This sermon is part of a series of messages on the Apostles’ Creed. Click this link to find an index of our previous messages: https://corowapc.org/c
A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on 1 Corinthians 15:1-19 on Sunday 22 March 2020.
The ancient creeds of the church are like a babushka doll, the further back you go in time, the smaller they get. For example, the Creed of Saint Athanasius from the 6th century has about 70 lines and fills 2 pages. The Nicene Creed from the 4th century has about 40 lines. And the Apostles Creed from the 3rd century AD has only 18 lines. Even it is based on earlier versions that are shorter.
This growth in the creeds as time has gone on is only natural. Each of them contains what the last creed said and then adds a bit more, either to be more accurate, or to include new issues as they came up and people started arguing about them. The Apostles’ Creed, for example, says
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
The Nicene Creed of a generation later, says
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
The Nicene Creed includes what the Apostles’ Creed says and adds a bit more for clarity. These things grow naturally. There is a danger that they become so long, that they are hard to use. But the real danger is whether, with time, they wander away from the true heart and soul of the gospel.
So what if we could go even further back than the Apostles’ Creed? What if we could open that babushka doll of creeds and find the smallest, the earliest, the kernel of truth from which the whole church grew, the original creed that the 12 disciples themselves used and taught? The true apostles’ creed. What would it say? What light would it shed on what is the true heart and soul of the good news of Jesus Christ?
Well, many people believe that we find that creed in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. In verses 1 and 2 the apostle Paul writes,
I want to remind you of the gospel that I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
Do you get the feeling that that Paul is building up towards something, that Paul is working up to something important? Like that time my mother came up to me when I was a little boy, knelt down in front of me, put both her hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said something that I can’t remember now but must have been important at the time. “How many times do I have to say, “Put your toys away”? or something like that. Anyway, Paul here has my complete attention. I can’t wait for him to tell us what is this gospel, this message he preached, this message the Corinthians believed, without which they are lost and Paul has preached in vain. What will it be? Believe in God and always do your best? Jesus was a good man, try to be a good person too? What is this message that contains the true heart and soul of the Christian faith?
Paul doesn’t leave us hanging for too long. He goes on from verse 3.
For what I received, I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the twelve disciples.
This is it. This is the heart of the gospel from right back before even Paul was a Christian. It’s something that even he had to receive from others who were apostles before him. For the very first disciples, what was central to the believers was the death and resurrection of Jesus. Do you see? The Christian faith was born not when Jesus finished preaching the Sermon on the Mount, or when he fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish, but on the third day, that first Easter Sunday, when the disciples found the tomb empty and Jesus appeared to them alive.
This is the great hope that we cling to: that Jesus is our risen Saviour, that he is our living Lord, that his new life triumphs over death, and offers us the promise of new life as well, a life that begins here and now and lasts forever. It is not the cross of some famous dead preacher that saves, but the cross of the risen Lord.
Look at what we do on Sundays. We come to church at least while we still can during this pandemic and soon we will gather online or via technology. This is the day that God’s people gather for worship. It wasn’t always Sunday. Jesus was a Jew and he and his disciples went to the synagogue on the seventh day of the week, on Saturday. It’s one of the ten commandments, to keep the Sabbath, Saturday, holy and to do no work at all. But when Jesus rose to life on the first day of the week, his followers have ever since gathered together on Sundays. Saturday is the sabbath of the Old Testament. But Sunday is the Lord’s Day in the New Testament. The Day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because Sunday is the birthday of the Church.
We are in the middle of the season of Lent, a time of fasting, self-denial and reflection, of reconnecting with God and starting again. Lent is a 40 day period starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Day. But if you do the maths, there a 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. What has happened to the other six days? Well, the six Sundays in Lent don’t count because every Sunday is a feast day celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. We gather on a Sunday to remember our living Lord. .The resurrection of Jesus creates the new life by which the church lives today, and the hope which it lives for tomorrow.
No wonder then that the devil has tried to undermine the faith of believers in the resurrection. Each generation has dreamed up some new story about what really happened. The disciples stole his body and faked his resurrection. Jesus didn’t really die, he just fainted and woke up in the tomb and then appeared to the disciples. It wasn’t really Jesus that died, but only someone who looked like him. Jesus didn’t come back to life because ten out of every ten dead people don’t come back to life.
