February 04, 2019
The Epiphany 5C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 5:1-11 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 6:1-13 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 138 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 41 (Lord’s Day 16)
Author: Scott Hoezee
We’ve come to call it “the Holy Land.” From the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the country of Jordan in the east, from Syria in the north to the Sinai in the south travel companies, tour groups, and tourists treat this piece of Middle Eastern real estate as a unity. It’s where Jesus walked and that’s what now makes it “holy.” It’s essentially one place with Jerusalem more or less as its center. That’s how we think of the Holy Land today, and this way of viewing that part of the world influences the way we read the Bible.
It matters little to us precisely where this or that gospel event took place. One locale is as good as the next–it’s all the Holy Land, after all. Jericho or Jerusalem, Capernaum or Bethsaida: the places matter little compared to the presence of Jesus in those places. Unless we are actually in Israel on a tour group, we are typically interested in what Jesus said, not where he said it. In fact, I would guess that were I to give a quiz on gospel geography, even those of us who are quite biblically literate would not do too well. Were I to ask things like “Where did Jesus meet Zacchaeus?” or “Where was it that Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ?” many of us would likely have to look up the answers.
But knowing such answers ought to be more useful for our faith than merely helping us win a game of Bible Trivia. After all, if we stop to think about it, geography is pretty important. We’re shaped by the places we live. The philosopher José Ortega y Gassett once famously said, “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” I think most of us sense the truth of that.
As Kathleen Norris pointed out in her book Dakota, people who live on the prairies think differently than do city folks, mountain folks, or those who live on the sea. Place matters. Of course, it’s a little hard to get a handle on this. We may have a hard time describing such things, but all of us know that certain areas of the country carry certain associations. Rightly or wrongly we point to areas of the map and make descriptive comments: one region may be called urbane, another redneck; one place might be tres chíc and another somewhat backwards; one place would be labeled conservative and another ultra-liberal. In more recent times we talk about “Red America” and “Blue America,” about “The Liberal Coasts” as opposed to “The Conservative Interior.” Place matters.
Yet in the gospels we forget this. We shouldn’t, because in the stories of Jesus, place is important. And not just because Jesus, as a real human person, always had to be SOMEwhere. That’s true, too, but when I say we should not forget the importance of place in the gospels, I’m thinking more along theological lines. Luke tells us that no sooner does Jesus get his ministry going following his baptism and time of wilderness temptation and Jesus high-tails it north some eighty miles to Galilee. Jesus then moves out of his backwater hometown of Nazareth and settles in at an equally out-of-the-way place called Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and as Luke 5 opens, he is in an equally remote place around the Lake of Gennesaret, which may be the Sea of Galilee or a small lake nearby. In other words, Jesus has gone out into the sticks.
Eighty miles may not sound like much to those of us accustomed to driving 70 miles an hour, but in a day when nothing moved faster than a donkey could plod, eighty miles was quite far indeed. Jesus has taken himself very far away from Jerusalem, from Judea, and from all things religious.
It did not look like a logical choice. But it was THEOlogical! The nearness of God’s great kingdom of shalom has already been announced in the vicinity of Jerusalem. So Jesus makes a point to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom also to others. Jesus has come to this world for the sake of this world–for all of it. There are no unimportant places. There are no places where the presence or preaching of Jesus would be “wasted.” Ultimately the whole world needs Jesus, and so Jesus begins by making a foray into the wider world.
This need not be the main point of a sermon on Luke 5, but it’s a point worth underscoring in that, as we will see below, the people whom Jesus called to his side were also rather unlikely figures.
After all, anybody can have a bad day fishing. But you don’t expect professional fisherman to come up empty, yet the men who went on to become the first disciples seemed often to have this problem. If you wanted to find somebody to become a “fisher of people,” you might want at the very least to choose somebody who had proven to be a pretty successful fisher of fish!
