1 Corinthians 15:1-8
In his book The Quest for Beauty, Rollo May, the famous therapist, recalls scenes from his lifelong search for beauty, among them a visit to Mount Athos, a peninsula of monasteries attached to Greece. One morning, he stumbled upon the celebration of Greek Orthodox Easter, the tail end of a church service that had been proceeding all night long. Incense hung in the air. The only light came from candles. And at the height of that service, the priest gave everyone present three Easter eggs, wonderfully decorated and wrapped in a veil. “Christos Anesti!” he said – “Christ is risen!” Each person there, including Rollo May, responded according to custom, “He is risen indeed!” He then writes, “I was seized then by a moment of spiritual reality: what would it mean for our world if he had truly risen?”
What a question. “What would it mean for our world if he had truly risen?” What does it mean for our world that Christ has risen? The early Christians staked everything on the Resurrection. What does it mean for you … what does it mean for me … what does it mean for the single mom struggling to raise her kids and keep them clothed and fed … what does it mean for the elderly man with no one to visit him … what does it mean for the family struggling as their child fights cancer … what does it mean for the woman who looks at herself in the mirror and doesn’t at all like what she sees … what does it mean for the homeless under the bridge, the addict dying a slow death, those lying in the hospital dying? What does the resurrection of Christ mean for the bank president and the doctor whose lives seem so together and fashionable? What does the resurrection of Christ mean for our world? That is the question for us this morning as we look at the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. READ TEXT.
A good friend and mentor once told me, “Choose carefully the mountain you are willing to die on.” In other words, choose your battles wisely. There are times when being right is absolutely critical. And there are times when it isn’t. And wise leaders, wise parents, wise spouses, wise friends, wise Christians, wise people in general learn to tell the difference. Choose carefully the mountain you are willing to die on. In 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul shows us exactly what that mountain is for the Christian. And it isn’t whether we should baptize infants or people able to choose for themselves. It isn’t whether we should sing contemporary or traditional music in church. It isn’t whether we should have liturgy or not. It isn’t whether we should sprinkle or dunk.
There are hundreds of Christian denominations, with different forms of organization and government and different theological emphases and traditions, but all truly Christian traditions find their source in this brief statement: Christ died. Christ was buried. Christ was raised. The rest we can talk about. Even disagree on. People often ask me, “What do I say to my family member who is Catholic? Or Orthodox? What about people who go to the church down the street? My answer is always the same: What do they say about Jesus? If we agree on that, we can stand together in harmony, even as we disagree about a million other theological and social points and issues. What do they say about Jesus? That’s the mountain, the only mountain, worth dying on. Christ died. Christ was buried. Christ was raised. To reject that core is to cease to be distinctively Christian.
We tend to view all of the different denominations as a tragic development. A human failing in the midst of God’s work. And there is certainly some truth to that. Most of our denominational difference have sprung up from major and minor conflicts within the church, often as the church got off course in some way. But I also view all of the different denominations as kind of like lots of different flavors of ice cream. I like some better than others, but it’s all good so long as the same core ingredients are inside. Now I’m hungry for ice cream. Christ died. Christ was buried. Christ was raised. Well, he was a great prophet, but not the son of God. He wasn’t raised from the dead. Nope. Now we’re no longer talking about the same thing. Christ died. Christ was buried. Christ was raised. That is the mountain I’ll die on.
We’ve all heard of churches splitting up over disagreements over the color of the carpet. I once watched a church receive a sizable gift for blinds for their sanctuary windows and then become paralyzed because they couldn’t agree on what kind of blinds to get. Because designated gifts have to be used for the thing they’re designated for, they would up giving the gift back to the giver when, after three years, they still couldn’t decide. As silly as that sounds, I’d rather have them do that than split over that issue. In another situation, a church split was traced back to a church elder getting a smaller piece of ham than someone else at a church dinner. We as human beings are petty and we love to disagree and draw lines in the sand. And there are lines to be drawn. Paul draws the line for us, right here. Christ died. Christ was buried. Christ was raised. Most of the other lines we draw, mountains upon which we make our last stands aren’t worthy of that. This one is. It is here, at the core of the gospel, that we find our unity and our identity. When a thousand sometimes important but always lesser issues tear us apart, it is Christ who brings us together.
Now, look at Vv. 3-5. Paul is quoting an early Christian creed that actually pre-dates him. Given that 1 Corinthians has been dated to somewhere around A.D. 55, roughly 20 years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and this creed was already in existence and had been for some time, what we have in these three verses is something that goes back to the very earliest days of Christianity. The days right after the events they describe. It is here that we find the heart and soul of what it means to follow Christ.
The creed begins with “Christ died.” But that assumes something else, doesn’t it? If Christ died, it also means that he … lived, right? And if he lived, then he was also born. Christ came. We call that the incarnation. “Hail the incarnate deity” we sing during the Christmas season. God become one of us. God become human. God with skin on. St. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that the eternal Son, not considering his equality with God something to be grasped, meaning desperately held onto, and instead willingly emptied himself in the incarnation. Fully God but also fully human, experiencing, living in this fallen world as you and I live in it. More than a man but fully a man. That’s who Jesus Christ is. In Christ God has revealed himself not as a God who is watching us from a distance but a God who is there, who is here, who has come and lived among us, walked among us. Emmanuel, God with us. God has not left us alone. We are deeply loved and eternally significant in the eyes and heart of God. There has never been a human heart with which God in Christ did not identify.
