This sermon was given at Colonial Church on February 4, 2019.
15 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, 2 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.
3 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, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
– 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (NRSV)
Oh God of all goodness and life, on this snowy morning, in this room, in this space—gathered together and here in our own hearts—we invite you, by your Spirit, to continually unearth inside of us new soil and new land. Soil that springs forth with abundance the goodness of your love and life in this world.
May this indeed be the good news in which we stand.
A couple of times this week I was talking with folks about how if you’ve been around for any length of time (which for me is about a year) you know that each one of the ministers on staff have a very similar sermon that we preach…irrespective of the passage. It’s true! Well, it’s true of all of our lives, actually.
So for me, the sermon is always something like: “God loves you. God loves everybody. Let’s saturate in that love! Breathe in and go forth and like love your neighbors and (peace sign) everything’s going to be ok!”
Jeff’s sermons (I’m gonna be in trouble because he’s sitting right here!)…well, Jeff is like “Let’s love Jesus! You are so loved! I’m going to tell you an engaging story to help you remember this and apply it to your life and be a different kind of person. Let’s be the church together!”
(Something like that…)
Carter, well Carter is always going to challenge us to think anew and prophetically about the way that a passage opens us up: “What’s something we hadn’t seen before? What’s a way we want to engage with this?” And he’s going to laser in on a piece of challenge for/to us.
Daniel is going to keep pressing us to take seriously the invitation of the gospel to change who we are; that we are indeed a people who are in need of transformation. “We should be suspect when we think we’ve already arrived because remember, we need the cross (making the sign of the cross on your forehead as Daniel has encouraged us).”
Does that seem kind of fair so far?
Well, that’s all I have for you (since you already know what I’m going to preach)! Ok, I’m just kidding.
But I bring this up just to say that here in the book of I Corinthians we have this story of what’s going on inside of a community where you have people who are like:
“I follow Jeff.”
“I follow Sara!”
“I follow Marie!” (which might be the best option)
And he’s coming to them to say: “Hey Corinth, we all follow Christ. That’s the important thing here.” And in this season and time which we call Epiphany, the time of the light, what a better time than this for us to be reminded through I Corinthians 15 to recall: What is the good news in which we stand?
What does it mean that each of us, who preach our own life’s sermons about what it means to follow God, that we each contemplate and consider: What is it that our lives are telling about who God is? What is the good news of the sermon we preach as we live our lives? And I also hope that today, with some tender compassion towards ourselves, we might invite God’s Spirit to continue to breathe into the places within us and ways in which each of our lives miss out on a bit of the fullness of the gospel of grace.
So, to I Corinthians 15 and the good news in which we stand.
There’s something about me that you may have noticed, particularly if you’re in Women’s Monday Night Bible Study…it’s that I really like context. So you can’t ask me to preach on I Corinthians 15 and expect me to only take eleven verses of the Bible (don’t worry, we won’t be here forever!).
The thing is, I LOVE this book of I Corinthians because it’s written to real people. There’s a church in Corinth who are struggling with incredibly human things around human divisions along the lines of class and race and ethnicity and gender, as Kyle talked about so wonderfully in his sermon from a few weeks ago. They are striving to figure out what it means to be the body of Christ. “Can we eat meat that was sacrificed to idols, they query? Or can we not?”
Now, of course, those aren’t our questions today. But we have our own questions. We have our own conflicts and wonders about what it means to be church in the midst of a world that is divided (as humans have always been). And we wonder (maybe sometimes, anyway)…does the Gospel have anything to say to this present moment? If Paul (the author of this letter to the church at Corinth) were here this morning, he would argue that it does have something to offer to us. And so, in chorus with Paul, I would also like to argue that this book speaks to the real of our lives and our questions.
This early church that Paul is writing to in Corinth is largely filled with Gentiles, people who haven’t had the same sort of history and background of connection to the story of God that the people of Israel had in their particular way. So as we approach chapter 15, Paul is re-grounding this new Christian community, not only in the gospel that he had preached to them, but in a remembrance of why there is legitimacy both in his preaching to them and to what he is inviting and challenging them to do with their lives.
He builds the case for himself by beginning with the content of their faith, reminding them of the gospel’s original terms, trying to bring them back into what was proclaimed and brought to them in the first place. This is also outlined here and also in the book of Acts (following C. Clifton Black):
- A reminder of the gospel’s original terms (1 Corinthians 15:1, Acts 10:36)
- The necessity of preaching (1 Corinthians 15:1, Acts 10:42)
- The faith in which the church stands (1 Corinthians 15:2, Acts 10:43)
- Handing down the tradition and story of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3, Acts 10:37-39a)
- Christ’s death (1 Corinthians 15:3, Acts 10:39b)
- The forgiveness of sins (1 Corinthians 15:3, Acts 10:43)
- The connection to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Acts 10:43)
- Christ’s resurrection on the third day
- Christ’s appearance to Cephas, the Twelve, and many others (1 Corinthians 15:5-8, Acts 10:41)
And he then connects all of this to his legitimacy as the apostle who has brought the gospel to them. So in a way, what he is doing is a two-fold move: 1) He’s reminding them of the content of the gospel which he’s been proclaiming to them and to which they have given their lives; and 2) He’s also reminding them of the lineage of the authority by which he comes. He’s not just some random dude who showed up: “Hey, I’m Paul! Listen to me!” He’s saying: “No, I have connection to God’s story and I have legitimacy to come before you to tell you what I’ve been telling you this whole letter! So if you haven’t been paying attention for the last 14 chapters…Ok! Common, folks…remember here’s what I’m doing here.”