That seems not to have been the case with Simon and company. They were not superstars even in the fishing world. There was nothing particularly striking about any one of the people Jesus called out to follow him. Like the nondescript location Jesus chose to begin his ministry, so the people he drummed up there to be his first followers were ordinary folks. Simon was not kidding when he claimed to be “a sinful man” as reported in verse 8. He was sinful, fallible, imperfect at best. (The trajectory of Simon Peter’s career hereafter would bear that out rather nicely as a matter of fact!).
Sometimes we wish we could see and meet the disciples. We hear people say, “Don’t you wish sometimes you could have been there, could have seen them in person? Wouldn’t it have been something to have been able to meet Peter, to shake Matthew’s hand? What if even now we could somehow go back in time to hear the Sermon on the Mount?” Often when people wish for such things, the motivation seems to be a combination of healthy curiosity and the idea that maybe it would be easier to believe the gospel if we could have seen gospel events unfold before our very eyes.
But I myself doubt that latter point. I am not at all convinced that seeing the disciples would make the gospel easier to believe. In fact, seeing the disciples in person might just make it more difficult! The disciples were not, after all, from among society’s upper echelons. They were not highly educated, well-dressed, or outwardly impressive. The odds are that if you could have met up with Jesus’ band of followers, the first thing that would have struck you would have been their commonness. You would perhaps notice their dirty fingernails, the callous on Philip’s big toe, the missing teeth that were on such obvious display every time James grinned. You might be surprised at how short and stubby a couple of them were and would note the poor grammar that they often employed.
That’s why, if magically you could see the disciples, their demeanor, speech, and appearance would not make it easier to believe the gospel but just possibly tougher to swallow. Can it really be that this rag-tag group of uneducated fishermen were in touch with the deepest truth and dearest secret of the universe?
Most everybody has a soft spot in their hearts for fairy tales. There is just something about a fairy tale’s reversal of expectations that intrigues us. There is something delicious about finding out that the frog is really a handsome prince, that the ugly duckling is the one that grows into the most resplendent of all swans. We enjoy it when the moment of truth comes for the characters in a story as they discover that the scruffy-looking character they never quite trusted is actually the true king of the realm. In the classic The Wizard of Oz we get a double treat at the end of the story: first, the great and powerful Oz turns out to be nothing but the man behind the curtain, a puller of levers and switches who looks like a humbug of a charlatan. But then, almost before the dust of that reversal of expectation settles, we get jolted yet again: as it turns out, the humble man behind the curtain is a pretty good wizard after all.
Fairy tales are stories of transformation, and that’s what happened to these simple people we call the disciples. If you took the disciples and brought them all together into one room, you would never in your wildest imagination guess by looking at them that this weak-looking pack of ordinary folks could change the world. But they did. The disciples changed the world because it was to them that the secret of the universe was first revealed.
That’s why Jesus called them in the first place. If you’re going to save the world, you’ve got to start somewhere. And if in the end you’re going to save the world through humility, gentleness, compassion, and sacrifice, it makes sense to begin with a bunch of fellows who couldn’t get much more humble if they tried! The messengers fit the message. In fact, over the course of his ministry if Jesus had any significant struggles with his disciples, it was the struggle to keep them humble and ordinary-looking. Every time a couple of them started angling for power or arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest, Jesus slapped them back down to the street level of service. When Peter tried to wield a sword, Jesus told him to put it back in its sheath.
The disciples needed to be common, ordinary, and above all humble if they were going to do Jesus any good and so change the world. Still, Jesus did need them and that’s why he called them. But in the calling process, there was more going on than we realize.
Commentators point out that in Luke 5:1, this is the first time in Luke that we read the phrase “logon tou theou” or “word of God.” Here we have an early indication that what came out of Jesus’ mouth were not merely his own words but no less than the very word of God, a revelation that bore the imprimatur of God’s truth. It’s easy to let a phrase like that slide right on by when reading this passage, but it packs a wallop and may well be worthy of pointing out in a sermon.
