Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Easter is in some ways the easiest Sunday of all to preach
because there’s only one thing to really say:
“He is risen!” “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
Yep, that’s it!
Amen. Are we done?
Well, no, and that’s what makes Easter in some ways
the hardest Sunday of all to preach.
Because whether received as good or not,
it’s not really news anymore, is it? More like olds!
Proclaimed now for some two thousand years.
Absolutely no surprise to what the women did find
and didn’t find at the tomb.
It’s hard to keep the excitement going
when everyone knows how the story goes.
And it’s really not so much a matter of finding a way to say it differently.
Because there’s no way to tell this story differently and still do it justice.
So maybe it’s more a matter of needing to figure out
what the consequences of saying it are—
and the implications of believing it.
Which is why we’re reading 1 Corinthians Easter Sunday morning—
why we’re reading Paul instead of one of the gospel accounts.
This was received with some chagrin by my Saturday night
Facebook friends pastoral preaching support group. 1 Corinthians?
It did also occur to me that since Paul often writes brain twisters,
and loves to braid words in, through and around his ideas,
and since you deal with me on a regular basis,
you may in fact be uniquely qualified for this!
But if Easter’s not news, how can it be good news?
Bear with me here for a time.
And we’ll just paraphrase at first:
Paul starts our text reminding the Corinthians of the good news—
the gospel—the good news that he proclaimed to them.
Note the emphasis is on the good news, not Paul himself proclaiming it—
though everything is cast in the tone of memory.
Remember this, he says, the good news I shared with you.
Remember you received this good news.
Remember you stand in this good news
through which you are being saved
if—if you hold on to that good news which you received—
in which you stand—through which you are being saved—
unless you have come to believe in vain.
There’s an “if?”
There’s an “unless?”
Isn’t Easter about just showing up and receiving
the necessary dose of unqualified good news unconditionally, freely?
Isn’t it once-saved-always-saved good news?
Nope. Not according to Paul.
It’s good news if you hold on—
unless you have come to believe in vain.
Because I gave you the good news, he goes on—
I gave the gospel to you as what was most important
that I myself received.
You do sometimes have to see through how often Paul refers to himself
to notice it’s always in relation to the gospel.
Paul takes his own place in the same process the Corinthians were in—
the same conversational, relational process we’re in—
as those who receive the gospel and stand in the good news and are being saved.
And what is the good news according to Paul?
The good news in which Paul stands, through which he’s being saved—
the gospel Paul received and passed on?
Well, here it is:
first, Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.
Now, no particular Scripture passage is specified,
though many look to the suffering servant passage in Isaiah 53.
You know the one?
“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised,
and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:2b-5).
A very Good Friday reading,
even if it makes one of the first explorations of a messianic theory of atonement
not about looking back on Jesus, trying to understand,
but about looking ahead with Isaiah well before Jesus in and with hope—
which is to say that one of the first explorations of a theory of atonement really isn’t.
Walter Brueggemann notes,
“We are not told how hurt and guilt can be reassigned and redeployed
from one to another. We are not told how the suffering of one
makes healing possible for another. But it is so here;
‘we’ have thus been healed and made whole.
We are here in this pastorally delicate transaction
that is at the core of salvific faith,
a mystery which Christian faith has endlessly struggled
through competing theories of atonement”
(Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66
in Westminster Bible Companion
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998] 146).
“The poetry cannot be reduced to a rational formula.
It must remain poetry that glides over rational reservation” (Ibid.).
“This poet offers no such theory [of atonement] …
“the poem offers[, rather,] a confession, an admission,
a dazzlement, and an acknowledgement” (Ibid.).
More than anything else, I’d suggest,
this poem offers a stark awareness of the sin in which we find ourselves—
in which we stand—through which we are dying,
and yet, within that sin, a profound hope.
We have turned resurrection into something we look back on—
something requiring explanation and interpretation
instead of something that elicits affirmation …
and celebration and anticipation.
It is, after all, less a matter of theorizing atonement,
and more a matter of realizing, again, divine inversion—
God working in the most surprising and unexpected of ways:
an unforeseen, disconcerting Messiah,
an astonishing, startling authority,
a shocking, unsettling power—
a story that takes the most amazing, disturbing
twists and turns in its unpredictable unfolding.
So Jesus died for our sins, in accordance with Scripture—
in accordance with the ever-inverting truth of God,
then was buried and raised on the third day.
Ah, there it is. He is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.
But look: good news not as surprising—not as news—
rather as a reminder of good news.
So even before the gospels
(as Paul’s writing represents some of the earliest New Testament texts we have)—
before the accounts of the good news were ever written down—
before the stories of the good news were ever recorded,
Paul’s already reminding people of the good news!
So remember the good news that he was buried
and raised on the third day—also in accordance with Scripture.
It’s a little bit more tricky to find Scriptural references
to the resurrection in the Old Testament—
unless looking, less specifically, at all those surprising inversions
that keep the story of God going every time you think it’s all over—
keep it going through betrayal and murder,
through the overwhelming evil of systemic sin,
through the anguish of barren women,
and the harsh reality of simply being a woman in a patriarchal society,
through the resignation of second sons and youngest sons,
through the devastation of slavery, through wilderness wandering,
in spite of leprosy, broken promises, adultery … you name it.
And yet there is always hope in the good news of God—
good news in which this story has always been located—
through which the people of God have been and are always being saved.
In which case, we might hear Paul asking the Corinthians (and asking us),
have you forgotten to hope?
Amidst all that’s going on this Easter—
amidst all that’s going on in the world and in your living,
have you forgotten to hope in the story and promise of God—
to look not back but ahead?
Have you forgotten the hope that is who our God is—
and who God calls us to be?
