Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sermon for the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord

                                                                                                            1 Cor 15:1-11

            In the middle of the first century A.D., the apostle Paul went to Athens, Greece.  Athens was one of the great intellectual centers of the ancient world.  It was the center of one of the great schools of learning – and had been for centuries.  And like many university towns, the people there were intellectually smug and full of themselves.  Believe me, I know what that looks like – I grew up in one.
            We are told that Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were talking with him. Some people said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”
            Paul preached to them in a way that engaged their own religious and intellectual heritage.  But then Paul said, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Paul’s reference to the resurrection marked the end of the conversation.  While some indicated that they were open to hearing more at a later time, Luke tells us that some mocked.  In truth, based what we know about the Greco-Roman world, we can assume that most mocked.
We have gathered on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And on this day, our epistle lesson is from 1 Corinthians 15 – the great resurrection chapter in Paul’s letter to Corinth.  We have celebrated Easter so many times and heard Paul’s words so many times that it is easy to take the whole thing for granted.  Of course Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  Of course it proves that Jesus completed his saving mission.  Of course it shows that Jesus has defeated death.
            What we fail to realize is that for almost the entire world that the first Christians addressed – the Greco-Roman world that was the setting of every Christian congregation apart from Jewish Palestine – none of this made any sense.  In fact, it was absurd. 
            It was absurd because for them the resurrection of the body was not a good thing.  It was not something to be desired.  It was in fact the last thing anyone would want. It was a punishment, not salvation.
            From the beginnings of Greek philosophy there was a basic assumption that continued on for century after century up to Jesus’ day in the first century A.D.  This assumption was that the spirit was good and that the body – the physical – bad.  The body was a prison in which the spirit had been trapped. And the good thing about death was that it finally set the spirit free.
            This was the worldview of the people to whom Paul was writing in Corinth. It was the worldview of everyone the Church sought to evangelize that wasn’t Jewish.  If you decided to make up a religion in the first century A.D. for which you were going to try to win over the Mediterranean world, placing the resurrection of the body at the center of it was the worst decision that you could possibly make.
            And yet … that’s exactly what the apostles did.  They said that truth of the Christian faith was based on the fact that Jesus Christ had bodily risen from the dead.  And then they doubled down by saying that the resurrection wasn’t only about Jesus.  It was about the future, the salvation that was in store for everyone who believed in him.
            That’s what the apostle Paul says in our text today.  He begins by saying, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”  Paul says that when he talks about resurrection, he is talking about the Gospel by which the Corinthians are saved.  If there is no resurrection, then there is no Gospel and there is no salvation.
            Paul lays it out as he says: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”
            He says that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.  The Gospel and the resurrection are needed because there is a problem.  The problem is sin.  The problem is that ever since Adam disobeyed God, everyone conceived and born in the normal course of nature is sinful.  We are people who find disobeying God to come naturally.  We are people who find that that hurting those around us by what we say and do comes naturally.  It’s easy.  We don’t have to work at it.  In fact, we are really, really good at it.
            The problem is that all of this sin flies in the face of the holy God and the way he has ordered things. And you know what: forget what our culture says about there not being any  absolute truth – that there is only what is true for you and what is true for me.  The holy and almighty God gets the final word. And his word is clear: the wages of sin is death.  Sin brings death.  That’s what apart from the return of Christ, every single one of you is going to do. 
And God will speak the final word.  On the Last Day he will pronounce judgment and sinners will be cast out of his presence in eternal damnation – what Jesus Christ describes as the weeping and gnashing of teeth.  As Paul told the Romans, “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.”
            Sin is the reason God acted to give us forgiveness and salvation.  God had revealed in the Old Testament that he would do this.  As we heard in our Old Testament lesson on Good Friday, God said about his Servant, the Christ -            “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.” Through Jesus’ death on the cross, God has given you forgiveness.
            Yet that is not all he has done.  He has also given you life.  God didn’t just punish sin in Christ on the cross.  He also acted in his Son to bring life – full blown bodily resurrection life.  You see, God says that things work very differently than the way the Greco-Roman world viewed things.
            When God had finished making his creation, we learn from Genesis chapter one, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” When he created Adam, he formed his body out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and Adam became a living being.  God created human beings as the unity of body and soul.
            In the first Adam, sin had entered into the world and brought death.  In the second Adam, Jesus Christ, God worked to restore the life that we were meant to have.  He restored the life of fellowship with God by taking away our sins and giving us forgiveness.  And he began the restoration of human bodily life as God created it to be.
            Yet it’s not just the Greco-Roman world that had no use for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It’s our world too.  If you read around in what so many so called “Christian” scholars and theologians have to say; if you hear their pathetic dribble at places like the History Channel, you will find that it is just as common to deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If they don’t use the tired rationalist explanations that have been around since the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century, the you will be told that Christ has a “spiritual resurrection.”  Define this in whatever way you want, it always ends up meaning that on Easter morning, the actual body of Jesus Christ was still in the tomb.
            And there is nothing that could be more stupid.  For anyone who lived in the Jewish setting knew what resurrection was – it was what happened on the Last Day when God gave the physical bodies of his people triumph over death and raised them to live as God had intended life to be.  And Paul new exactly what the stakes were.  Just after our text he said: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
            If Christ did not rise from the dead, then you are still in your sins.  If Christ did not rise from the dead, then no one who has died will ever live again.  If Christ did not rise from the dead, then everything Christianity is a lie – and worse than that, it is a false witness about God. And if Christ did not rise from the dead – if the only hope of the Christian belongs to this life – then we are most to be pitied because the suffering, sacrifice and service of the Christian is meaningless.
            But on Easter Sunday when the women went to the tomb, it was empty. The announcement by the angel was, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”  Jesus Christ did rise to the dead.  In his resurrection he did begin the resurrection of the Last Day.  He is the first fruits, the beginning of the resurrection that we too will share in when he returns in glory.
            And the resurrection of our Lord was something that was not only experienced in a brief and confused manner on the morning of Easter Sunday.  It was not something that was experienced just the day of Easter Sunday.  It was experienced during the course of forty days. It was experienced in Jerusalem.  It was experienced on a mountain in northern Israel in Galilee and at the Sea of Galilee.  And it was not experienced by some small and confused group of people.  As Paul declares to us this morning, the risen Lord was seen and heard by Peter and the other apostless, by James, by more than five hundred Christians as one time; and finally by Paul himself.
This is the witness of the Gospel.  Jesus Christ died for your sins, according to the Scriptures.  He rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures. He appeared to many different people in many different place over the course of more than a month.  And because this happened your sins are forgiven. Because this happened you will rise from the dead to share in Jesus’ own resurrection on the Last Day.  Jesus Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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