A really powerful moment, which some of you will know why this particularly struck me given my miscarriage in December, is verse nine in which he says: “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”The Greek there is to ektromati. This word is connected with the word miscarriage or stillbirth. He’s saying something here about resurrection…that God appeared to him as one who was actually dead at birth and brought him to new life. He’s acknowledging this truth that Jesus talks about in the book of John: that we have to be born again. Indeed Paul, a person who had been totally going after the church in order to destroy it, is now one who has found his way into new life; he’s one who has known the resurrection story in his own life.
And this is the story is the one that Paul brings to the church in Corinth, challenging them that to be Christian is fundamentally about being born again into a new way of being human. It’s a new way of ordering our politics, our society, and our relationships.
Now this letter to the church in Corinth was actually written before the gospels. Those stories of Jesus work and life were oral traditions that only later were written down and collected. The Gospels in Greek are all titled “Kata Ματθαίος (Matthaíos)”, “Kata Μάρκος (Márkos)”, “Kata Λουκάς (Loukás)”…This means “the Gospel according to.”
I Corinthians then is an early instance of “the Gospel according to…”, especially here in I Corinthians 15. But the gospel“Kata Paulos”, the gospel according to Paul, is always the gospel according to the scriptures; the gospel “Kata tas graphas” (the texts). We see this sense of the centrality of the texts to the gospel throughout a lot of Paul’s writing, particularly here in this letter.
This, for Paul, is where he is rooting the authority by which he comes…in the scriptures and the texts and traditions handed down. In so doing, he’s making a connection between his work and the long story and arc of God and God’s movement in the world through the people of Israel. He’s reminding the people in Corinth: THIS is the good news. And they are called to live in accordance with this good news.
Now some of you, upon hearing the reading of I Corinthians 15, may have been reminded of some of the language of the Apostle’s Creed. If so, that makes sense! The language here in I Corinthians 15 echoes some early formulations of what would later be a language for the whole church. I thought we could read that aloud together. Will you join me?
The Apostle’s Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
So we see here in I Corinthians 15 gestational evidence of this where Paul, having begun to talk to the Corinthians at the beginning of the letter, is bringing them deeper and deeper into what it means to be a part of this body. What does it mean to follow Christ? He’s reminding them of the place on which they are grounded; the place in which they are rooted.
Recently, in this same letter, as you may remember from Daniel’s sermon on chapter 13, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of who God is calling them to be. Paul does so by grounding all they are and are called to be fundamentally in love, inviting us through them into a space of re-remembering the place in which we are rooted. This place is love.
Thinking of this recalled to my mind that last year I was invited by one of my friends, Colonial member, and mentor Janet Hagberg, to consider what my word for the year might be. My word for last year was ROOTED. The image that came to me with me with this word was from Psalm 1…of the tree that is rooted by the streams of water. For me, last year indeed was a year of upending my own soil…the place where my roots need to find water and remember where they find life. There are some rocks in the soil of my life that have prevented me from going as deeply as God would want me to. And some of last year was painful, which is normal, right? As we’re rooting in, some of that work is excruciating; sometimes we want to run away from that work. We think: “Oh- it would be so much easier if I didn’t have to do this!” And yet I think I Corinthians shows up as a reminder and a challenge to us that to root in is what is asked of us if we are Christian. We hear Paul calling to us: What is the good news that you have received, on which you stand?
Yes, what is it? Is it the gospel according to (fill in the blank)…OR is it the gospel according to Christ?
And what is the content of the gospel of Christ?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this passage and have ben wondering: If Paul were writing to us today, what might he say to us? What might his questions bring in terms of challenges and invitations to us?
I was sitting with this wondering yesterday as Andy and I drove down to Wisconsin for a funeral for his great uncle. On the way there we listened to an audio book called Heavy: An American Memoir. The author, Kiese Laymon, is an African American man who relays his experience of growing up as a black boy in the United States, talking about the pain and injustice he’s suffered and endured. This book, in turn, got me thinking about another text by Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me.
And this got me thinking about I Corinthians and this church that is wrestling with its diversity. Some are eating meat, some are not. And they are trying to figure out how to become a church of diverse people. In our time, if Paul were writing to us, I wonder if he would challenge and invite us to ask what the good news says to us about issues of race and injustice in our world?
Then a quote from Fredrick Douglass showed up on my Instagram this morning, posted by Christena Cleveland who is the author of the book that we are reading together during Black History Month: Disuintiy in Christ.The quote reads: “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked…I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
Ugh, right? I almost cried.
