One of the things I like to spend time doing is talking to people – random people and often strangers – about their lives. It’s a bit weird I know, but I am simply fascinated by how distinct and diverse are people’s experiences and perceptions of the world. Sometimes they really freak me out, and sometimes I find people utterly fascinating. As a Christian, and as a type of critical evangelist (in other words I don’t stand on street corners shouting about the benefits of beliefs or that non-believers are going to hell), I have actually often found it quite difficult to admit that I’m a Christian, let alone speak publicly about my faith.
Why? Probably for the same reasons you find it difficult: if the foundation of our faith cannot be measured by science, and is therefore utterly out of the ordinary for anything we know, well, it can be awfully difficult to not sound potentially crazy, not very bright, easily snowed, or just looking for a crutch rather than constructing my own purpose and value.
But Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church this morning declares that it is precisely an ‘out of our ordinary experience event’ that grounds our hope. Listen to what he says, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
Let’s look at Paul’s proclamation here first: last week we heard in Corinthians, what the Church has declared as a credal statement: that is, a summary of the main points of the faith. These points or this creed provides a declaration of who the Christian faith is about, and it also provides limits as to what we can and cannot say about this faith of ours (that’s what a Christian Creed provides). The foremost thing Paul tells us as having been passed on to him is this: Christ was raised from the dead. You see, just as in our times, apparently some in the Corinthian Church (and of course those outside the Church) were saying, ‘oh come on, no one is raised from the dead, this just doesn’t happen.’
Maybe, just as today, people then too thought it was a kind of metaphor; symbolic wording to represent a kind of figurative reality: Jesus did all these wonderful things to show us, by example, how we should really live. Jesus’s life was a nice moral lesson for us so that we could proclaim a kind of figurative being raised from the dead. Paul says to those who believe this, ‘my friends, if it’s really true that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was not raised from the dead, then we’re actually left in a really bad state. Why?
Because we’re going to be left in our sins. We’re going to be left in a world where those with power and wealth, those who have material goods and who get lucky and have plenty, are born into good families, don’t get sick, we’re left in a world where they matter and most of the rest of us are pretty irrelevant. Because that’s how a world that thrives in sin looks: the powerful – whether that power is gained honorably or through corruption, greed, using, building life on the backs of others, crushing or even killing others, so you can gain power – those powerful people are the true winners even if they step on others to win. That’s the ultimate end or telos of a sinful world: anything goes, the only purpose is given by those who have the power to make purpose.
So then if Christ has not been raised from the dead, Paul’s point is that the world will not have changed. We will be left to death where our lives have meaning solely in accordance with what we achieve and accomplish here on earth, the power and legacy we leave. And if this is so, then our hope is grounded on our capacity to gain power and control and to do so by any means and in any way we need. So if this is what we believe, we’re now setting our lives on things that Scripture tells us are going to perish and have no ultimate meaning, even if we think they do.
Next Paul says, folks, if Scripture is true – that God has come into our world for our sakes, that he has overcome our sinful choice to live without him by himself in Christ, choosing the Father – if Scripture is true that this willing obedience and faithfulness and love of Jesus for his Father has overcome death and achieved God’s command that we love him first, then if we say that the dead are not raised, then “we are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of 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, then Christ has not been raised.”
And here’s the real clincher. Paul says, folks we have a real problem if we can’t affirm that Christ was raised from the dead: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Again, if Christ has not been raised, the gospel has no power. Why?
Because a mere example of how to live, well those are a dime a dozen. They may change a life here and there, maybe a few thousand lives, but they do not change the world. Paul’s claim here is bold: when God raised Jesus Christ, when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, from the Hell where all of us were headed, he didn’t provide a mere example, he fundamentally changed our final destination, he literally brought us from death, into life now and eternally. This is not something that someone who just provides an example of how to live can provide. Someone who just provides an example or a good way, will meet the same fate as all others: death. But God, as the Scriptures say, is not confined by what he created for he himself is not created; he is eternal, and therefore, he alone has the power to raise us from death into eternal life with him. This is the part that really matters for us.
Paul declares the central claim of the Gospel: But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. If Christ, fully God and fully human being has been raised as the ‘first fruits,’ than all other human beings, whether we are talking about Abraham and Sarah, or you and I, have not only our very existence, our being, in him, but we also then find out what our lives mean when we look at his own life and see where we are right now, 5 years ago, where we want to be, before him. The Scriptures proclaim to us that they are a mirror for us to hold up. The one who creates the reflection of us is Jesus Christ himself, we walk, run, live, work, sleep, do good, do evil, give birth, get sick, and die, in his reflection, in the shadow that his own body casts on our personal lives.
We hear in our Gospel lesson today, that those who struggle by our world’s measures and standards, will be blessed by God. It is not that those who struggles, or suffer are somehow doing so because this is a good thing; rather in a fallen world, for one reason or another, struggle and pain and anguish and loss of capacity, of another, of power and control, are simply inevitable. But this is not how we are judged or viewed by God. God sees those who struggle to sustain, to survive, to find the truth, and he says, I will have mercy on you and I will forgive you. I do this, God says to us through Paul here, not because any of you deserve forgiveness or life more than any other – you are all fallen and all are incapable of being faithful to me – no I do this because I have come for you in Jesus Christ my Son, just as I told you.
If we take hold of this promise God made to us, we can let go of the things that hold us back from seeking truth. We can let go of our need for power and control, for revenge, for certainty, for accomplishment, and we can live with others acting out of our faith with patience, kindness, perseverance, endurance and love. To recognize that Christ was raised from the dead is a gift. It is the gift of love itself, that poured out abundantly, enables us to live by faith rather than by sight. It allows us to live beyond the fears this world so often leaves us with. It allows us to step in – not to the mere example – but to the reality of life which is being conformed to God himself. AMEN.