, too, is a radiant and hospitable community of three persons. In their own accents, communities would express praise, courtesies, and deferences that, when massed together, would keep building like waves of a passion that is never spent” (Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995, p. 12).
That’s the vision we get in Isaiah 25, and that is the vision we must see as we look beyond the vision of the resurrected Christ that we celebrate each Easter Sunday. All peoples from all nations—in fulfillment of what had long ago been promised to Abraham when God assured him he would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth—will come together, drawn together by the aroma of good food and the promise of good wine. And when they gather on God’s holy mountain and around that holy banquet table, they will discover that the veils and the shrouds that had all along kept us from really seeing one another as co-imagebearers of God are gone. Now we can look each other in the eye and recognize our common humanity and take joy in one another. Now we can see the differences in skin color and speech accents and socio-economic backgrounds—all those things that in times past we had used as demarcations of discrimination—and with new eyes we will see those things as causes of celebration and wonder.
But what we will really see is that this is all a result of God’s great salvation—a work of creation and then of redemption and then of re-creation so grand that only a really big and great God could have pulled it off.
Sort of like the resurrection of Jesus . . . which pretty well brings us full circle.
Mark Salzman’s novel, Lying Awake, is set in a Carmelite monastery just outside of Los Angeles. The book details the lives of the nuns who live there and ultimately ponders the meaning of what constitutes a genuine religious experience of God’s presence. The nuns devote themselves to prayer and contemplation, allowing the rhythm of liturgy to set the cadence of their lives. All their thoughts are bent toward the Holy and the Divine and so they eschew anything that could distract them.
One of the perceived threats to a spiritual life is food and drink. And so when, three times a day, the nuns gather in the monastery’s refectory for meals, they are not allowed to speak a single word. The only one who does speak is that day’s appointed reader, who reads from Scripture and classic works of Christian devotions while the other nuns silently take in their sustenance.
The goal at mealtime was to do anything-but pay attention to the food. At the head table where the Mother Superior sits, there is a calvarium, a human skull sitting in the center of the table, serving as a reminder to the nuns that everyone will die one day anyway and so food and drink are of only marginal significance. And so the nuns made as little noise as possible during the meal in the firm belief that maintaining a proper spiritual focus was never more threatened than when taking food into the body. It was, therefore, every bit as important to observe proper decorum in the dining hall as in church.
A monastery such as this one reflects a strain of asceticism and austerity that runs fairly deep in the Christian tradition. Yet it is striking how frequently Scripture yokes the image of a feast with God’s salvation. Isaiah 25 is a shining example of how themes of creation and redemption weave in and out of one another so much that finally you’re not completely sure what is what. In the end, though, you have the distinct impression that not only is God’s salvation a whole lot like a table laden with whipped cream, fresh-baked bread, and chalices filled with pinot noir, it even looks like salvation includes exactly such a feast. In other words, it’s hard to see where simile and metaphor leave off and literal description begins. Is the experience of God’s forgiving grace like a banquet or is it a banquet? The witness of Scripture indicates that although the shalom of God’s kingdom will mean much more than a well-set banquet table, it may not mean less.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Author: Doug Bratt
Since this is the psalm the Lectionary appoints for Easter, it’s very tempting to view it simply through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. After all, it’s not hard to imagine Jesus saying, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done for me. The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death” (17-18).
It may also be tempting to view Psalm 118 through the first Easter’s lens because it’s, candidly, not a particularly easy psalm to preach on all by itself, particularly on Easter. After all, it contains imagery, such as apparent temple liturgy language, that’s both unfamiliar and challenging to apply to a modern walk of faith.
What’s more, Psalm 118 contains a lot of apparently disjointed verses that lend themselves more easily to focus on a single verse rather than a psalm-wide theme. On top of that, it’s not easy to know whether this is a song of thanksgiving of an Israelite king celebrating a victory, Israel celebrating God’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery, post-exile Jews celebrating their return from exile or something else.