From Rev. Leonard J. Vander Zee: Suddenly Jesus came up with a strange idea. “Let’s go fishing out into the deep water. I’ve got a hunch there’s a catch out there.” Simon, experienced fisherman that he was, tried to be polite in his answer to this landlubber. “You know, Master, we’ve been out the whole night, and caught nothing.” He didn’t add, but was probably thinking, “This guy doesn’t realize that no one goes deep sea fishing in broad daylight around here”. But Simon, having failed to accomplish much by his own tried and true methods, was in no position to question the Lord’s strange suggestion. What he does say is the sentence that will change the entire course of his life. Perhaps he said it with a sigh of resignation. “If you say so…we’ll do it.” Well, you know what happened.
It all begins when Jesus comes to us in the middle of our lives, where we work, where we live, the seaside, the classroom, the hospital, the office, the kitchen, and asks us to trust him enough to do one strange little thing, like fishing in the deep water in broad daylight. It’s the kind of thing that’s a little weird, a bit outside your usual routine. But that’s often where Jesus’ call comes to us: where we least expect it. Where we’ve failed. Where we feel over our heads. Where we feel uncomfortable. Where we sense our own futility. Jesus does not typically walk into our lives where we feel in control, where we are flush with our own success. It’s in our places of vulnerability and confusion, failure and sin. He likes to get us out there in the deep water in broad daylight where we feel a little silly and strange.
Jesus invited Peter to fish in the deep water. That little phrase bristles with suggestive possibilities. God takes the highest view of our potential. He doesn’t want us to be paddling around in the shallows of life where we often spend so much of our time.
Author: Stan Mast
Somewhere in my reading recently, I ran across this familiar rant about God’s invisibility. “If God really wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t he come out of hiding, you know, make himself visible, write in words across the sky, speak audibly so that everyone can hear his voice, do some miracle that would make his presence and power undoubtable? This game of hide and seek that God plays with the human race makes it far too difficult to believe in God.”
This season of Epiphany is a reminder that God has made himself visible and audible and tangible, but people still didn’t come to faith in large numbers in spite of these epiphanies. Our reading in Isaiah 6 shows us the two very different responses to an overwhelming Epiphany of God’s glory. I would set this up by asking my congregation, what would you do if you were faced with an Epiphany? Would you respond like Isaiah or like Israel?
The appearance of God to Isaiah happened in a time like ours, a time of political turmoil. It was the year that King Uzziah died. He was a good king in every way during a time when Israel’s leadership was checkered to say the least. Uzziah had been godly and had led well and Israel had prospered. But now he was dead; who would succeed him? A change in administration could upset everything. In that atmosphere of national uncertainty, Isaiah was given a vision of the real King.
“I saw Yahweh seated on a throne, high and exalted….” But doesn’t the Bible say that if anyone sees the Lord face to face, that person will surely die (Exodus 33:20). What Isaiah actually saw was, not the face of God, not the back of God (as Moses did in that Exodus passage), but just the hem of the Lord’s regal robe. The train of God’s robe was so massive that it filled the entire temple.
But Isaiah saw, and heard, more. “Above the Lord were seraphs, each with 6 wings….” We don’t know what a seraph is; the word is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew. It means something like “fiery,” so folks have for centuries pictured these beings as fiery angels. The remarkable thing about them is their multiple wings. One set, of course, covers their eyes, so they don’t look on the Lord. Another covers their feet, a euphemism for their nakedness, because no one could appear before the Lord with their privates exposed. With the third they remain airborne, a sight that must have left Isaiah’s jaw hanging open.
But the sound they make is the center of this Epiphany: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty (of Hosts); the whole earth is full of his glory.” Though early theologians saw that triple “holy” as proof of the Trinity, it is more likely a proclamation of the pure holiness, the perfect holiness of Yahweh, the sheer otherness of God. And significantly for those who demand that God put in an appearance if he wants us to believe in him, the seraphs declare that the whole world is an Epiphany; “the whole earth is full of his glory.” One thinks here of corroborating passages like Psalm 19:1 (“the heavens declare the glory of God”) and Romans 1:20 (“since the creation of the world God’s… eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made….”). More on that later.
