Sermon for Easter Sunday, Year B
Based on I Cor. 15:1-11
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
The resurrection….Right from the beginning, the resurrection of Jesus Christ has been regarded as a ~ if not "the" ~ most central belief of the Christian Church. Christians deliberately chose to worship on Sunday, rather than Saturday as a reminder that every Sunday is a celebration of Christ's resurrection, a remembrance of the day on which God raised him from the dead.
When the early leaders of the church formulated creeds to summarize the core teachings of Christianity, they included Christ's resurrection and the hope of a bodily resurrection for Christians too. Indeed, almost every Sunday, we Christians continue to confess this faith in the resurrection, as handed down to us in the words of the creeds.
Yet, from almost the beginning, it seems that some have doubted and questioned this basic Christian belief of the resurrection. For example, in our second lesson today, Paul seems to be addressing some of these doubts and questions among members of the congregation at Corinth. Paul, in answering the Corinthians, replies with a creedal-confessional statement. For Paul, this is not a side issue, it's at the heart and core of the Christian faith. He regards it "as of first importance." In other words, he had either received this teaching directly from God through a revelation, or through other disciples of Jesus, or both.
The content of Paul's creedal-confessional statement is this: "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." Over against some false teachers, who said that Christ really wasn't a true human being, thus, he never really died; Paul insists that Jesus was truly human and, indeed, he died. Moreover, Paul goes even further than that by stating this all happened "according to the scriptures."
Now what scripture is Paul referring to here? He doesn't tell us. But, most likely, he's referring to Isaiah 53:5-12 ~ where the Suffering Servant innocently suffers and dies as a sacrifice and atonement for the people's sins. Verse 9 of that passage tells us the Servant died with the wicked and was placed in the tomb of the rich. Paul almost certainly read this passage from Isaiah as a description of Jesus Christ's suffering, death and burial.
Moreover, he says this passage is in accordance with God's will, and a verification of the humanity, death and burial of Jesus. Then Paul, addressing those who doubt and question Christ's resurrection, adds his statement that Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. The scripture passage Paul has in mind here is most likely Hosea 6:2, which says: "After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him." Once again, Paul views this passage as a verification, this time of Christ's resurrection ~ although the text itself is plural, not singular.
From here, Paul goes on to mention 6 different appearances of the risen Christ. First, he says that Christ appeared to Peter. Second, he appeared to the twelve disciples together. Third, he appeared to more than 500 sisters and brothers at one time. Fourth, he appeared to James, this James may very well have been Jesus' brother. Fifth, he appeared to all the apostles ~ this may be a reference to the fact that there were more people who followed Jesus during his travelling ministry than just the twelve disciples. We know, for instance, that in some cases women were with him and that he stayed in the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. Sixth, Paul himself confesses that Christ had appeared to him.
Why does Paul mention these six different appearances of the risen Christ? Well, first of all, the Greek word Paul uses here for appeared means to see someone in their physical, bodily form. For Paul, and all the others who had seen the risen Christ, this was not a vision, not a ghost, not an hallucination, not an overly imaginative mind, not a psychological phenomenon. It Was The Living Christ Whom God Had Raised From The Dead. Over against those who might have dismissed this news as something other than a bodily resurrection; Paul insists that these appearances were of Christ in a state of bodily resurrection.
Another reason that Paul might have mentioned these appearances is the principle of "seeing is believing." All of us who are parents can remember times when our children were very young and they woke up in the middle of the night calling or crying for mom or dad, because they had a bad dream. Our voice of comfort from another room is not good enough for them at such a time. They want and need us to be in the same room with them. So, we get up and go into their room, give them hugs along with words like: "There, there ~ it's going to be okay. Everything is all right. I love you, God loves you. You're safe. Go back to sleep now." Then, we usually tuck them in again and they go back to sleep.
In a way, that's similar to what happened to those early Christians who witnessed, firsthand, Christ's resurrection. They felt abandoned and afraid, like a small child does after a bad dream. They needed some reassurance. The best way for them to be reassured was for Christ to appear to them in his risen, bodily state, to confirm for them that this wasn't all some bad, misguided dream. Rather, it provided them with the basis of their Christian faith.
They, who were going to be the first leaders of the church, needed to be eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ, if their faith was going to be shared with others and passed on from generation to generation in the church. The resurrection appearances then, served as a sign of Christ's love towards his earliest followers. These appearances not only verified the truth of scripture and the words of Christ himself ~ they also comforted Christ's followers; gathered them together and prepared them for sharing the resurrection message with the whole world.
For us Christians today, who live some 2000 years after Christ's bodily resurrection, we are not given the privilege of seeing in order to believe. We live by faith not by scientific evidence of the resurrection. For us, faith in the resurrection is based on the wonder of God's Word and the wonder of God working through such humble, earthly means as water, bread and wine.
Faith in the resurrection is based on trusting in the credibility of those first eye-witnesses: that what they have handed down to us, and, what many of them died for was, and is, indeed, true. Faith in the resurrection is based on the survival of the church down through the ages, even in the face of countless hostile forces. Faith in the resurrection is based on the power of God to act on our behalf, in the person of Jesus Christ, to wage battle against and win the victory over sin, death and all evil. Faith in the resurrection is based on the joy, love and peace that God in Christ offers us each new day ~ that our lives may be blessed with meaning, purpose and fulfillment.
It's a message, which, with the Holy Spirit's help and guidance, we shall want to share with everyone!
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