Yet with the Holy Spirit’s guidance and some careful thought and work, Psalm 118 can be a fertile text for preaching and teaching all by itself. It’s certainly the kind of psalm to which those who have known both duress and God’s gracious deliverance from it are attracted. Martin Luther who was persecuted for his understanding of the Christian faith, for example, referred to it as “his own beloved psalm” and interpreted it as speaking directly to his situation.
Of course, Luther’s claiming of Psalm 118 as his own makes us nervous. After all, the psalmist leaves both her identity and the crisis from which God rescues her unidentified. As James L. Mays notes, the poet doesn’t write this psalm to answer “specific historic questions.” Instead she concentrates on God’s mighty work to rescue her. The psalmist sees her identity centrally as one who “comes in the name of the Lord.” (26) This makes this psalm one to which all of God’s sons and daughters can relate.
The psalmist both begins and ends 118 with his call to “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” In fact, he makes giving thanks to God a central theme of Psalm 118. In verse 19 he announces, “I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.” And in verse 21 the psalmist insists, “I will give you thanks, for you answered me.” That thanksgiving also has a communal aspect. In verses 2-4 the poet calls Israel three times to join him in saying, “God’s love endures forever.” After all, in contrast to human love that is naturally feeble and conditional, God’s love endures.
The psalmist also adds a communal element to the call to thanks in verse 23 when she shifts the narrative voice of the psalm from the first person singular to the first person plural, calling, in verse 25, for example, “O Lord, save us; O Lord, grant us success” [italics added]. So while the psalmist is speaking of and thanking God for God’s liberation of her from some sort of danger, she also calls the worshiping community to join her in such worship and thanksgiving.
Certainly God has given both the psalmist and the community many reasons to give thanks to God. After all, God is “good.” God’s “love endures forever.” God is the psalmist’s “strength and song.” What’s more, echoing Exodus 15’s song of victory on the Red Sea’s far shore, the psalmist asserts God has become his “salvation.” God has “answered” the psalmist. The psalmist also speaks of God’s “right hand” three times, describing it as having done “mighty things” and being “lifted high.” Reference to God’s “right hand” seems to be another way of saying that God has graciously and personally intervened in the life of the psalmist.
God has brought the psalmist to a place where she can express deep confidence in God’s goodness. Prophets such as Amos, Ezekiel and Hosea had announced that Israel’s sin would result in her death as part of God’s judgment. Yet the psalmist says God did not abandon her (and, by implication, Israel) to death. While death is part of life on this side of the new creation’s curtain, death does not have the last word for the psalmist, Israel or those whom God has made “righteous.”
This, of course, takes on new meaning in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Through it God has transformed the death of God’s sons and daughters into a transition into God’s eternal presence where we await our own resurrection at Christ’s return. Even though we die, we will, by God’s amazing grace, live.
Among perhaps the most difficult imagery of Psalm 118 is that of verses 19-21. It appears to be temple imagery, signaling, perhaps, that it’s part of some kind of thanksgiving liturgy for use in the temple. The psalmist asks that the temple’s “gates” be opened so that he may give thanks to the Lord. After all, he wants to be able to give thanks, perhaps in some kind of worship service, for answering him and becoming his salvation. Even the language of “the stone that the builders rejected” becoming “the capstone,” that Jesus, Paul and Peter take to refer to Jesus, may be temple imagery.
To close the section on which the Lectionary specifically focuses, the psalmist calls the worshiping community to join him in rejoicing and being glad in the day that the Lord has made. Since the psalmist doesn’t specify to what day he refers, it’s a wonderful summary of God’s children’s approach to each and every day God graciously gives us. We can rejoice, because God has made this day.
Psalm 118 offers preachers and teachers a wonderful opportunity to invite hearers to consider what God has done. However, it also presents a challenge to those whom God has helped to talk about their experiences of God’s work. After all, the psalmist isn’t just thankful to God for being his strength and song. He also finds ways to talk about that goodness in Psalm 118. While even Christians are naturally reticent about talking about what God has done for them, this psalmist reminds us that we shouldn’t encounter and experience God’s mercy and then refuse to talk about it.
In verse 17 the psalmist voices her hope when she says, “I will not die but live.”
