Epiphany 6 – Paul Foster – 17/02/19

1 Cor 15.12-20 and Lk 6.17-26

If I were to ask you what is the most important or central belief in the Christian faith, I wonder what you would answer? In many ways it is an impossible question, and it would almost certainly misrepresent the Christian faith to reduce it to a single belief. However, if I was to allow you three or four statements I would hazard a guess that the name Jesus would feature prominently, and that there would be references to his incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection. Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians focuses on the resurrection, but not just the resurrection of Jesus – it makes clear that belief in the resurrection of Christ is the basis for the assurance that followers of Jesus will likewise be raised from the dead and be partakers in that resurrection life that Christ inaugurates.

‘Dead people do not rise from the dead.’ It is a statement I have heard many times when discussing the Christian faith with people – and to be honest I understand exactly why people make that statement. We are not talking about resuscitations, those medical marvels where people who have been pronounced clinically dead are brought back to life a matter of minutes or sometimes even hours later. We all know those events happen and that they have been documented. What people reject is the belief that somebody who had been laid in tomb for the best part of three days, after being crucified, could come back to life again. In fact, like my questioning interlocutors, I do not buy the so-called “swoon theories” – that is the idea that Jesus was not really dead and that rest in a cold tomb was a period of recovery. I would rather bank on the fact that the Romans actually knew how to kill somebody so that they were really dead. I also readily confess that I have not met anybody who has been genuinely dead for several days and then returned to life. So I can understand that scepticism around this most central of Christian claims – the belief in the resurrection from the dead. Yet despite the difficulty due to the fact that resurrection appears to transcend our natural expectations, the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the belief of the future resurrection of believers remains a central claim of the Christian faith.

In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, after having laid out a list of post-resurrection appearances to Peter, then to the twelve, then James and all the apostles, and lastly to Paul himself, Paul turns to a theological problem that appears to be plaguing the Corinthian community – some in the community appear to be saying there is no resurrection, at least not for believers in the future. Paul asks the rhetorical question, how is it that if Christ is proclaimed as having been raised from the dead that some believers in Corinth state ‘there is no resurrection of the dead?’ For Paul, such logic is incomprehensible. He goes so far as to say if the Corinthians have no hope in a future resurrection for believers, then the implication is that they are really denying the resurrection of Jesus. I am not sure what led some early believers in Corinth to that position. Last summer, for the first time I visited the site of ancient Corinth. Apart from the warmth and the wonderful views over the glistening Corinthian Gulf, the thing I remember was how small the city-site was. This small band of early believers lived cheek-by-jowl with their neighbours who held to majority pagan religious practices. I suspect with their new found faith the Corinthian Christians must have seemed weird. Not only had they given up traditional beliefs in a pantheon of gods in exchange for exclusive faith in one God, yet even stranger was the fact that the new faith centred on a person who had been crucified at the hands of the Romans. Nonetheless, this crucified Messiah was claimed to have come back to life again. At the beginning of his later, Paul goes so far as to state ‘we preach Christ crucified … to Gentiles foolishness.’ It is easy to imagine the ridicule and mockery the Corinthians experienced for this belief in a crucified messiah. So maybe it was more comfortable for some of those Corinthian believers to say they followed the teachings and ethics of the man from Nazareth, and simply or not acknowledge or to reject that central faith claim: that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and that believers also would become partakers in this resurrection life.

In response to this type of thinking Paul drives the logic of his argument home. He states again, ‘if the dead are not raised then Christ has not been raised’. Some might have said what is the problem with that, but Paul anticipates such thinking. He responds that ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins.’ Be under no misapprehension, according to Paul, it is the resurrection of Christ that is the guarantee of the genuineness of faith. So let me put the uncomfortable logic of Paul before each of us today, do we believe in the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of believers, or (as Paul would put it) is our faith worthless? Paul’s logic offers a stark and binary set of alternatives. He presses his argument hope with the following statement, ‘if we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.’ In essence, Paul is stating that without the resurrection of Jesus, the Christian faith is a pitiful delusions. I wonder if you agree with that assessment?

