Sermon - Epiphany 5 (Ordinary 5) Year C - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Of first importance

[See also the sermon Tradition, good and not so good, concerning the apostolic tradition to which Paul refers in the succeeding phase "what I in turn had received", and Resurrection of the body which continues today's theme next week; and see Repent and believe, Is he really the one? and The Messiah who brings love of God and neighbour together, for other approaches to the definitive content of the gospel or good news.]

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, {4} and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

The essence of the good news was that Christ had died for our sins and had been raised to life again. Here Paul was reminding those who belonged to Christ at Corinth of the nature of the good news, the gospel, that he had brought to them, saying:

It was something of first importance because it was the good news which defined where they were committed to take a stand, on which they relied for their salvation - in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved. It was something that was already a tradition among the apostles - For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received. It was news which was already a tradition, which I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received. He was writing about the central tradition concerning the truth about Christ which is found in the preaching of the apostles.

The apostolic tradition

We could add weight to these words by considering how important the apostolic tradition (that is the tradition of what the apostles taught) was as the primary source of what was proclaimed and received about Christ by those who believed in him. They knew that they could not believe about Christ whatever suited their fancy, but what was handed on by witnesses who could be trusted. The apostles were witnesses to the risen Christ and their testimony was the basis of Christian belief. It was the standard of truth about Christ against which all teaching and belief was to be tested, just as for us it is the scriptures which record that apostolic tradition that are the standard to which we refer for guidance. We also look to the ancient creeds as an authoritative way of summing up what Christians believe, and that tradition of the creeds was a very early one, older even than the New Testament scriptures. Some creeds were passed on before even the letters of Paul were written. The short summary of what was believed about the death and resurrection of Christ which Paul reminded the Corinthians about was in fact an early creed which he had previously handed on to them: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, {4} and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. There is a simple statement of what Christians have believed from the beginning. It goes on to recall how the risen Lord was seen by the apostles and many others, and finally by Paul himself, and it is not clear where in the following verses the creed ends and Paul's own recollection begins, but it was clearly introduced as a formula of belief in the tradition of the apostles which they had received. The words of introduction concerning what Paul had handed on and they had received use the same Greek words and the same form of expression here in regard to the gospel as when Paul refers in Chapter 11 to the tradition concerning the Lord's Supper:

You will see in that example that Paul says he received "from the Lord" what he handed on. There was some kind of first hand experience in Paul's knowledge of the commands of the Lord about how he was to be remembered with the bread and the wine. Such first hand experience is an important element in the authenticity of the tradition which has direct implications for us, to which I will return before finishing today. It was even stronger in what Paul claimed about his knowledge of the gospel. It might seem in the passage we have before us today as if Paul simply repeated a form of words which had been taught to him be others, but while he used an agreed traditional form of expression, a creed, to say what the gospel was, he claimed also to know what it was from personal experience, as he wrote to the Galatians:

Paul could have been especially prepared by Christ for his role as an apostle in ways we do not know, but the importance of a living witness, not mere second hand teaching, concerning what we believe about Christ, is also a central part of the tradition. It is there in the text for today in the good news being described not only as what Paul handed on but also as that which was received by those who believe, who are the church, as he says of them at the beginning of the letter:

The gospel is both that which is proclaimed and that which is received. That has important implications for us, to which I shall return. First, more about what it is that they proclaimed and believed, which was "of first importance". When Paul says that this teaching about the death and resurrection of Christ, which he handed on to them, is a matter of the utmost importance, he is drawing attention to the central truth of the gospel which defines the nature of the Christian faith. So we focus now on the content of the message brought by Paul to the Corinthians, rather than how it came to be authoritative for them and for us. How do you answer the question, "What is the gospel"?

What is the good news?

As this passage from Paul unfolds in Chapter 15 of his First Letter to the Corinthians it becomes clear that his primary focus is on the resurrection of Christ and the promise it gives of resurrection for those who are joined with him. It is the promise of new life in which we can share that makes it good news. The good news is full of hope. It was a time when the possibility of people being raised to life after death was much debated. There were certainly some among the Greeks who believed as Plato and other great philosophers had in the immortality of the soul, but that was a different kind of belief. Nor was it one generally found among the Jews who were discussing then not so much a kind of natural immortality which in their view would leave a person in a suspended state of animation, like one in a deep sleep in a secure realm of the dead far away, but the possibility of coming back to life as a compete person. For them death was not to be understood as the separation of immortal and untouchable soul from a body subject to decay. In Jewish thought soul and body were much the same, as we might speak of the person. Was a person to be bought back to life? That was the question. Some said it was not possible, as Paul acknowledged:

He says, if Christ was raised from the dead, so you too can be raised. If it was possible for one man, Jesus Christ, then it is possible for people in general. That ought to be good news, and if it is not true the news is not good.

It could hardly be stronger. Everything that they believe in and hoped for, absolutely everything, depends upon the truth of the good news that Christ was raised from the dead. If that was not true then all they hoped for was in vain. So it is no wonder that Paul set out the evidence, not being content simply to make the headline claim that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, but going on to spell it out:

Those who were witnesses to the resurrection of Christ were witnesses to that great work of God in which their hearers placed their trust for their own salvation, their own hopes for new life in victory over sin and death.

Sometimes people speak, or perhaps I should say that some used once upon a time to speak, of what they were saying being "gospel", meaning that it was quite definitely true, you can trust what I say about it, they said, its gospel. That old saying put more emphasis on the reliability of the gospel than on the hope that it brings in the promise of salvation. The gospel is good news because of the hope and promise that it brings, but the old saying has a point, because if the gospel is not true, not something to be relied upon, then the hope is in vain: if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. So the evidence for it, the reliability of the witnesses and their believability, is very important - the truth of what they say about Christ is "of first importance", the utmost importance.

