Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
I had one of my biggest crisis of faith 3 months into my education at Trinity Theological College. This might be shocking to many people because outwardly I appeared to be a confident, enthusiastic Christian youth leader. And since I was then devoting myself to full-time ministry, surely I must have had a very close relationship with God, and I must have been a very strong Christian. But I tell you the truth, at that very moment I had considered quitting everything. There was a part of me that questioned all my Christian beliefs and that compelled me to stop my religious studies, stop church, stop my faith, and live a totally different life.
What triggered the crisis? I think it was the sudden realization that becoming a pastor meant that I would be affirming others on their Christian faith, spreading the gospel and proclaiming the truth openly. In short, the gospel would be my life. Prior to that moment, I was a believer. But I was only responsible for my own life. If I were wrong, it would be my own life that I would have destroyed. But, if I were to be responsible for what others believed, I would have to be totally serious about my faith. And at that instant, there was a moment of truth. What did I really believe? And I came to see that I had nothing.
Sure, I had religious experiences. I had been touched in worship and felt times of intimacy with God. Sure, I had religious knowledge. I had been well trained in the children Sunday school and in youth ministry, I was mentored by the very best, pastor Daniel. But the problem lied with me. I had not “believed with coherent consideration”. NIV called it “believed in vain”. But what it meant was that the faith was careless and even reckless. What this meant was that my commitment to Christ was hasty, and I had not logically and diligently assessed my entire faith. As one brought up in a Christian family, and with a loyal and stable personality, I had accepted my beliefs easily. But it meant that I had not probed and investigated for myself to a proper depth.
The consequence was that the foundation of my faith was a shaky one. My knowledge was not full, and the many weak areas inside collapsed upon intense pressure when I needed a solid backing. Despite an outward appearance of a solid Christian, the porous core of the understanding of my faith was exposed upon honest examination. I found that I had nothing to base my trust in the gospels. I did not know the real identity of Jesus. I knew what he did, but I found that I did not know the person. I started to question the credibility of the miracles. And my main doubt lay in the bare, stark notion that all of God's redemption was done in 3 years of Jesus' ministry. In fact, the bulk of it in less than 40 days. Can we ever really know the truth about what happened in this tiny fragment of human history in a remote corner of the Roman empire? When I came face to face with my then simplistic, fairy tale like version of the gospel, my crisis happened, and my faith collapsed like a deck of cards.
I think something similar was happening in the Corinthian Church. There were misunderstandings about the meaning of resurrection and there was some strong opposition to its reality. We know for a fact that the Sadducee who are the Jewish aristocrats disbelieve in resurrection of the body. Under immense pressure, maybe even ridicule, perhaps some of the Christians think that they can compromise this aspect of their faith. It is embarrassing to admit that you believe in something so incredulous as resurrection, and so it is safer to drop this strange idea, and just believe in something more universally approved like love and peace and moral good.
Brothers and sisters, the same can happen to us all. We all have the sugar-coated version of the gospel that we came to know either when we are young in Sunday school, or when we were a new believer and we could only drink milk and could not absorb solid food yet. Maybe you came to believe because of a miraculous healing, or you were overwhelmed by the warmth of the Christian community, or because of an emotional outburst in an evangelistic rally. Or like me, you believe because it was convenient and familiar since it is the one you grew up with. All these are good legitimate starters, but there is the danger that you would be drawn into a false security that you have understood the entire truth. If we do not go on to take time and trouble in appropriating all the truth, and build a foundation of depth and firmness, a crisis of faith can crumble everything.
Maybe you are hounded by atheists or curious friends. Maybe something drastic happened like cancer or death or disability that shook you to your very core. Maybe like me, you needed to teach and share your faith and others now depend on your understanding of what the gospel is, and what is the truth. Or maybe simply, you just decide to be truly honest with yourself. What have you got? What can you believe with conviction? What can you hold on to that nothing can tear you away from? Paul knows exactly how important this substance of the gospel is. It is what we must hold on to as we are in the process of being saved. And hence it is his duty to restore it for the Corinthians. In my crisis of faith, I needed this restoration. And if your foundation is as shaky as when you were a spiritual infant, you need it too. NIV calls it a reminder, but it is more than that. Every time we renew our faith, it needs a full restoration so that the weak areas can be strengthened, the weak links reinforced, the logical gaps bridged.
Fortunately for myself, I did not give up my faith in that crisis of faith. I took up the challenge and began my own Quest for the Historical Jesus. I earnestly studied and investigated the roots of the Christianity and allowed it to withstand sincere scrutiny. Take care to note that I was not maliciously trying to find fault with the Christian claims, because if you begin with evil intent, you generally bear your own poison fruit. What I was doing was to approach it with fair-minded honesty. What I discovered was that the gospel is not a mere human construction. This means that it is not the fanciful imagination or deliberation of some men. If it were only a human invention, I doubt it would have survived the persecution and martyrdom in the first few centuries of early church history.
Instead, you find the uncanny design of God to entrust his salvation plan, the truths about Jesus of Nazareth on a group of chosen people. They preserved and safeguarded a few statements of beliefs, those of first importance, known as a creed. These people were known as apostles because they had been chosen and sent by God as guardians of this creed of primary Christian core beliefs. As apostles, they were also witnesses. Hence it is paramount that they are also those that physically experienced the Jesus Christ event. They could be questioned and tested and they were evidences of the validity of Christian claims. God cannot have Jesus to appear to all of us for everybody to poke his ribs and touch his hands. Instead, he intended the foundation of Christian doctrine to be the early apostolic witness to Jesus Christ.