This quote stands as a challenge in the vein of what Paul is doing here in inviting the church to be rooted in the good news in which they stand.
In the past months we’ve often talked about how the church in the US is in decline. I want to bring I Corinthians into that conversation and say: “Let’s listen to Paul! Let’s be the church then!”
Because when things like this (see left) get published by the Houston Chronicle, where they are exposing how over 20 years more than 700 victims were sexually molested or abused by more than 200 leaders in the Southern Baptist Church, with very little recourse, these are reasons why people leave! These are reasons where the gospel that we’ve proclaimed that “God is love!” this supposed good news in which we stand, suddenly isn’t good news…even for us. So Paul encounters us in this space of profound failure of our lives to preach good news and exclaims to us: “Remember the GOOD NEWS! Let’s be people of Good News!”
And even though sometimes its scary and hard and we mess up being the church; even though we get it wrong all of the time, Paul brings us back. In I Corinthians 13 what does he say? Faith, hope, and love…and the greatest of these is love. Paul reminds us of who Jesus is and what Jesus did and he calls us back again to be people of the GOOD NEWS, remembering the ground on which we stand.
So for me, when I hear stories like the one about the abuse in the Southern Baptist Church, not only do I want to weep, but I want to be a better Christian. I want to be a person who embodies the Good News, actual good news in our world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and pastor during the Nazi reign in Germany, wrote letters from prison during the final days of his life. He lived in a world that he said had “come of age.” At this time there were also folks, and I get this tendency to want to blame the world or grieve the decline in church attendance as we are witnessing today, who were bemoaning the end of Christendom. To the church of his day he wrote:
He continues, talking about the way we embody Christianity as a refusal to face the real of our lives (which he sees as a problem and failure of us to apprehend the gospel):
And finally, he says this:
What I am driving at is that God should not be smuggled in somewhere, in the very last, secret place that is left. Instead, one must simply recognize that the world and humankind have come of age. One must not find fault with people in their worldliness but rather confront them with God where they are strongest.
THIS is the good news in which we stand. The invitation of Paul is issued to us, today. How are we going to be a people of the good news? What is the story of our lives that we tell? What is the sermon that our lives preach?
Is it resonate with the image that Paul gives here in Corinthians—of this God who came down, became human, who became one of us to erase the divisions between humans: To preach good news, and resurrection and life and freedom and hope in Christ. To break down walls. To remind us that our body politic is no longer about the emperor as head, but of Christ as head.He remind us each that every part of the body is of equal merit and equal worth.
So this morning, as we come to I Corinthians 15, I wonder: what’s the sermon that you preach? What’s the sermon your life preaches?
What is the good news?
What is good news?
What is the good news in which you stand?
And I wonder here for us, as Colonial Church, part of this body of Christ…what is the good news in which we stand—Edina and St. Louis Park-eites, white/brown, rich/poor/middle class, 85 or 12—what is it that as this body we are preaching with our lives?
Let us be a people of GOOD NEWS in this world.
Let us be the CHURCH.
Let us heal the broken, free the prisoners, preach sight for those who can’t see.
And as we preach our sermons by the life we lead, may we always remember the good news on which we stand. Recalling that greatest of these, my friends, is always LOVE.
So may that love of Christ be yours and ours. AMEN.
C. Clifton Black, “I Corinthians 15:1-11,” Working Preacher Commentary,https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=288.
I’m indebted here to Carla Works’ commentary on this section where she writes: “The word that Paul uses to describe himself is a premature birth — a birth that usually results in death. It is the epitome of weakness. In a world where only fifty percent of full-term births reached the age of ten, the premature baby had little to no chance of survival. This is the same term used to describe a stillbirth. Christ’s narrative is not the only resurrection story in this passage,” Carla Works, “I Corinthians 15:1-11,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3959.
Karl Jacobson does a wonderful job of outlining this in his commentary. He writes, “Variations on this particular phrase occur in several places in the New Testament–several times in Paul’s letters, and a couple of times in Acts. Acts portrays Paul’s missionary work in Thessalonica, his proclamation and his evangelical persuading, as “from the scriptures” (apo tōn graphōn; Acts 17:1-4). Paul introduces himself to the Romans as “an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures” (en graphais hagiais; Romans 1:1-3). And in 2 Corinthians 4:13 Paul speaks of faith and the resurrection of the dead as “in accordance with the scriptures” (kata to gegrammenon). In all of these instances, by stating that his gospel is “in accordance with the scriptures,” Paul makes a claim on the authority, centrality, and (again) the “first importance” of what is being proclaimed.” Karl Jacobson, “I Corinthians 15:1-11,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=524.
See: Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, and John Tedesco, “Abuse of Faith,” HoustonChronicle, Published February 9, 2019, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/investigations/article/Southern-Baptist-sexual-abuse-spreads-as-leaders-13588038.php
See Kyle Robert’s Sermon on I Corinthians 12:12-31, “God’s Body.” See: https://www.colonialchurch.org/sermonaudio/gods-body.