Resurrection of the body

There are two other aspects of this message to think about: how the promise of resurrection of the body is grounds for hope, and the reference to scripture in the little creed about death and resurrection, before we come back to the role of personal experience in the way that the message is passed on and received. As I was saying, there was among the Greeks a belief in the immortality of the soul, but what Paul was talking about was resurrection of the body. Many of them the Greeks were dualists for whom the idea of resurrection of the body would have been horrifying, not good news at all, because that would mean that the soul would be imprisoned and not able to escape from the body. A body was a corrupt and limiting thing, while the soul was pure and separate, in their way of thinking. There were beliefs that salvation from a corrupt and limiting material world was to be achieved through special knowledge [gnosis] that would enable the soul to survive and escape corruption, but that was not what Paul believed. Nor was it the message that came from God in Jesus Christ, for in him the very being of God, the holy, and perfect uncorrupted spirit, became a whole person of flesh and blood: the word became flesh, and Jesus never sought to separate them. [The incarnation makes resurrection rather than immortality of the soul the natural conclusion.]

But if the body is raised to a new life, what kind of body is it? Come on, you might say, we all know that the flesh decays, and even the bones disappear in time, what do you mean by resurrection of the body? Paul saw that challenge coming when he wrote later in the Chapter,

Then he goes on to say how the body of our resurrection is not the old body of flesh and blood, but a new kind of body as different from the old one as a plant is from the seed from which it grows.

I don't want to speak further on this now, for resurrection of the body is my topic for next week when we read some of the later verses of the same chapter. Let it be sufficient to now to suggest that it is through bodies that we relate to others. The promise of resurrection in a new kind of body, which is a spiritual body, is cause for hope that we can look forward to being part of a new creation in which spiritual relationships are brought to perfection.

In accordance with the scriptures

Is the reference to scriptures in the little creed about the death and resurrection of Christ useful to our understanding? Does it matter that our hope for new life embodied in spiritual relationships is based on the death and resurrection of Christ in accordance with the scriptures? The scriptures which Paul referred to were the Hebrew Scriptures which were read in the Jewish synagogues and in early Christian meetings, they were what we call the Old Testament. Why should it matter that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures or that he was raised to life again in accordance with what had been written in those books? Why could not what happened to Jesus stand on its own instead of being shown to be in agreement with things written long before? It relates to Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed holy one of God, who had long been promised and expected. What happened to Jesus was important for others because of who he was. It was a tragedy that a good man was put to death, but if the Messiah whom God had sent to lead his people into the Kingdom of God had been killed that meant a great deal more. Those who had been his followers needed to learn what he had been trying to teach them for some time before he died, that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die, and one way they learned that was to see that it was already part of the word of God in scripture. They saw it particularly in Isaiah 53:

We see how the apostles used this passage about the Suffering Servant in their proclamation of the gospel, perhaps most clearly in the story of the Phillip and the Ethiopian who asked for that passage to be explained to him. (Acts 8:26-39). It is most likely one of the passages used by Jesus himself when he spoke with the two on the road to Emmaus:

What happened to Jesus was what must happen to the Messiah because he made himself one with sinful humanity. The leader was also the suffering servant. He died for our sins: upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. It was in accord with this scripture that Christ died for our sins. To know this is to know that God's purpose is being worked out in what happened to Jesus. It was a purpose of reconciling people to himself which had long been his aim, and was now at last accomplished. When we are related to God through faith in Jesus Christ as one who died for us we are related to God who revealed himself as one who saves throughout the history of his dealings with the people of the Old Testament. It is the same God who remains consistent in his care from ancient times and in all times and places. So too it is equally consistent with the nature of God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures that death should not have the last word.

Specific prophecies of the resurrection are less clear, although some words are interpreted that way: for example,

And in regard to the suffering servant,

But while looking back we can see hope for renewal of life in those passages, it is more in the whole dealings of God with the people who were called into a covenant with him that he is known as one who renews life. When they were down and out he rescued them, especially after their captivity in Babylon. They always remembered him as God of salvation after their escape from slavery in Egypt. Again the resurrection of Christ is wholly consistent with the nature of God as he had been revealed "in the scriptures". To see the death and resurrection of Christ as being in accord with the scriptures is to see these great as acts of God as the work of one who is the same God, yesterday, today and for ever, and that is further grounds for our hope of being raised also. It is part of the good news to be part of the big picture.

The living witness

Finally, let me remind you again where we began. It was with the good news of Christ which was of first importance. Paul had proclaimed and they had received it - the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, that in which also you stand, {2} through which also you are being saved. Paul was a first hand witness to the gospel, and so also were they! Those who received the good news knew in themselves the difference it made. They had responded to it, they had made a commitment, and they were being changed by it. They were being saved. It is important to see here that what was happening to them was a continuing process - through which also you are being saved. They had entered into a relationship of faith which was going to keep on making a difference. Just as after the gift of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost God added to the first believers those who were being saved as they continued under the apostles teaching, in the breaking of bread and prayer:

They were beginning to live in the power of the Holy Spirit, to know in themselves that Jesus was indeed the Lord over sin and death and in the whole of life, and so he continued to live among them. The truth of the gospel has continued through all generations to be attested by the experience of those who receive it as well as by the living witnesses who hand it on and the witness of the apostles who first knew the risen Lord. May we all know the living presence which confirms the truth of the message and makes it truly good news.

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