Joy Hollyday tells the story a visiting schoolteacher who worked in a hospital. The teacher of a little boy who was in the hospital asked her to visit him in the hospital in order to help him with his homework. The classroom teacher told the visiting teacher, “We’re studying nouns and adverbs in this young man’s class, and I hope you will help him.”
When the visiting teacher arrived at the hospital, she was saddened to learn that the child was in the hospital’s burn unit in very serious condition and in horrible pain. She was also embarrassed when she walked in the room and saw how miserable he was. Yet she decided to press on and stumble through the lesson, ashamed of herself for putting him through such an apparently senseless exercise.
The next morning, the nurse in the burn unit asked the visiting teacher, “What did you do to that boy yesterday?” Before the teacher could get out her apology, the nurse said, “We had given up on him, but ever since you visited him, he seems to be fighting back, responding to treatment.”
The boy himself later explained that he had given up hope, but it all changed when he had come to the realization that they wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy.
1 Corinthians 15:1-10
Author: Stan Mast
I’ve always thought that Easter is one of the toughest preaching dates on the calendar. That’s counter-intuitive, I know, since the resurrection of Christ is arguably the most exciting event in the drama of salvation. The problem is that everyone already knows the story backwards and forwards. Even little children know that “up from the grave he arose.” So how can we preach something fresh and relevant on Easter? I’ve tried sermons on Romans 6, in which I focused on the present benefits of Christ’s resurrection; we’ve been raised with Christ to newness of life. And I’ve focused on the verses later in I Corinthians 15 about the future benefits of Christ’s resurrection; on “that great gettin’ up morning” our bodies will be raised to become like Christ’s resurrection body.
Our text points us in a very different direction this Easter. Rather than focus on the present or on the future, it takes us back to the past, to the factuality and centrality of the original event. Everything depends, says Paul, on whether it actually happened. After a whole series of chapters dealing with very practical matters, Paul devotes this entire chapter to the doctrine of the resurrection, precisely because the doctrine is so practically important. If Christ has not been raised, the entire Christian faith falls apart, we Christians are the most pitiable people in the world, and the world is without hope. An Easter sermon on this text should be a simple Gospel sermon, reminding people of the fundamentals of the Good News. We should call unbelievers to faith. And in the face of denials of the resurrection, we should call believers to hold on to what they have been taught.
Some members of the Corinthian church had problems with the whole idea of the resurrection of the body, on both scientific and philosophical grounds. Based on evidence known to absolutely everyone, it was an established “scientific” fact that dead bodies do not rise from the grave. No one had ever seen it happen, not in their own lives or in history. Once people were dead, they stayed dead. Furthermore, why would anyone want to come back from the dead and be reunited with their weak bodies? Contemporary philosophy taught that salvation consisted precisely in being liberated from the prison house of the body, so that you could be pure mind or spirit. Influenced by such evidence and such reasoning, some of the Corinthians had developed a doctrine of the resurrection of the soul. At conversion, we are spiritually resurrected to a new life, but we shouldn’t hope for a future physical resurrection. “They say that the resurrection has already taken place.” (II Timothy 2:18)
Paul combats this heresy by carefully arguing that Christ has been physically raised from the dead and that his resurrection makes all the difference for us in the present and the future. “I want to remind you of the Gospel….” The word “remind” is the Greek gnoridzo, which really means to make known, as though they had strayed so far from the Gospel that Paul needs to make it known all over again. As we preach on this text, we should ask ourselves if some of our congregants have wandered that far from the basics. Given the influence of modern scientism and philosophy, I wouldn’t doubt it. That gives a real sense of urgency to a basic gospel sermon on this Easter.
Note how carefully Paul describes the Gospel. It’s the word “I preached to you.” It’s what “you received,” in faith, when I preached it. It’s what you have “taken your stand on.” By this Gospel “you are saved.” The present tense there has a continuous sense; “you are being saved.” You’ve begun but you aren’t done. Then with a conditional clause, Paul calls them to maintain their grip on that old Gospel; “if you hold to the words I preached to you.” He closes this part of his argument with a thinly veiled threat. “Otherwise you have believed in vain.” Like a lawyer painstakingly building his case, Paul calls them back to the Gospel that means everything to him and to them.
