Posted: Monday 18th February 2019
If Christ is not raised…
3rd before Lent Year C 2019- 17th Feb 2019.
If Christ is not raised…..
Some churches put a one-line summary of the scripture readings next to the Bible reference in their service sheets. It can be a useful thing to prepare you for what you’re about to hear and, especially, to have when the passage is a complicated one – one with the potential to leave you thinking “what was that about?”. If I was writing a summary for today’s first reading (I Cor 15: 12-20) I’d put: St Paul says that if the resurrection didn’t happen we may as well give up and go home!
In his own words from verse 14:
If Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.
And St Paul goes on to repeat this assertion as we heard David read earlier. It is a crucial chapter in this letter to the first Christians in Corinth, a passage that I think is one of the most important and forceful of all Paul’s writings, if maybe not as lyrical as his hymn to love “If I speak with the tongue of angels but do not have love..” you know the one, which appears a couple of chapters earlier. In this chapter Paul exemplifies what I was told at a seminar on preaching last year – that in a sermon it’s far better to tell your congregation the same thing three ways, than to tell them three different things! So within a few verses Paul writes:
If Christ is not raised your faith is futile…. If it is for this life only we have hoped we are to be pitied….we are not raised if he was not raised.
Everything hinges around the resurrection. Like the principle often employed during strikes of ‘no work, no pay’; what St Paul is saying is ‘no resurrection for him, no resurrection for us’.
Before we think about what that means, let’s just take a moment to register that the earliest preaching of the gospel contained this unequivocal witness to the risen Christ. We heard the preceding verses of this chapter last week, in which Paul named those who his audience could accept as reliable eye-witnesses to the resurrection. A list that began with Peter, continued with the rest of the twelve, then James (the Lord’s brother) and finally Paul himself. Like Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter Day, who went running to tell the disciples that she had seen the risen Jesus, Paul and the others aren’t preaching what someone else had told them about, or a rumour they’d heard, but a unique phenomenon that they had actually seen for themselves with their very own eyes. They might get killed for telling people about it, but they simply couldn’t not tell people what they knew to be true.
I think this is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the truth of the resurrection: that after Jesus’ death, as the disciples sat in shock thinking ‘well that didn’t go as we expected… that’s not where we thought following this guy would lead us’ rather than go back home to the safety of their families and a return to normal life, they experienced something that instead set them out on a completely different course of action. You can’t even say that they made the resurrection up because they couldn’t face the shame of going back home, having to admit they’d followed a crank preacher, because Paul tells us there were plenty of others who had seen what they’d seen too, others to verify their claim. The only plausible explanation that the disciples proclaimed the resurrection was that it was true.
And it sounds as though in Corinth people had reasonably been talking about the nature and reality of the resurrection, asking all those questions that intrigue us too. Questions such as “So, how could the risen Jesus appear in a locked room, like he could walk through walls, but then have actual wounded hands that he could invite Thomas to touch?”, “was this body actually physical ?” and so on. And it sounds from the insistent and slightly impatient tone of his letter that Paul views these discussions as typical of the Corinthians’ ability to concentrate on inessentials- things that can distract from the truth, rather than illuminate it.
Jesus’ resurrection was important in its own right -for him- but also because it demonstrates that personal resurrection will also take place (however that will be) for them and the Corinthians are mistaken if the think they can believe in one without the other. They cannot believe that Jesus will rise and they will not, nor that they will have life beyond death but that Jesus did not. The two are inextricably linked: one proving the validity of the other. In fact, Paul takes this as the lynchpin of the whole Christian faith: anyone who denies that they will not experience resurrection after death is denying the whole faith: if there is no resurrection of the dead… your faith is futile.
Without the resurrection Jesus becomes simply an interesting figure with a good moral compass. One who, like many others, inspires people to live according to a ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’ maxim, but who was clearly deluded when by saying things like ‘the father and I are one’ as he so often did, and which was the whole basis of his life.
But of course, there will always be those who will accuse the Christian hope of the resurrection as simply being a comforting fantasy- ‘Pie in the Sky’ as they say. That’s a phrase originated in the song written to criticise the Salvation Army by Joe Hill, the American labour activist in 1911:
Long-haired preachers come out every night
To tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
But when asked how about something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet:
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
That’s a lie
And it can appear that the doctrine of the resurrection and the words of Jesus in today’s gospel give critics and sceptics like Joe Hill exactly the ammunition they need: don’t worry if you’re hungry now- you’ll be full in heaven, don’t worry if you’re weeping now- you will laugh in heaven.
Is that what Jesus was saying? I don’t think so, because if we set Jesus’ words alongside his actions Jesus did not just preach hope for the future in his ministry, instead he fed the hungry, comforted the sorrowful, healed the sick and suffering during his and their lives”. If I was to write a one sentence summary of today’s gospel to print in our pew-sheet it wouldn’t be “Jesus says it will all be better once you’re dead!” Instead it would be “Jesus tells his followers that things are not always how they seem”.
And so, woe to you who think you are rich- because you’re not actually rich in the things that are important. Woe to you who are laughing without a care in the world right now- who think you’re immune to suffering.
But Blessed are you who think you have nothing – you have untold worth and value.
This is not pie in the sky for later, it’s a pie on the table right now. But it might need us to want a different kind of diet if we are to recognise the feast before us.
People followed Jesus two thousand years ago for all kinds of different reasons, and the same is no less true today. Some were after some instant comfort, some wanted words of wisdom or spiritual advice, some were curious, some wanted to know how to live with those who really annoyed them and some simply enjoyed being in the company of others. For those who followed him only up to the point of the crucifixion and then went away disappointed, their following had been futile. For those who hung on, despite their questions and doubts and fears, their following of Jesus was shown to be far from futile: they saw their Lord resurrected, which proved who they had believed him to be, and guaranteed that they too would know resurrection – a whole new lease of life on earth, and yet another when their life on earth was ended.
I want to end with some words I found in a book I was given as an ordination present nearly 19 years ago:
“I once read in Bible Commentary that the word ‘Christian’ means ‘little Christs’. What an honour to share Christ’s name! We can be bold to call ourselves Christians and bear the stamp of his character and reputation. When people find out that you are a Christian, they should have an idea of who you are and what you are like simply because you bear such a precious name”.
And if we share his name, we will and already do share his resurrection.
 His Name is Jesus: Compiled by Jean Syswerda. Zondervan, Grand Rapids. 1998. Pg 9.