Samuel Angus was professor of New Testament at the Presbyterian Theological Hall in Sydney, Australia, in the 1920s and 30s. A man who taught ministers what to teach their congregations. Listen to what he wrote about the resurrection:
If Christianity is to offer to thinking men today a satisfying interpretation of life it must be completely purged of the nonsense that Jews believed about the end of the world. It is pathetic to hear at Christian burial or cremation bodies being committed “in the sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection” when the resurrection life belongs to this side of death as a present experience of being raised in and with Christ. It is high time that the resurrection and the idea of a return again from the imaginary world of the dead should be relegated to the museum of weird ideas that the spirit of man once believed in. The resurrection is only a symbol for the triumph of life over death and it would be better got rid of entirely in favour of the eternal life which is ours now in the knowledge of God through Jesus Christ. No one who knows this kind of life now would ever look forward to or desire an upheaval of graveyards at some judgment day in the future.
This wasn’t from a minister. This was from a teacher of ministers in our church one hundred years ago.
It’s just this kind of nonsense that Paul confronted in the church at Corinth. Paul wrote in verse 12,
If it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
It seems that there were believers at Corinth who were saying that the body wasn’t the important thing but the spirit. The body was just a prison for the soul that weighed it down with its needs and fears. Who, they thought, would want their corpse to come back to life like some kind of zombie? Eternal life, they said, is now not later. In our spiritual union with Christ we experience the power of his risen life here and now.
Paul found at least three problems with their teaching. Firstly, if we aren’t going to be raised then Jesus wasn’t raised either. What proof is there that he is alive, that his spirit lives on if his body is crumbling to dust somewhere near Jerusalem? If Jesus wasn’t raised to life then he’s just some famous dead guy like thousands of other famous dead people like Captain Cook or William Shakespeare or Julius Caesar.
Secondly, if Jesus is dead then we are liars for saying he isn’t. Or worse, we are blasphemers for saying God did something that he didn’t, that he raised Jesus to life. If he is still dead then Jesus was not God’s man and everything he said about himself was a lie.
And thirdly, if Jesus is dead then we who believe in him are robbed of our only hope. Our faith in him is futile. Our sins aren’t forgiven. Those who die are lost. There is no other hope. And Paul’s own words in verse 19 are particularly chilling:
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
Many people would disagree. They think that religion is good for you as long as you believe it. It doesn’t if it is true, as long as you think it is. Like Samuel Angus they would say it isn’t Jesus’ body that lives on but his spirit, his teaching, his example. Jesus’ teaching makes us better people. His life and example hold the key to happiness and success. Just to have lived one lifetime guided by the spirit of Jesus would be worth it even if there was no eternal life. Scientific studies show, they would say, that people who believe in God are happier and live longer too. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or if it isn’t as long as it’s true for you, as long as you believe that it is true.
Which wasn’t quite the way that the apostle Paul looked at things. As far as being happier goes, well it depended on what makes you happy, and he never was too sure if he’d end up living much longer. As he said in his second letter to the Corinthians,
I have worked much harder than anyone else been in prison more often, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Three times I was shipwrecked. I’ve known hunger and thirst. I’ve been cold and naked. Besides which I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the church.
I’m not saying that Paul was depressed and unhappy. What I’m saying is that Paul was a man who suffered for the risen Christ, who endured great hardships so that others might know him, who suffered severe penalties from those who tried to stop him. Paul’s faith wasn’t driven by some vague desire to be happy and to live longer whether it was true or not. No, his faith was fuelled by his own vision of the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. As he says here in 1 Corinthians 15 verse 9,
… and last of all he appeared to me.
What mattered for Paul was not whether religion works whether it is true or not, but that he saw Jesus alive and knew that he was Lord. So it didn’t matter what the world threw at him, whips, prisons, starvation or cold, because he knew the risen Saviour, the living Lord Jesus, and in the end it would be worth it. Life meant knowing Christ, even if it was short and hard, and death meant being with him forever.
To sum up, what I want you to see is that the Christian faith is not just a way of life taught by some famous dead guy that works whether it’s true or not. But its very heart and soul is as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, “On the third day he rose again.” This is the birthday of the church that we celebrate each week on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the Day of Lord Jesus Christ. Not the anniversary of the death of some famous dead guy. But the day of our living Saviour. Following him is not just a way of life. It is life. New life in Christ who said,
I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me, will never die.
In the current pandemic this doesn’t just mean that we don’t have to worry that we will catch the virus or that we will die. But it also means having the courage to do what is right for the weak, the sick, and the vulnerable. We follow the living Lord, and the way he leads us leads to life.