1 Cor 15:1-11
I am so glad you are here this morning, because do I have good news for you! I am here to help you with a problem that troubles us all. Now, it is a solution that will require some changes in the way you live. But it is going to be so worth it! I am here today… to teach you how to get into debt.
It is very unlikely that you would find this pitch to be appealing. After all, we consider being in debt to be a bad thing. It is something we seek to avoid. We are willing to work and make sacrifices in order to end that status. And besides, getting into debt is really easy. You just spend more than you make. The process of getting there can actually be a lot of fun: Who doesn’t like to get stuff or do fun things? But of course it is irresponsible to put instant gratification ahead of sound decisions about money. And in the end, debt is one of the great stressors of life and marriage.
I begin the sermon in this way in order to illustrate what a challenge Christianity faced as believers proclaimed the Gospel to the Greco-Roman world – the world outside of Judaism. The apostle Paul summarizes the Gospel near the beginning of our text as he writes, “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.”
In our text, Paul talks about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He wants the Corinthians to know for certain that it happened. And the reason for this is tied to the fact that some among the Corinthians were denying the resurrection of the body altogether. As Paul says in the first verse after our text, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
Within Judaism, the resurrection of the body made perfect sense. God had made a very good material world. He had created a body for Adam, and breathed into him the breath of life. He would not allow death to overcome this. Job said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” In Daniel we read, “But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
But the Greco-Roman world, and really the entire pagan world, was a completely different ball game. There, the body was something that a person wanted to escape. The “spirit” – the non-material – is what really mattered. The body was regularly described as a “prison” in which the spirit was trapped – a prison from which it longed to be freed. The body was worse than worthless, and death meant freedom from it. This attitude guided burial practices. The body was worthless, so pagans burned them up on funeral pyres.
Into this world the apostles and first Christians went preaching a Gospel that was entirely grounded in the resurrection of the body. It started with the resurrection of Jesus’ body, and then this provided the hope that believers in Jesus will also experience a resurrection of the body. This was guaranteed to pose a problem for acceptance.
And of course the first part of the Gospel summary in our text contains another problem. Jesus didn’t just die for our sins. He was crucified. Paul had already said in the first chapter of this letter, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
The crucified Lord who had experienced a bodily resurrection and who promised a bodily resurrection for those who believe in him – you could hardly make up a message that was less likely to succeed in the first century world. If the goal was maximum offense, well then, the Christians had certainly achieved it.
It’s not surprising then, that some of the Corinthian Christians were having problems. So at the beginning of chapter fifteen, Paul goes back to the beginning. He takes them back to the basics – to the foundational truths of the Gospel. He says, “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 had delivered to them as of first importance what he himself had received – he had shared with them the common faith of the Church that went back to the apostles and believers who had been with Jesus. First, Jesus had died on behalf of our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. On Good Friday we heard Paul tell the Corinthians in a later letter that that, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” He told them about Jesus Christ: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Though sinless, Jesus took our sins and received God’s punishment in our place.
Jesus’ dead body was taken down from the cross and buried in the tomb. But then, “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” Jesus rose from the dead and then Paul lists the people who saw him: Peter, the other apostles, more than five hundred believers at the same time and James the brother of Jesus. And then Paul added, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” Paul affirms that he had seen the risen Lord, though not in the same way as the others, because by that time the Lord Jesus had ascended.
We learn in our text that the Church proclaimed this message, not because it was likely to be acceptable to people – it wasn’t. They proclaimed it because it was true – it had really happened.
Everything about the Christian faith comes down to this single point: Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Immediately after our text, Paul lays this out in a brutally frank way. He says, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”
Paul says that if Jesus has not been raised then Christian preaching and faith is nothing. Paul and the others would be false witnesses, saying thing about God that are not true. Finally the apostle adds: “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 the resurrection is not true – if Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead – then Christianity is just stupid. It is worse than stupid because it is a lie that calls upon us to sacrifice and serve others for no reason. Paul knew it, and called it like it is.
But then, building on the words of our text he went on to say, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” There was no doubt. We learn that the risen Lord appeared to the believers during the course of forty days. He appeared on multiple occasions, to different groups of people, in different locations. He appeared to them in different parts of Israel – both in the south in Judea, and in the north in Galilee.
These encounters left absolutely no doubt about what had happened. And so it had changed everything. The death of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday was not a tragic failure and miscarriage of justice. It was instead God’s most powerful action to forgive your sins. It was the defeat of death itself, and the beginning of the new life that will be yours. Paul wrote, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”
The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that everything has changed for you. You now have the living hope that gives you confidence no matter what happens. The risen Lord is your Lord. He gave himself up for you on the cross and he is certainly going to care for you now in his exaltation. There is nothing that can ever separate you from Christ and his love – not suffering, not illness, not even death itself. You have the living hope of Jesus the risen Lord. You know how this whole thing ends, and because you do you can live every day guided and prompted by that expectation. You forgive. You serve others and put their needs before yourself. You encourage. You support.
You can do this, not just because you know Jesus has risen from the dead and that you will too. You can do this because the resurrection power of Jesus is already at work in you. Paul told the Romans, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Through the Holy Spirit’s work in baptism we have received regeneration – new life. The Spirit’s presence is the guarantee of our own resurrection. Paul said, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” The Spirit is the source of the leading and power by which we live a life of service and love because of Jesus Christ who rose from the dead by the work of the Spirit.
The resurrection of Jesus speaks to our now, and our not yet. It means that now we have forgiveness, hope, strength and peace with God. And it means that when Jesus Christ returns in glory we will experience life as it was truly meant to be. We will because Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; he was buried; and he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures