TEXT: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
… I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [that is, Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. (1 Cor. 15:3-6)
“Of first importance”—that’s what the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians about the tradition he has been given. “Of first importance” are these very few, basic points about the Christian faith:
- Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures;
- He was buried;
- He was raised; and
- He appeared—after his resurrection, Christ showed himself to those who had known him best.
He died for our sins, he was buried—and then … he came back!
That’s the whole gospel in a nutshell—and Paul says that brief summary of the Christian faith is the thing that is most important.
Does that seem too simple? Christ died. Christ was buried. And then … he came back. According to Paul, this is what you are left with, if you boil Christianity down to its essentials. These are the things that are most important.
To me, it is significant—and even a little surprising—that it is Paul who’s saying this. As you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to wade through his letters in the New Testament, Paul was not exactly in love with simplicity. Right down to the present day, scholars and theologians and ordinary Christians have a difficult time making heads or tails out of some of the things Paul wrote.
Yet here, when he felt compelled to outline the fundamentals, he said: “Here’s what’s most important; whatever else you believe—or don’t believe—believe this!”
And what is it that’s of first importance?
It is not some particular view of the authority of Scripture, or of atonement. It’s got nothing to do with the use of gender-neutral language during worship. It is not one or the other opinion about how Christ is present at the Communion Table. It is not about forms of Baptism, or creeds, or speaking in tongues, or the definition of the Trinity.
Neither is it about the kinds of political viewpoints which divide Christians. It’s not about who’s in power in Ottawa or Washington, or the situation in Venezuela. It’s not about pipelines, or same-sex marriage, or residential schools. It’s not even about bottled water!
No. Christians can—and do—believe all kinds of different things about that stuff. And Paul does not say those matters are unimportant. But he says they’re not of first importance. What is essential, according to Paul—what defines Christian faith, and defines us as Christians—boils down to belief in these basic, foundational truths:
- Christ died for our sins;
- he was buried; and then
- he came back.
You might wonder why Paul felt he had to remind the Corinthians about that. Well, you see, there had come into the midst of the church at Corinth some teachers who taught that Jesus did not in fact rise from the dead—not literally, anyhow.
Did you think that was just a 21st-century idea? In our time, the world (and, indeed, the church itself) seems to be full of self-proclaimed experts who want to convince us that most of what we read in the Bible—and most especially that stuff about resurrection—is nothing but a bunch of fairy tales, myths, and deception.
As it is today, so it was then—in Paul’s day. My friends, this has never been easy stuff to believe. We often hear it said that ancient people were uneducated, unsophisticated, and gullible—and so, of course, they were easily hoodwinked by superstitious nonsense. But the witness of Scripture tells us otherwise.
Elsewhere, Paul admits that the gospel he preaches sounds like “foolishness”—but it is, he assures us, not foolishness, but saving truth. He says: “… the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:18, 25)
How can Paul be so certain of his message? It’s because of what he has personally experienced. First, because this was the tradition he had received from those who had been closest to Jesus: “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received …” This first-hand account was handed on directly to Paul, and he has faithfully reported it.
You know, you can read something in a book and have reason to doubt it. If you see something on the internet, you certainly have reason to question it. But when you hear something from a spouse, a family member, or a friend … that kind of report carries a lot more weight, doesn’t it?
However, Paul’s confidence is not founded simply upon the testimony of others. No. Once again, it’s born of his personal experience. If the testimony of Peter, and James, and all the other disciples is not sufficient to convince you, says Paul, then consider this: “Last of all, as to someone untimely born, [Christ] appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Cor. 15:8-9)
Paul is saying to the Corinthians: “Look, you know me. You’ve spent time with me, and you trust me. You know that I, too, had my doubts about the Christian propaganda—even to the point that I wanted to destroy the Church of God! But then … I saw the risen Christ with my own eyes. After that, everything changed within me.”
The American Presbyterian minister—and writer—Bruce Larson once said: “The events of Easter cannot be reduced to a creed or philosophy. We are not asked to believe the doctrine of the resurrection. We are asked to meet this person raised from the dead. In faith, we move from belief in a doctrine to the knowledge of a person. Ultimate truth is a person. We met him. He is alive.”*
That is the difference. That is the critical, unique claim of Christianity: Jesus lives! I met him. I have experienced his presence. That is where our hope finds its foundation. That is where wefind our strength. And it is there—in that experience—that we know the reality of his resurrection life.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Thanks be to God.