This Epiphany is not quite over. With details that remind us of God’s previous appearance on Mount Sinai, the sound of their seraphs’ voices made the doorposts and threshold of the Temple shake and the Temple filled with smoke. It was an earthshaking, life altering, multisensory event, at the center of which is God. It was the kind of event that should move anyone to faith.
It does more than that for Isaiah. It undoes him. “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Consonant with the traditional teaching that seeing God will result in your death, Isaiah expects to die. On the contrary, his life has just begun, in a way he could have never have imagined.
His new life begins with redemption, as one of the seraphs takes a coal from the temple altar and touches it to Isaiah’s formerly unclean lips. The man who has confessed his unworthiness by focusing in his lips has now been given clean lips, because his “guilt [has been] taken away and his sin atoned for.”
His redemption is followed by his commissioning for a task that will occupy the rest of his new life. Isaiah (over)hears God asking his heavenly council, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Without missing a beat, Isaiah blurts out, “Here am I. Send me!”
His words have been held up in thousands of sermons as the quintessential response to the call of God to missions and ministry of all sorts. A keen sense of inadequacy and a strong sense of urgency are the appropriate response to an Epiphany of God’s greatness and an experience of God’s grace. These words are the right answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this piece. What would you do if you were faced with an Epiphany? You could make a fine sermon on the first part of Isaiah 6.
But if you did that, you would have missed the second part of this dramatic passage. The Lectionary leaves out that second part or, as one commentator puts it, chickens out. That is understandable. Verses 8-13 are a mighty challenge for anyone who wants to preach grace, especially to those who ask the kind of question I posed at the beginning. “If God really wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t he come out of hiding? Why doesn’t he give us an Epiphany of his glory?”
Well, God has done that here and Isaiah, as I said, responded in the right way. But the epiphany continues, and in what God says next we encounter words that will be an obstacle to faith, even for believers. Indeed, it made Isaiah pause for a moment, because God gave Isaiah a commission that on the surface makes no sense. It sounds for all the world like a commission to preach in order to prevent people from repenting and being healed. “Make the heart of these people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
This is so shocking that even Isaiah, a man eager to speak for God, asks God a deceptively simple question. “For how long?” Which, being interpreted, means something like, “Really? That can’t be right. That’s not the long-term message, is it? That’s not the sole purpose of my preaching. I’m not sure I’m up for that. Maybe one sermon in that vein, or a series, but then can’t we get on to the grace part, and repentance, and healing.”
For centuries preachers have questioned this commission. Indeed, the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), translates this very differently. In the LXX, Isaiah is supposed to preach a message of judgment, and the result will be a further hardening of Israel’s heart and continued deafness and blindness to God’s message. In other words, what we have here is not the prescription for Isaiah’s preaching, what is supposed to happen, but the description of the results of his preaching, what will happen in spite of his best efforts. In Matthew’s Gospel (13:10-17), Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower in just those terms. He didn’t preach in parables in order to make people blind and deaf and non-comprehending; but his parabolic preaching would not be understood because people are all of those things.
I’m tempted to adopt that explanation or, easier yet, just skip these last verses of Isaiah 6 as the Lectionary does. But what if the translation of the NIV and most other versions is the correct one? What are we to make of these harsh words about Isaiah’s preaching? Could it be that God really intended to use Isaiah’s words to make his people so deaf and blind and calloused that they wouldn’t repent and be healed? If so, what kind of God is that?
