“The Middle of the Center of the Core” (1 Corinthians 15:1-11)

There have been more than a few situations in my life involving organizations that I have been a part of as either a member or leader where I’ve found myself swimming in a sea of details while realizing that the big picture had been either forgotten or disregarded. In sports, conflicts arise about who gets the most playing time, while simultaneously it seemed to be forgotten that the goal was to win, not just compete. Likewise in politics, it drove me crazy that the party spent so much time on internal posturing and authority structures, that strategizing to advance the philosophical agenda by electoral success could not find sufficient focus to make this possible. And yes, things like this can happen in churches – where squabbles about lesser matters can become a vortex into which energies and passions would flow, rather than the advancement of the gospel.

By the time we now get to the 15th chapter and near to the end of Paul’s first letter, I believe he is feeling like I’ve written just above. Whereas matters like preferred teachers, spiritual gifts, marriage, holy living, and roles within the church body are not without significance, there was something of greater magnitude to emphasize. Paul calls this focal point – the gospel message – “as of first importance.”  He’s saying to them, “Let me remind you to not lose emphasis upon that which is of the greatest significance, that being the message of Jesus and what he has done.”

This 11-verse introduction leads into the best discussion in the Scriptures about the importance and centrality of not just the substitutionary death of Christ, but equally so of the resurrection. We are lost without either. The gospel is incomplete without both. The death is the payment; the resurrection is the receipt that provides proof and validation.

And beyond this theme introduction of these 11 verses we read today, we see in verse 12 the reference to Corinth that there were some there who were apparently preaching that Christ had not literally and physically raised from the dead. This fatal error had to be addressed. Again, these two elements are the big idea, the core of the middle of the center of it all.

The eyewitness list of those who could affirm that Jesus was seen alive after the burial (the proof he had died) is very impressive indeed. If it was just Peter and “the Twelve” (that’s a title for the disciples, actually 11 since Judas was now gone), one could speculate that they made up the story. But there were many more, even 500 who saw him at the same time (presumably in Galilee). There were many others, many of whom were yet alive years later.

As well, though Paul does not take the time to give quotations, he references that all of this is not merely the stuff of experience … something totally unexpected and beyond explanation. No, this complete work of Christ was anticipated by various Scriptural passages (Isaiah 53, Psalm 16, etc.). This was God’s plan.

Again, we also see here of Paul’s profound gratitude and amazement at the magnanimous grace for which he had been a recipient. He wasn’t looking for Christ, but Christ found him and brought him into faith and truth and service. After making the list of all those who knew the gospel before he himself encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, it was humbling to think that he had not only been included but had also been charged with the great work of apostleship. He was, indeed, the last person who would be expected to have this great blessing and honor.

In any event, he concludes, it is all of God – be it he or others who hold to the gospel; and that content is the main idea that should never be forgotten. Even the opportunity to work hard, such as Paul had, was a gift from God. It is all from God.

1 Corinthians 15:1 – Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

15:3 – For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

15:9 – For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve 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 to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

The gospel according to Snopes (1 Corinthians 15:1-11)

I want you to consider two different stories:

  • In 1793, a meteor struck the area currently known as Chambersburg. The rock fragment—mostly iron—was roughly the size of a Volkswagen, and the impact could be heard from as far as 100 miles away. All official records of the incident have been lost, but we can piece together details based on one or two journals from what appear to be local residents of the time.
  • In 1993, a meteor struck downtown Chambersburg. Well over a hundred witnesses saw it, including many member of our own congregation such as Lyle Geiger, Larry Goldman, and Sherry Libby.

You’ve probably seen through my transparent illustration to know that neither story is true, but if you had to rate their relative believability, which one seems more plausible? Or, maybe we should ask the question a different way: which story would you have an easier time verifying—or discrediting?

Naturally, you’d choose the second as the more “testable” tale. You might first go to the web to search for articles from the time period to confirm the events.  You might chase down the witnesses we’ve named to see if they confirm or deny the details. And if they can’t back it up—or, more significantly, if these “witnesses” are just fictional characters (they’re not, by the way), then you have all the more reason to doubt my story.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SNOPES

logo-snopesOf course, the internet abounds with all sorts of stories and rumors. So many that it’s hard to always know what’s true and what’s not—or what lies in the foggy space between.  Thankfully the internet is self-correcting, at least to a degree. Ever heard of the website “Snopes?”  The folks who write for Snopes.com have done the world a great service in evaluating many of the claims you read about online. So if you ever encounter a rumor you just can’t make up your mind on, you can check with Snopes to see if it’s true.  Cigarettes linked to cancer? True.  Eating bacon regularly gives you six-pack abs? False.  Pastor Chris Wiles irresistible to women? Kind of a grey area.

See how that works?

Here’s what I’m getting at, with both the Chambersburg meteor story and the Snopes reference: Christianity is built not on the basis of human experience, but on the basis of historical fact. This is the basis of what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, 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 at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 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, unworthy 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 was not 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 preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:1-11)

See, many religions base their teachings on some abstract, personal experience. Mohammad, Joseph Smith, Gautama Buddha—these men each formed a religion based on some persona encounter they had with the divine.  Now, who am I to judge whether these men really did or did not have such an experience?

Christianity is way different. In Christianity, we have Paul saying, Look, these things really happened. Jesus came back from the dead. People saw him. Don’t believe me? Ask James. Ask Peter. Sure, they didn’t have Snopes to fall back on, but they could at least name names.

NO LONGER SAFELY SECULAR

Stop and think about this for just a moment. In today’s world, we tend to evaluate religious belief based on its personal or social impact. Some have committed acts of violence in the name of Christianity, we might object, So what makes Christianity any better than any other religion out there?

That’s a whole discussion in itself, but let’s start by saying, We’re asking the wrong question. The greatest measuring stick is not “Is Christianity good?” but “Is Christianity true?” Because we can squabble over what we truly define as “good;” there’s little room for interpretation as to whether Jesus rose from the dead.

Don’t you see what that means? Suddenly the world isn’t as safely secular as we thought it was. The resurrection—the stark, historic reality of the resurrection—shatters my credulity.  If I choose to reject the Christian gospel, it can’t possibly be due to a lack of evidence.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us confronted with the spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally subversive reality of the empty tomb, a barren cross, and a risen Lord. Jesus saves. Paul’s life was changed forever, yours can as well. Join us this week as we explore what this resurrection means for us.