I was at a memorial service in this cathedral some little time ago. The person being remembered was without doubt a faithful and believing Christian, but the service struck me as being strange at many levels. Above all, the thing that disquieted me the most was the complete and utter lack of any reference to future Christian hope. I spoke to one of my dear colleagues afterwards, who had not only noticed the same thing but shared with me that our very perceptive organist had said that it felt like a secular crematorium service. Ten out of ten to the organist for his wonderful theological sense. The problem was there was no reference to Christian hope in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, and the hope of a future resurrection for believers. When it comes my turn to shuffle of this mortal coil – in my case burial not cremation please(!), I want somebody to read the words of Jesus that he is the resurrection and the life, and then to declare in the words of the prayer book that the mortal body is being buried ‘in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ I cannot scientifically prove to you that resurrection from the dead is possible, I will never quell the doubts of the sceptics, but I simply trust that the same God who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, will – through the sacrificial love of Christ – have forgiven my sins (which are many), and that God will raise both you and I to a new and transformed life to be one with Christ for ever.

At this point my thinking strayed, and I began to wonder if the claims of Paul were actually normative for Christianity. First, I considered the words of the creed which we recite each week. It is a short statement, but together we declare that ‘we look for the resurrection of the dead.’ Then I wondered what other churches believe today. Turning to the Roman Catholic catechism, paragraph 655 for the swots among you, states ‘Christ’s resurrection and the risen Christ himself is the principle and source of our future resurrection.’ The Greek Orthodox church states of God that ‘You deigned that your only begotten son should become man, to be crucified, to die as man, to be resurrected and to become the first born from the dead, and to make possible our resurrection.’ Admittedly, these are quite historic churches, so I wondered if more recent churches might deviate. So from the statement of faith from a Southern Baptist seminary: ‘Jesus bodily resurrection is also the guarantee of a future resurrection life for all believers.’ Then from our more Pentecostally-minded fellow believers in Destiny church in Edinburgh we have ‘we believe that only because of Jesus’ death and resurrection people can be forgiven and have eternal life.’ It seems to me that if your three or four statements about the centre of the Christian faith does not include reference to the resurrection of Christ – it is time for you to consider a redraft.

The problem with all this talk of future resurrection, is that if it is not accompanied by reflection on contemporary Christian discipleship, then (to cite the cliché), it can be too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good. If today’s epistle presented us with a core item of the Christian faith, then our gospel reading gives us an equally core aspect of the teachings of Jesus. Our reading from Luke gives us the sermon on the plain, with Luke’s shorter, more earthly-minded set of beatitudes. For Luke, unlike Matthew, writes blessed are the poor – not the poor in spirit, and blessed are those who hunger and thirst – not for righteousness as in Matthew, but those who actually hunger and thirst. The poor, the hungry, and them that mourn – these are the people to whom the Lukan Jesus assigns a special blessing and privilege in the kingdom. For as much as Christians share certain beliefs, those beliefs are not an end in themselves. Belief in the resurrected Jesus, must leads us to transforming the world in the here and now for the destitute, the down-trodden, and the despised. In effect, we are called to make that resurrection life, that time when every tear will be wiped away, a reality – at least in part – in the present world in which we live. Writing to the Corinthians in his second letter, Paul still affirms the transformative power of the risen Christ, he states ‘that if anyone is in Christ that person is a new creature, the old things have passed away, new things have come.’ However, this is not all for the future, as if we could sit back and do nothing now. Paul continues by saying that God has reconciled us in Christ ‘and so gave us the ministry of reconciliation.’

Christ’s resurrection is indeed the promise of our future resurrection, but it is also the pattern for our transformation in this life. We are to continue the work of Jesus, by binding the broken, healing the hurt, loving the loveless, and reconciling the rejected. That is resurrection life in the here and now. So with the broken, with the reject, with the hunger, we gather here today. We ask Christ to forgive us, to begin to transform us in this life, and to raise us to new life with him in the world to come. With the hungry we gather at this place of feeding, a wooden table reminding us of a wooden cross. Ye this is also a place of hope and healing, in fact a place of resurrection. So, come today as those who share in Christ’s risen life, as those prepared to share in his ministry of reconciliation. And together with all those whom Christ loves – the poor, the hungry, and them that mourn – we will offer our praise to the risen Lord, the one raised from the dead by the power of God, for to him belongs all wisdom, might, honour, dominion and glory, both now in our broken world and in that glorious resurrection life that is to come. Amen.

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