The answer is, a God who would rather die than let sin and evil and rebellion win. But I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand the harshness of God’s words, we need to understand just how hardened Israel had become in its sin. In Isaiah 5 God has just uttered Isaiah’s response to God’s glory, “Woe.” But in that previous chapter God is responding not to divine glory, but to human depravity. Six times God says “Woe to you!” Read that chapter and you’ll get a sense of a people who are so far gone into sin that there is no remedy. Verses 18-19 are probably the vilest words of them all, as Israel mocks the threat of God’s punishment for their sins. “Woe to… those who say, ’Let God hurry, let him hasten his work so we may see it. Let it approach, let the plan of the Holy of Israel come, so we may know it.’”
For years, Israel has played at repentance, feigned contrition, and then returned to their wicked, wicked ways. Nothing God did produced the desired result of repentance and healing. So now God will do all he can do to save his people. He will send Isaiah with his message of doom, so that the sin of his people will finally result in their death as a nation. When Isaiah asks, “How long must I preach this,” God replies: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitants, until houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.”
Then, and only then, is there any hope of Israel’s genuine repentance and deep healing. Isaiah’s question (“For how long?”) was on the mark. There is a limit to this kind of preaching. It is not the heart of the Gospel. But sometimes it is necessary to speak harshly, so that a spiritually dead people can be revived. Sometimes people must come to the end of themselves before they will find God. God doesn’t explicitly say that here, but it is surely hinted at in the very last words of Isaiah 6, where God uses a mysterious image—“so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” When Israel is reduced to nothing but a dead stump, there is still hope, because there is still a holy seed.
It may be a bit much to hear in this a foretaste of the shoot, the branch, the root growing up out of dry ground that Isaiah will talk about later. But if we read Isaiah’s commission in the light of the rest of Scripture, we will recall that the God who spoke so harshly and dealt so brutally with his sin hardened people was willing to die to save them from their sin and evil and rebellion. Sometimes hard situations demand hard solutions, like an Incarnation and a Cross. What we have in Isaiah 6 and in the Gospel is a God who would rather die than let sin and evil and rebellion win and finally ruin his good creation and his beloved children.
I began by asking how we would respond to an Epiphany of God’s glory. Isaiah responded the right way. Israel responded the wrong way. The seraphs had thundered, “The whole earth is full of his glory.” Israel had seen it in nature. And they had more than nature; they had grace, in the form of the mighty acts of God in the Exodus and in the wilderness wandering and in the conquest of the Land and in the giving of the Law. God had revealed himself to them over and over again. But they responded with stubborn rebellion. And God says, “Woe to you.”
That’s not what God wants, not ultimately. He wants us to say, “Woe to me. I am ruined.” Then he can redeem us and give us a life that is life indeed. There must be a “woe.” It all depends on who says it.
The end of World War II provided a painful example of destroying in order to save. That bloody war had dragged on for years and it looked like it would go on for months more at the cost of many more lives. In order to shorten the war, save American and Allied lives, and, eventually, save the majority of Japanese, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It was a terrible thing, but it was necessary to save the world in the face of an implacable foe.
In a recent issue of Money magazine (purchased with unused airline points, if you must know), there was a heartbreaking story about the opioid crisis in America. It featured one family that has paid dearly for that epidemic. Both sons had fallen prey to that addiction. Taking care of them had cost their parents nearly every cent they had, along with countless sleepless nights and untold heartache. Finally, they decided they would stop taking care of their sons. Every effort to save them had not only failed, but had even contributed to their condition. So, mom and dad simply got hard and refused to give them anything. They let their beloved sons sink into abject misery because nothing they did had helped to save them. They did it to save themselves. It ended up saving their sons lives, as their terrible conditions finally moved them to treatment and healing. God did it to Israel in the days of Isaiah to save their lives, even though he had to be incredibly harsh to do that.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Our prayer life should be our autobiography, C.S. Lewis once observed. But that is also why Lewis thought the Hebrew Psalter was such a fitting prayer book since it contains prayers that fit a wide variety of life’s experiences. Were the 150 Psalms all in one particular emotional register, what help would it be for all the other seasons of our lives that do not always fit into that one category or emotion? If we are to use the Psalms as our prayer book, then they need to be exactly what they turn out to be: widely varied.