And Christ lived. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). His meaning was two-fold. First, that he had come to live perfectly under the law, without sin, a life that no human being was capable of living. He was to be the perfect sacrificial lamb, without spot or blemish of any kind. And he also meant that every type, every symbol, every institution, of the Old Testament – the priesthood, the temple, the altar, the sacrifice, the Passover celebration and the Day of Atonement itself would find their completion in him. Every Old Testament promise and prophecy would find its completion in him.
And then Christ died FOR OUR SINS. In Romans 3, Paul says “None is righteous.” He’s quoting from an Old Testament Psalm there and he actually changes a word. The Psalm says “There is none who does good.” Paul changes it to “None is righteous.” Righteousness, ultimate rightness, is a characteristic of God, not of other human beings. He’s zeroing in on the truth that the standard of comparison for goodness isn’t some really good human being. It’s God. And like a piece of fruit that looks good on the outside and is rotten inside, we all have a rotten heart in every, single, human being. You see, our standard for “good” isn’t one another. The standard is the goodness of God. No human being has ever lived a full life in such a way that it could be said of him, “He or she is a good as God.” That can’t be said of anyone. This isn’t about who is worse. We all know some who do worse things than others. This is about no one being good enough, as good as God, even if we’re better than everyone else. Christ’s death wasn’t just the death of a good man. It was the death of the only truly righteous one ever to live and walk on the earth on behalf of the rest of us, whose lives are marked by sin.
And having died, he was buried. In a tomb guarded by Roman soldiers who would have been punished by death had they allowed anyone to steal the body. There’s finality here. He died and was buried. No room for trickery or deceit. The Roman soldiers who performed crucifixions where masters at their task. They knew exactly how to kill, and how to make the process of dying absolutely excruciating. And having endured all of that. His body was wrapped, and he was buried, after the soldiers checked to make absolutely certain that he was dead.
And then, three days later, he was raised. There is a finality to death and burial, but they do not get the last word. He was raised. That phrase is written in the passive. This is not something Jesus did to or for himself. It doesn’t say he rose. It says “he was raised.” Another power did this for him. The triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit together in power showed His power over death and the grave as the Son was raised, by God, to life. This is the consummation of God’s plan of salvation. God is the author. God is the actor. When humanity fell and sin entered the world, God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Those words put into motion the plan by which God would redeem a sinful humanity and reveal himself to be a God of both justice and grace, of holiness and love.
And this phrase is written in the perfect tense. It means that what God did, in this case raising Jesus, is a completed act the impacts of which are still ongoing. They are eternal. Jesus is still alive. In Philippians 2, Paul says that because of Christ’s obedience in emptying himself and becoming human, because of his obedience to the will of the triune God that he die a horrible death on a cross in our place, because of his incarnation, life, death, and burial “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
But the creed doesn’t stop there. It goes on. Look at Vv. 5-9. Christ died. Christ was buried. Christ was raised. Christ appeared … to many people on several different occasions. This is the testimony of truth. “And lots of people saw him.” In different places. At different times. Lots of people saw him. All of us who are working, sharing the gospel, writing, we all saw him with our own eyes. We touched him. We spoke with him. But Paul doesn’t stop there. Look at V. 6. Lots of these people are still alive. You can check my testimony. You can go talk to them. Check it out for yourself. If my word isn’t good enough, talk to all of these other people who saw him. Dead and buried people don’t rise. But this one did.
Pastor John Ortberg tells the story of a friend of his who “used to work as a denominational official in Minnesota. One of his jobs was to travel to little rural communities where they didn’t have churches to do funerals. He would go out with an undertaker, and they would drive together in the undertaker’s hearse. One time, they were on their way back from a funeral, and my friend, John, was feeling quite tired. He decided he would take a nap. Since they were in a hearse, he thought, Well, I’ll just lie down in the back of the hearse.
Sounds like kind of a creepy thing to do, but this is a true story. The guy who was driving the hearse pulled into a service station, because he was running low on gas. The service station attendant was filling up the tank and he was kind of freaked out, because there was a body stretched out in the back. While he was filling the tank, John woke up, opened his eyes, knocked on the window and waved at the attendant. John said he never saw anybody run so fast in his whole life.
Ortberg adds, “When people see life where they were expecting death, they start running. On the third day, everything changed! Where everybody thought they were just going to see death, there was life! And that shook things up! After the third day, as a matter of historical record, his followers, who were shattered, disillusioned, and heartsick following the Crucifixion, went out to face all kinds of difficulties and suffering and imprisonment and spread the word, because they believed they had seen life where they were expecting death. That shakes people up!”[i] And it gives us hope. The hope, based on the incarnation, the life, the death, the burial, the resurrection, and the appearances of Christ that death is a defeated foe. That sin doesn’t get the last word. That pain and terror will have their day in court.
Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church and the author of The Purpose Driven Life, together with his wife, Kay, went through a devastating loss when their twenty-seven-year-old son Matthew took his own life after battling depression and mental illness for years.
About a year after this tragedy, Rick said, “I’ve often been asked, ‘How have you made it? How have you kept going in your pain?’ And I’ve often replied, ‘The answer is Easter.’
“You see, the death and the burial and the resurrection of Jesus happened over three days. Friday was the day of suffering and pain and agony. Saturday was the day of doubt and confusion and misery. But Easter – that Sunday – was the day of hope and joy and victory.
“And here’s the fact of life: you will face these three days over and over and over in your lifetime. And when you do, you’ll find yourself asking – as I did – three fundamental questions. Number one, ‘What do I do in my days of pain?’ Two, ‘How do I get through my days of doubt and confusion?’ Three, ‘How do I get to the days of joy and victory?’ “The answer is Easter. The answer … is Easter.”
[i] John Ortberg, “The Empty Tomb: How Will You Respond?”