But what is that Gospel? Ah, there’s the rub. Several years ago, The Christian Century magazine ran a fascinating article entitled, “The Gospel in Seven Words,” in which it asked famous Christian leaders to summarize the gospel in seven words or less. The results were very provocative. What words would you use? Here’s how Paul summarizes the primitive gospel. I say “primitive” because Paul makes a great point of connecting “his” gospel with the gospel preached from the very beginning. “For what I received I passed on to you….” Those are technical words for the transmission of tradition. I didn’t invent the gospel. It is not the result of my theological reflection on some simple and basic historical facts. There isn’t a gap between what the first apostles preached and what I preached. I simply took the tradition that was given to me and passed it on to you unchanged.
Now the Corinthians could have argued, as many have over the course of history, that Paul is not entirely honest here. He did, indeed, do considerable theologizing as he preached the gospel all over the world. His complicated letters are the proof of that. But notice how Paul puts it here. When it comes to matters of “first importance,” he preached the basic apostolic teaching about Christ. There are many dimensions of the Christian faith, but all Christians agree on these things as “of first importance.” These are the unalterable, undecorated truths at the heart of the gospel: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scripture, and that he appeared….”
Note all the “that’s.” There is a “that-ness” to the gospel. It is centered on facts about Jesus. It has content. I make that point because there is a strong movement afoot today to deemphasize the content, the doctrinal core of the gospel, in favor of the living out of the gospel, whether that living takes the form of social activism, or liturgical practices, or communal living, or spiritual disciplines. Take, for example, a stimulating article in the Christian Century by Amy Frykholm, in which she very honestly talks about her problems in reciting the Nicene Creed, particularly those 2 words, “we believe.”
As she struggled with her reticence, she consulted with Sarah Miles, the often provocative and frequently helpful Episcopal priest. “What do you make of belief as a part of the Christian faith?” I asked her. “Belief,” she answered, “is the least interesting part of faith. I can believe all kinds of stuff, whatever I choose—but what I believe isn’t the point. The point is to live in relationship with God that’s not controlled by my own ideas. Faith is about putting my heart and my trust—my whole life—in God. Christianity is at heart about relationship—and the nature of my faith rests in relationship rather than belief.” Frykholm says, “That makes sense: belief is just one part, perhaps a small part, of Christianity.”
While there is much true and helpful in what Miles says, I doubt that Paul would agree that belief in stuff, belief in facts, belief in teachings about historical events, is only a small part of Christianity. It surely isn’t the whole of Christianity, but the Good News at the center of the Christian faith is precisely about certain “that’s.” It is because certain things actually happened that we can have a relationship with God, that we can worship God in liturgical ecstasy, that there is a Christian community characterized by loving relationships, and that we can work at promoting the kingdom of justice and peace in the world. For Paul, “what I believe” is the “still point” on which the world turns.
In four cryptic phrases packed with meaning Paul lists the essential facts of the Gospel. First, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture.” I won’t spend a lot of time on this, because this is an Easter sermon. I’ll just note these things. You can’t preach Easter without Good Friday. They are inextricably intertwined in the Gospel. The Gospel is about a crucified Christ, an idea so offensive to the Jews of Paul’s day. That death of the Christ was not for his sins, but for ours. The idea of substitutionary atonement was at the heart of the gospel from the very beginning. Finally, all of this was in fulfillment of the Old Testament Scripture. The early church didn’t invent this stuff. They experienced it and then found it in the Old Testament. The Gospel has deep roots in God’s old word.
Second, “he was buried.” Why did this seemingly insignificant fact become part of the “first things” of the Gospel? Because from the very first days, skeptics explained away the next phrase in the gospel by saying that Jesus didn’t really die. He merely swooned; he seemed dead, but he didn’t really die. So he didn’t actually rise from the dead. No, said the first Christians, he died. We know he did, because we buried him.