About one-third of the 150 Psalms are Lament Psalms, and Lord knows we need those on a semi-regular basis in our lives. But Psalm 138 counts as very nearly the anti-Lament Psalm. This is a song and a prayer that is singularly hopeful, upbeat, confident. God is praised without reservation from first to last even as everyone else—even the kings of the earth—are encouraged to join the choir. The psalmist is certain that God has taken care of him in the past and is utterly confident this will continue to happen in the future (although the psalmist is not averse to the plucky closing line more or less commanding that God make sure that this protection will be extended into that future too!).
It is a testament to the honesty of the Hebrew Psalter that it can contain both Lament Psalms that question God’s faithfulness in one’s life AND Psalms like this one that recognize how faithful God just generally is. And what if it turned out that some of the same poets wrote both Psalms of Lament and Psalms of Praise like Psalm 138? It seems likely that this is the case, and that is something we can all relate to. Even the most exuberant Christian can get knocked sideways, can be led to question the very things that in other seasons of her life led her to shout and sing triumphantly in worship services. Faith does not require that we feel the same way about everything every day and all the time. There is something lovely and comforting about that.
Of course, preachers and worship planners are more at ease with the high notes of praise such as we find in Psalm 138. But it seems to me we should never preach on a Psalm like this without at least a brief acknowledgement that on any given Sunday, not everyone out there in the pews (or in the seats) is “there.” We should never preach the Psalms of exuberant confidence and praise without remembering—and perhaps overtly reminding the congregation—that all those other Psalms are out there too as testament to the fact that even faithful believers can pass through very different seasons.
Still, focusing on the beauty and confidence of our faith—and on the need to praise God over and over for God’s goodness and grace—is a fine thing to do on a regular basis in worship and also in our preaching. And in the case of Psalm 138 that is particularly poignant thing to do because of what the psalmist notes in verse 6: the real glory of Israel’s God is not only almighty and awesome power or the ability to do majestic cosmic miracles and splendors. No, the glory of Israel’s God—the source of the chesed or lovingkindness for which the Psalter most consistently praises God—is God’s ability to stoop low to take notice of the poor, the marginalized, the people who are all-too-often invisible to even our human eyes. It is the Lofty One’s attention to the lowly ones that truly startles. All “gods” (as they are referred to in verse 1) are said to be majestic and awesome and fearsome. The Babylonian and Phoenician and Egyptian (and later the Greek and the Roman) gods and goddesses all had that. But as often as not that power rode roughshod over us mere mortals who were but pawns in a larger divine drama. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods” the old line has it. “They kill us for their sport.”
But not Yahweh. Not the God of Israel. This God’s glory is precisely in God’s care for the weak, in this God’s desire to work with little folks like Abram and Sarai, like Moses, like David. Small wonder that when this God eventually comes to this planet in person, it is in the person of a poor carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire whose origin story takes place not in a palace but in an animal lodging. This is the core characteristic of God that launched The Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1: even as God had somehow found favor with little-old-nobody-from-Nazareth Mary, so Mary foresaw that God was going to continue to do this, scattering the proud and rich and haughty so as to elevate folks like her.
This wonder at God’s ability to notice us in all our littleness is a good focus for also today. In fact, considering how much more we now know about the vastness of the universe—and how not a few people use this as a reason to dismiss the idea that life on planet Earth could possibly matter—it is important to recall that God’s truest grandeur has always been his stooping low to notice, love, and care for each one of us. Yes, the world, the cosmos, is grand and we are occupying the tiniest speck of universal real estate. And yes, the day may come when we confirm what many suspect: that there are other inhabited worlds out there. Some, including in the church, will see this as a diminishing of our status. Gone will be the days when human beings consider themselves unique in the universe, the pinnacle of all possible sentient created beings. But if we can maintain the wonder that animates Psalm 138, then we need not feel threatened by such a prospect any more than we should buy the idea that the cosmos is too big for us to count as anything other than a universal footnote.