Because remember—always remember—
God’s good news is news in which to hope—
in which to stand and hope—
in which to wade out ever deeper
to stand within all the brokenness and heartache and pain—
amidst the grief and the tears, the despair—the hopelessness—
and to hope.
Paul goes on, remember Jesus was raised and appeared to Peter,
and then the twelve—appeared to five hundred—appeared to his brother James—
appeared to all the apostles—obviously a wider circle than the twelve.
It’s such a big story. And appeared last of all to me—
least of all the apostles—unfit to be called an apostle—
as one who persecuted Jesus.
But by the grace of God I am what I am.
Now I’d think that’s a bit more of the good news Paul received.
To be called as apostle by Jesus whom he had been persecuting.
“You’ve been persecuting me.
I love you anyway. I want you to be mine” (Acts 9).
Another marvelous word of hope—
the good news of yet another of God’s incredible inversions.
“Even though you intended to do harm to me,
God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
Oh! And remember all that was in accordance with Scripture?
Jesus died for our sins—in accordance with Scripture.
Jesus was raised—in accordance with Scripture.
And now, by the grace of God, Paul writes, I am what I am.
Ring a bell? Sure it does.
Remember God named self “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14)—
as if, by the grace of God, Paul’s to be who God is.
Now that’s the gospel held onto as what’s most important.
That’s the gospel not believed in vain.
And God’s grace has not been in vain, Paul suggests,
because he worked harder than anyone else—
though, he’s quick to add, it was not himself so diligent,
but God’s grace within. Only by the grace of God, Paul is as God is.
So, I am I am that I am. Paul? Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss? Paul.
Yes? I am—I am that I am.
And our text concludes with the affirmation
that it doesn’t matter if Paul said it or anyone else did
(and we heard Peter’s words as recorded in Acts),
whoever said it, we proclaim it—the good news—the gospel.
And so you have come to believe.
It really doesn’t matter who; it matters that.
Now notice how the gospel is not only woven back into the Scriptural tradition,
but how it also unfolds into lives—into Peter’s, the twelves’, the five hundreds’,
James’, Paul’s—as Paul weaves himself into God’s story, past and present.
And then the Corinthians are woven in as well—
as are we.
Paul Sampley points out in his commentary
that Paul spends a good many more verses reflecting on himself
than on the two verses allocated to the gospel
(J. Paul Sampley, The Epistle to the First Corinthians:
Introduction, Commentary and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X
[Nashville: Abingdon, 2002] 977-8).
That’s kind of how we sneer at Paul sometimes.
But that’s actually incumbent upon us all, isn’t it?
To take the gospel as a starting place
and then figure out how to incorporate it into our living—
how to find it in our living—how to live it and how to tell it—
how by the grace of God to be as God is.
Paul braids himself into the story—
stands in the good news—wades way out into it—
immerses himself in it (he was a baptist!),
and then, as one who’s now part of the story,
assumes the authority of the story—
mind you, the full weight of the authority of the whole story of God
as it has been unfolding though the years and as it continues to.
Paul claims an authority with which we’re sometimes uncomfortable
I know I am. Any kind of exclusive authority makes me nervous—
any kind of aggressive authority.
from my window this morning,
I saw a neighbor friend headed out on her run.
Good day for a run, I thought.
Good day for church, I thought.
You take such good care of your physical well-being,
what about other aspects of your being, equally important?
Now I thought that.
You get the idea Peter and Paul would have hollered it right out the window!
They claim that authority.
Yet the way Paul claims it passes it along to us, right?
It’s a process—a passing along of not just the good news,
but also the authority of good news—the authority of hope—
of hope in the story of God.
For Christ has appeared to us too.
Yes or no?
I’m going to go with yes.
Haven’t we seen Christ in the least of these? If we haven’t, we haven’t spent enough time with the least of these.
Haven’t we seen Jesus in the children?
Don’t we see Jesus in our richest and deepest experiences of love? Don’t we see Jesus in moments of wonder and awe?
So do we claim the authority of the story—of the gospel—
of this marvelous tradition?
Do we honor the story if we don’t claim some authority?
Can we be said to stand in this story if we don’t?
Do we hold onto this story if we don’t?
If we believe that God is alive and at work,
if we believe that God is manifest in us,
then we must claim the authority of God—
even as we must strive to live the being of God.
Now, even Easter Sunday morning—
maybe especially Easter Sunday morning,
some may not be able to.
You have your doubts; you have your questions.
And to you I say that’s okay. So did the disciples!
So do we. But there are always those of us in community who do believe.
This time him, that time her, them then, then them! Dr. Seuss? John.
And we need your hope that it matters
as much as you need anyone else’s belief.
For we have all come expectant, haven’t we?
Maybe not knowing what to expect,
but it’s Easter Sunday morning.
We’re here to hear something!
The unconditional good news? Once saved always saved?
Cheap grace. Don’t have it for you. Sorry.
Just the good news to hold onto—
to stand in—through which we are being saved.
We all sometimes have the sneaking suspicion (usually quickly suppressed)
that resurrection ultimately is not about what happened to Jesus
but about what it means to us. Yikes!
So hold on to good news as what’s most important—
the good news of God’s twists into love—God’s turns into hope.
Hold on so as to not believe in vain—to not let go of who God is.
Stand in the good news.
Wade joyfully way out there with Paul and James,
with the five hundred and the twelve—
with Peter and Jesus himself—
with David and Dinah, and Abraham and Sarah,
Naaman and Rahab, and Isaiah, with Noah and Ruth,
Hosea and Gomer, Moses and Miriam—
who were all being saved.
And by the grace of God, we are that we are—
being saved in the still unfolding story.
It’s so much more than just living hopefully.
It’s living with the conviction of Jesus—
the assurance that in the end, God.
Whatever else, in the end, God.
And, if we let it, that changes everything, doesn’t it?