Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: How It Happened

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 6, 2022, Epiphany 5C

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

How It Happened

Let’s get back to basics here…

OK, back to square one…

Remember how all this started…

Remember your fundamentals…

In a nutshell…

We have a lot of ways to talk about the need, every now and then, to return to those things in our work or our family life or our life in general that are most basic, perhaps most foundational, to how we operate or how we live together or even to how we exist as a human being. It’s not uncommon to get so caught up or maybe bogged down in the day-to-day details of that activity that we forget why we’re doing that thing in the first place. Sometimes we really do need to get back to basics, or remember how we started, or to sum it all up “in a nutshell.” 

As the Apostle Paul draws to the conclusion of his letter to the church in Corinth, after pages upon pages of instruction and correction and chastisement and sometimes downright frustration, he apparently decides that the Corinthians need to get back to the basics and remember why they’re even a church in the first place. Today’s reading constitutes those “basics,” at least as Paul understood them; the rest of the chapter, which we will attend to on upcoming Sundays, describes how Paul concludes the Corinthians got off-track.

In this case, these “basics” are cast as the message Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians. Paul makes no claim that the message is in any way unique to his ministry; as we will see, he is quick to acknowledge that others proclaim this same basic account, and some of those have even borne their witness to the Corinthians themselves. But notice how carefully Paul casts this message before he even gets around to repeating it:

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

That’s kind of a mouthful, but Paul is taking pains to stress just how basic this message was to the Corinthians’ very existence as part of the body of Christ. He then reiterates again that what he has taught them he taught “as of first importance,” as if he hasn’t stressed this point enough already. 

But then, Paul probably had reason to be so precise about his proclamation. There were plenty of examples of churches in Paul’s travels that had decided, on their own or through the influence of bad teachers, that other, nonessential or even non-justifiable thoughts needed to be elevated to primary or indispensable status. Perhaps the most notorious example is found in his letter to the church of Galatia, the one where Paul writes “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting…almost immediately in the letter (1:6), and later is moved to exclaim “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (3:1). 

What had the Galatians done to provoke such ire from Paul? They had, under the influence of those “bad teachers,” decided that, for example, male Gentile converts to this community of believers should be required to undergo the rite of circumcision according to Jewish practice; in short, they had to become Jewish to become Christian. Galatia wasn’t the only place where Paul ran into this obstacle to faith – those bad teachers traveled almost as well as Paul did – but his literary outburst in that letter is perhaps most striking. In short, Paul had reason to be very precise and direct about taking the Corinthians back to square one.

The gospel in a nutshell, as Paul puts it?

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

There it is. The basics. The gospel in a nutshell. 

The self-described “lectionary comic strip” Agnus Day takes on this passage in a humorous exchange between its two characters, sheep named Ted and Rick. Ted remarks of this passage that “there it is, the whole gospel in a handful of verses,” to which Rick, the wiser sheep, responds that “Paul doesn’t want them to forget the basics of the faith.” Then the punchline, from Ted: “Makes me wonder why I’m carrying around the rest of this Bible…“. 

This is not an invitation to toss out the rest of the Bible – there’s a lot more to be said about how this gospel came to be and what it means for us. As far as the most basic element of why we are what we are, though, it’s hard to add to this. We will echo this in our Lord’s Supper responses: Christ has died. Christ is risen.

With this basic gospel stated, Paul then engages in some “human bibliography” – being careful to cite sources for this gospel, in particular the part about Christ being raised. (Yes, this might serve as a clue to what is to come later in the chapter.) He does this by rattling off a pretty impressive list of witnesses to the risen Christ. There might be an inclination to panic over the fact that this list doesn’t necessarily correlate to any particular account of resurrection appearances in any of the gospels. Don’t panic. Remember that Mark’s gospel includes no such appearances, Matthew barely gets in any, and John flatly admits that there’s a whole lot more he could have included in his gospel but didn’t. Those gospels hadn’t even been written at the time Paul is writing to the Corinthians to boot. Nothing in the gospels gives us any reason to question what Paul has received and passed on.

Of course, the last witness Paul lists is Paul himself, referring to the dramatic scene in Acts 9. Paul is quick to acknowledge his own dark past as one who “persecuted the church of God,” but uses that failure of his past to illuminate the grace of God that made him into what he now was, even if he can’t stop himself from going on about how hard he’s had to work at this before acknowledging God’s grace again. 

In short, here’s the point, so far: Christ died and was buried, Christ was raised again (this is all consistent with scripture, Paul points out), and we have a lot of witnesses to the risen Christ, some of whom you know (it’s possible Cephas, whom we know as Peter, had visited Corinth at some point). That’s the most basic foundation of your faith, of your being what you are. 

This is a challenging topic to translate into our own modern context. Those eyewitnesses are no longer with us, after all, and the church has blundered through nearly two millenia of trying, with intent good or ill, claiming all manner of other doctrinal assertions as “fundamentals” of the faith. This has inevitably done incredible damage to the church’s witness, not to mention to those who are victimized by such assertions. 

No: the fundamental of the faith, Paul would say, is this: 

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #485, We Know That Christ Is Raised; #441, Hear the Good News of Salvation; #649, Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound

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