After all, a major part of God’s “bigness” to Israel was precisely his ability to see and celebrate “littleness.” And that feature to God has not changed. Indeed, in Christ Jesus we see exactly how good God is at getting very, very specific!
In his “Space Trilogy” of science fiction novels, C.S. Lewis toyed with the idea of intelligent life on other planets. Unlike “Star Trek” Lewis did not do so by zooming far out into outer space to find worlds like Vulcan but instead imagined other life right here in our own solar system, on Venus perhaps or Mars. In his stories, though, Lewis does not let this idea of other lifeforms diminish the Gospel. Instead he lets Earth retain its unique status as being “The Visited Planet,” referring to this being the world where the Son of God became incarnate. Beings from other worlds would speak of Earth in hushed, almost reverent tones for this very reason. There may be life on other planets, Lewis was essentially saying, but that will never remove us from God’s loving care or from the fact that once upon a time, God came down here quite literally in person to get saving work done!
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Author: Doug Bratt
In the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday Paul describes his theology of the resurrection. Yet he insists that the Corinthians’ confusion about it isn’t just one among many problems that he’s already addressed. Lack of clarity about the resurrection isn’t like confusion about, for example, sexuality, food offered to idols and lawsuits that plague his first readers.
No, Paul insists that the resurrection is at the very heart of the gospel. So we shouldn’t be surprised that talk of the resurrection composes a kind of bookend to his first letter to the Corinthians. It begins with his discussion of Jesus’ crucifixion in chapters 1 and 2 and now basically ends with a discussion of his resurrection.
Paul forges strong links between 1 Corinthians 1 and 15. In chapter 1:17 he argues that Jesus’ crucifixion is central to “the gospel.” In verse 1 of our text the apostle again reminds us of “the gospel” which is the great news of Christ’s resurrection.
In I Corinthians 1 Paul “preaches” Christ crucified. In chapter 15 he reminds the Corinthians about what he “preached” to them about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. In I Corinthians 1:28 the apostle insists that God chose “the lowly things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are.” Now he basically ends his letter to them by saying that God brings life out of death through Christ’s resurrection.
As one scholar writes, for Paul Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are really like two sides of the same coin. Neither makes any sense to him without the other. Our whole faith and life rest on the foundation that is both Christ’s death and resurrection.
Without Christ’s death on the cross, God’s adopted children would have put ourselves on a one-way road to hell. Because of Christ’s death, among other things, after all, God forgives our sins. Without Christ’s resurrection, however, God’s beloved people would have no guarantee we’d survive death in order to eternally enjoy that forgiveness. Because of Christ’s resurrection, however, we enjoy new life not only now, but also after we die.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that Paul says makes some strong things about the importance of Christ’s resurrection in our text. He recalls that the Corinthians have taken their “stand,” that they’ve rested all their hope on Jesus’ resurrection (1). Even now, he adds, we’re being saved through the good news of the resurrection if we “hold firmly” (2), if we clutch tightly what Paul teaches us.
So the apostle suggests that Jesus’ resurrection is like the towrope onto which God’s chosen people hold for dear life as we ride up the sometimes-snowy mountain that is our life before God and with each other. The apostle implies that if we somehow let go of that resurrection, we’re in danger of plunging back down a steep mountain.
Paul’s urgent appeal to the Corinthians suggests that some of them have already let go of that towrope that is the gospel of Christ’s resurrection. Some seem to have forgotten that faith to which God had called them through him. Others are in danger of moving the house that is their faith off its foundation that is the resurrection and putting it on sand.