But then, third, and centrally, “he was raised on the third day according to the Scripture.” He was so dead that he couldn’t raise himself. By using a perfect passive verb, Paul says that God raised Jesus from the dead and he remains alive to this very day. This startling claim was not some novelty invented by gullible first century fanatics. It was predicted in the Hebrew Scripture. The Christ went exactly as it was written of him. Even the outrageous news about Christ’s resurrection has deep roots in God’s old word. This is how God always planned to bless the world.
That brings us to the fourth essential of the Gospel; “he appeared….” How do we know he actually rose from the dead? Perhaps the deluded disciples invented the story to perpetuate the memory of Jesus and promote his cause. No, says the basic Gospel, he appeared to numerous people in multiple places at various times. The appearances began with Peter, proceeded to the core band of apostles, expanded to a group of 500 followers, and concluded with Paul himself. Contemporary skeptics may argue that the early Christians were wrong, but at least we have to admit that Peter and James and John and Paul were convinced they actually saw the risen Christ. To them these sightings were a crucial part of the Gospel. The actual, historical, physical resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the Gospel. Indeed, in the succeeding section Paul goes to great lengths to show what happens to the Christian faith and to Christians if this resurrection stuff isn’t really true.
Paul concludes this section on the Gospel with a passionate defense of his apostleship. He does this, of course, because the Gospel depends on his credibility. Why should they listen to him? Why should we listen to him? This was a very relevant question in Paul’s day, as he was dogged by critics who questioned his apostleship. It is relevant today as critics dismiss Paul for his alleged distortion of Jesus’ simple message and his hatred of women and gays. Is Paul a reliable representative of the Christian faith? As one scholar put it, Paul’s defense of his credentials moves from self-recrimination (“I am the least and do not deserve….”) to apparent vanity (“I worked harder than all of them”) to second guessing (“not I but God’s grace”) to shrugging (“whether it was I or they”) to confidence (“this is what we preached and this is what you believed”). Those last words are the point. What I’ve just told you about the gospel is what all true Christians preach and believe. So “how can some of you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?”
On this Easter Sunday, this text invites us to preach the old Gospel—not just us preachers, but all of us as the people of God. Paul’s last words about the grace of God can be the basis for a very personal appeal to our congregants to spread the Good News. They may feel unqualified, but look what the grace of God did through Paul. He was a persecutor of the church. He compared himself to an aborted fetus. He thought he was unworthy. Yet he worked harder than anyone else and his work was very effective. “By the grace of God I am what I am.” That’s true for everyone who believes the Gospel. And by that grace, we can preach the Gospel, too. It’s simple. “Christ died for our sins, and was buried and was raised and appeared.” By that Gospel we are saved.
Paul’s appeal to eyewitnesses might not be helpful for modern audiences. Anyone who has ever played the Telephone Game, in which a piece of information is whispered from ear to ear around a circle, knows how word of mouth reporting can get twisted. And scientific experiments with eyewitness testimony have so discredited the value of such testimony that it hardly counts in courts of law anymore. The interesting thing about Paul’s use of such testimony, however, is that there were many eyes, not just a few. That’s precisely why he gives the list of witnesses. Ancient Jewish law knew about unreliability, too. That’s why testimony in court had to be “at the mouth of two or three witnesses” to be considered reliable. Further, in an oral culture the transmission of tradition was far more accurate than the Telephone Game, especially when it concerned something as important as the essentials of world changing Good News.
Paul’s words about grace reminded me of Leif Enger’s wonderful novel, Peace Like a River. In it, Davy Land guns down two school bullies who have broken into his home. After he is arrested, jailed and convicted, Davey breaks out of jail and heads for the Badlands of North Dakota. He is pursued by a federal agent and by his own father, the one representing law, the other love. That’s a picture of Paul and of every one of us. We’re all outlaws hiding in the Badlands of sin, pursued by law and love, by justice and grace. Paul was a representative of law and justice as he tried to destroy the church. But the grace of God pursued him and changed him dramatically. The rest of his life was devoted to telling the Good News that the grace of God sent Jesus Christ into the Badlands to die for our sins and be raised to new life. Preaching that old Gospel is not a narrow minded, old fashioned, overly rigorous insistence on doctrine. It is the most gracious, loving, redemptive action we can perform, because by that Gospel the world is saved.