What is the Creed that is passed on from the apostles to the early believers, and generations to generations until present times? 4 statements summarize it. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; He was buried; He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures; He appeared to Peter and then the Twelve. The first and third has great theological implications, and the second and fourth is the historical backing for those claims. The death of Jesus is substantiated by his burial, and the resurrection of Jesus is substantiated by his epiphany (manifestation) to the chosen witnesses. Both the burial and the epiphany are attested by eye-witnesses and hence verifiable for the earliest audience of the gospel.
Today, we cannot question the eye-witnesses for ourselves. But we can ask those who spread the gospel to us. They had in turn asked those who have witnessed the gospel to them. And the tracing will go back two thousand years of Church history until we reach the original witnesses, the apostles. Isn't this succession of witnesses, from one to another, one generation to the next, a marvelous design of God? We all get to participate in this great process but make sure that you have believed with diligent and coherent consideration as Paul has warned the Corinthians. And there is more! The solid evidences for the burial and epiphany of Jesus which is intended as the backing for the death and resurrection of Jesus is ultimately useless if the death and resurrection of Jesus has no meaning. If the death and resurrection of Jesus is a meaningless event, like a magic show or a freak accident, then all evidences in the burial and the epiphany comes to naught. Hence the exciting few precious words in the creed: “according to the scriptures”.
Jesus died according to the scriptures and he was raised according to the scriptures. The scriptures for the early Christians is not the Bible we have today, but the Old Testament. The meaning, the theological implications of Jesus' death and resurrection is derived from the Old Testament. This is why the early Church Fathers kept the Old Testament as part of the eventual scriptures, the Bible. Despite the embarrassing wrathful side of God, the wars and killings, the cumbersome laws and rituals, the narrow ethnocentric Jewish overtones, the Old Testament is indispensable because it gives meaning to the death and resurrection of Jesus. There are two ways the Old Testament gives meaning to the Jesus Christ event. In a minor way, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the fulfillment of lots of Old Testament prophecies, and these passages can be used as proof-text on the genuine identity of Jesus.
But there is also a major way. The Old Testament is a precious record of a long history of the ways and will of God. We can understand the meaning and implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus based on how God has always acted and his intentions with humankind prior to the coming of Jesus. We do not have time for details today, but we can understand the death of Jesus from the salvation of the Israelites from slavery in Exodus; from the idea of the suffering servant in Isaiah; from the ideas of sacrifice in Leviticus, and many more. We can understand the resurrection of Jesus from the vindication of the righteous that is promised in the Psalms; from the concepts of kingship in Samuel, from the idea of a new creation in Genesis, and many more. When I discovered this was the beauty of God's plan, my heart did leap for joy and my faith rekindled like fire. The claims of Christianity go beyond the 3 years of Jesus' ministry. It is delivered to me using 2 thousand years of witnesses and testimonies. And the meaning of the event itself is embedded in at least 2 thousand years of revelations and religious reflections since and before the time of Abraham. Indeed, there is nothing more real and more dependable.
And there is more! This is becoming a commercial that is too good to be true, but I kid you not one bit. The reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the moment it hits home to you, will bring about observable transformation. We know the transformation in Peter, when he turned from the cowardly denying disciple to become a bold evangelist on the Day of Pentecost. We know the transformation in the disciples, who at first all ran away, but in the end many died for their faith. We know the five hundred who received the great commission of Jesus in Matthew 28, they were so effective in disciple-making, Christianity survived despite the persecution of the Roman empire. We know James, Jesus' brother, who changed from a skeptic to become the leader of the Church at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. But surely the biggest before-after spokesperson has to be Paul himself.
Paul describes himself as an aborted fetus, or abnormally born. What this metaphor implies is that it is totally unlikely that Paul will ever live. He is ugly, out of shape, and doomed to death because he persecuted the church of God. But the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus can be seen in him because miraculously, he is now an apostle. We know the death and resurrection of Jesus is real because we see the transformation in Paul. Such a change can only happen when you experience divine grace and you believe in a new and eternal life. This is the clearest case of a life transformed by the gospel, that is the foundation, the springboard to a different existence. Brothers and sisters, I too experienced this transformation. When the death and resurrection of Jesus became a solid reality for me, when I acknowledge to God that I am a new life purely because of his grace, I now have a firm foundation to live at a new level. I have no more fear except fear in the Lord. The gospel can now become my life and my vocation because it has become the core of who I am.
And Paul manifested this new resurrected life. See the way he dealt with all the Corinthian issues. How can you have sexual immorality when your body is for divine eternity. How can you have chaos in your marriage or ill intentions in church worship when it will be glorious and beautiful and practiced in love in the kingdom of God. No way. If your foundation is a solid belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus, you must live a real resurrected life. Brothers and sisters, what about you? Do you possess this foundation of the highest importance that allows you to live a true life based on grace in the death and resurrection of Christ? If you don't feel the transformation, then work on your foundation again. Study the scriptures, which now includes the entire bible, both the old and new testaments. Know your church history. When the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus hits home for you, a new life begins.