Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“In Fact Christ Has Been Raised from the Dead” (1 Corinthians 15:12-20)
February 17, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In 2002 the London-based daily newspaper The Telegraph published an article that disturbed many people—an article entitled “One Third of Clergy Do Not Believe in the Resurrection.” The article was based on extensive research conducted among clergy of the Church of England:
A third of Church of England clergy doubt or disbelieve in the physical resurrection …While it has long been known that numerous clerics are dubious about the historic creeds of the Church, the survey is the first to disclose how widespread is the skepticism…Doubts are even greater among members of the Modern Churchpeople’s Union…only a quarter believe in the physical resurrection and just eight percent in the Virgin Birth.
In this article one priest put it this way: “There are clearly two churches operating in the Church of England: the believing Church, and the disbelieving Church, and that is a scandal” (Jonathan Petre, July 31, 2002). I wish I could tell you that it is different among clergy in the Episcopal Church, but based on numerous interactions and conversations over the years that is only a wish. In his 1994 book Resurrection: Myth or Reality? Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong dismissed the resurrection this way:
If the resurrection of Jesus cannot be believed except by assenting to the fantastic descriptions included in the Gospels, then Christianity is doomed. For that view of resurrection is not believable, and if that is all there is, then Christianity which depends upon the truth and authenticity of Jesus’ resurrection, is also not believable (238).
And of course such skepticism regarding the resurrection extends beyond those who are not part of the Modern Churchpeople’s Union (sounds like a fun group, doesn’t it?) or disbelieving Anglican clergy and bishops. Last decade several acclaimed writers advocated what became known as the New Atheism movement.
The late British writer Christopher Hitchens was part of this group and the author of the 2007 book God is Not Great. He once quipped on Instagram, “Do I think I’m going to paradise? Of course not. I wouldn’t go if I was asked. I don’t want to live in some celestial North Korea for one thing, where all I get to do is praise the Dear Leader from dawn till dusk.” Fellow New Atheist writer Sam Harris in his 2004 book The End of Faith, blasphemously summed up Jesus Christ and Holy Communion this way, “Jesus Christ—who as it turns out was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens— can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well” (The New York Times, September 5, 2004). I hope those quotes make you uncomfortable. Both Hitchens’ and Harris’ books remained on The New York Times Bestsellers list for many weeks.
And yet resurrection—the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the dead—is at the heart of the Christian faith. The brilliant theologian J. I. Packer, who has taught and written about Christian theology for nearly seventy years, wrote this in the 1987 book Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?:
Non-Christian faiths have an inner structure different from Christianity… They offer ultimate happiness, however they conceive it, as a prize to be gained from God, or the gods, or the cosmic order, through knowledgeable and worthy action on our part…But Christianity, which sees ultimate happiness as rescue from sin and an unending love relationship with one’s Creator, offers this salvation package as a gift, to be received here and now by admitting our helplessness and entering into a faith relationship with Jesus Christ, the divine-human Savor and Lord (143).
Packer then hones in on the centrality of the resurrection in the Christian faith:
When Christians are asked to make good their claim that this scheme is truth, they point to Jesus’ Resurrection. The Easter event, so they affirm, demonstrated Jesus’ deity; validated his teaching; attested the completion of his work of atonement for sin; confirms his present cosmic dominion and his coming reappearance as Judge; assures us that his personal pardon, presence, and power in people’s lives today is fact; and guarantees each believer’s own reembodiment by Resurrection in the world to come (143).
In the New Testament the Apostle Paul, before his conversion to Christianity, waged angry persecution against the Christian Church, persecution that was even more angry and blasphemous than anything Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris ever wrote. Paul initially considered Jesus an imposter, a charlatan, and dismissed his death on the cross as a good thing and his resurrection as a hoax. In his First Letter to Timothy Paul described the type of person he was before his conversion: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1Timothy 1:13). But Paul, on his way to Damascus in order to persecute the Christians there, encountered none other than the Resurrected Jesus. Scripture tells us:
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do” (Acts 9:3-6).
Paul, who had mocked and persecuted Christians, even to the point of condemning them to death, personally encountered the Resurrected Jesus, who did not rebuke Paul for his blasphemous unbelief, but gave him grace instead, as Paul later described it, again to his protégé Timothy:
I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost (1 Timothy 1:13-15).
The grace Paul received from the Resurrected Jesus changed the course of his life, and he went on to plant many Christian churches in Europe and Asia Minor and to write thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
One of those churches was the church in Corinth, and one of those letters his First Letter to the Corinthians, in which he emphasized the gospel as being the most important thing in the world: “I handed on to you as of first importance…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 then Paul added, “he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 8). In today’s passage Paul is crystal clear about to the centrality of resurrection in the Christian faith:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died (1 Corinthians 15:12-20).
Paul wrote about the reality of the physical resurrection of Christ and the reality of the resurrection of the dead. There is nothing metaphorical or figurative in this passage. It is high octane gospel full of high octane hope. Resurrection is central to Christianity because resurrection is central to the identity of Christ himself, who proclaimed, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). And as Paul wrote, indeed “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” and on the cross “the grace of our Lord overflowed” for the Apostle Paul, and for Bishop Spong, and for Christopher Hitchens, and for Sam Harris, and for the believing church, and for the disbelieving church…and for you.
Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, recounts the death of a judge in nineteenth century Russia. As his final hour on earth rapidly approaches Ivan Ilyich assesses his life, and when his final hour arrives, it arrives with hope:
“And death? Where is it?” (Ivan Ilyich) searched for his accustomed fear of death and could not find it. Where was death? What death? There was no fear because there was no death. Instead of death there was light. “So that’s it!” he exclaimed. “What bliss!” All this happened in a single moment, but the significance of that moment was lasting…“It is all over,” said someone standing beside him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. “Death is over,” he said to himself. “There is no more death.” He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died (Bantam classic edition 133-134).
And who do you think was there at the final earthly moment of Ivan Ilyich? Who do you think was there to take away his fear of death? Who do you think was there to give him light? Who do you think was there to inspire him to exclaim, “What bliss!” The same One who encountered Paul on the road to Damascus—the Resurrected Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life.
“In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” The fruits of those who have died will include you, as scripture also states, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (Romans 8:11).
One more illustration…One day during English class in my senior year of high school I was first exposed to “Holy Sonnet 10”, one of the most famous poems of the great early seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet John Donne (1572-1631)—a poem about the Christian hope of the resurrection that really moved me that day, and still does these many years later:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest out best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms, can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
“In fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” That is the good news of the gospel. And today the Resurrected Jesus beckons you to receive anew the same grace he gave to the Apostle Paul, grace that changes angry, blasphemous disbelief into faith and hope and love.