Yet Paul refuses to give up on those wavering Corinthians. He begs them to listen to the gospel again. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t, after all, some myth that began with the apostle. Paul insists that the gospel is a testimony to what God did at a particular time in a particular place. It’s a witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The apostle’s1 Corinthians 15’s witness to that moves from Jesus’ crucifixion to resurrection much the way Paul’s whole first letter to the Corinthians moves. In verses 3 and following, after all, we read, “Christ died for our sins … he was buried … he was raised on the first day … he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve.”
This message isn’t, however, like some headline in the New York Times that appears today but we forget tomorrow. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are of what Paul calls “first importance” (3), the kind of things we remember as long as our memory lasts. They’re, in fact, a kind of headline over our lives every day that we live.
Paul goes on to claim that the risen Jesus somehow appeared to people. Yet he insists that the eyewitnesses didn’t just imagine or make this up. Paul, in fact, lists the witnesses to whom Christ appeared after God raised him from the dead. On top of that, he insists that most of the people to whom Christ appeared are “still living” (6). That means if the Corinthians somehow doubted Jesus’ resurrection, they could have checked with one of those witnesses.
The Jesus who died on the cross is the One who also showed himself to be alive after God raised him back to life. This calls for not a theory of resurrection, but a confession of faith from his grateful followers. Christ is alive!
However, the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection is also a profession of faith that his adopted brothers and sisters pray God will graciously use to help awaken faith in others. Profession, after all, through the work of the Holy Spirit, leads to profession. What God has done for God’s people in Christ helps others to see what God is doing for them in Christ.
Paul, in fact, adds his own profession to the Church’s profession. He says Christ “appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (5). Then, however, the apostle adds his own profession in verse 6: “After that,” Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers … Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, he appeared to me also.”
Clearly, then, the risen Christ was on the move, expanding the circle of believers, beginning in Jerusalem but now stretching across the whole world. Yet Paul admits that he belongs to a pretty select group of eyewitnesses. He is, after all, the last person to whom the risen Christ actually appeared.
That’s why Paul understands that he has a big job. Of course, the apostle also knows he doesn’t deserve that vital job. He didn’t, after all, know Jesus personally. Paul wasn’t one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. He didn’t experience the confusion that the risen Christ turned to joy on the first Easter. The Holy Spirit didn’t descend on and fill him on the first Pentecost.
In fact, Paul initially actually persecuted the Church. He witnessed and, in fact, approved of Stephen’s martyrdom. What’s more, Paul met the risen Christ only as he was on his way to capture and imprison Christians. That’s why Paul refers to himself as “one abnormally born” (8), literally as a miscarried fetus. When the risen Christ appeared to him, after all, he was basically dead.
So only by God’s grace are Paul, those who proclaim his 1 Corinthians 15 message, or, for that matter, any of Jesus’ followers what we are. By that same grace, God also equips Paul as well as his brothers and sisters in Christ to work hard at spreading the gospel of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
That proclamation both frames our text and sets an agenda for the lives of God’s beloved children. Paul begins this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by reminding his readers of the “gospel” he “preached” (1) to them. He ends it by reiterating that he and the other apostles “preach” that gospel (12). God wishes to use that preaching to graciously bring many other people to faith in the risen Christ.
In the rest of the chapter, Paul lays out the implications of that great gospel. He shows why his preaching and the Corinthian believing can’t be in vain. If, after all, Christ isn’t alive, we’re pitiful fools who are just wasting our time.
It’s that same message that both those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 15 and those who hear it bring to friends, neighbors, co-workers and the world. It’s our only sure hope in a world plagued by so much despair: Christ is alive and will someday return to redeem all things, including the messes we’ve made for our neighbors, the creation and ourselves.
In her shocking short story, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor describes the Misfit, a murderer with a conscience who’s about to kill an elderly woman. Before he does so, however, he talks about Jesus’ resurrection. It changes everything, he insists. It, in fact, seems to haunt him.
“’Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead’,” The Misfit … [said], “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,’ he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.“