Sunday, April 5, 2015

Remember the Gospel (a sermon for Easter Sunday on 1 Corinthians 15.1-11)

Surely one of the most frightening and disorienting experiences we can have as human beings is to begin to be aware that we are losing our memory. How do I know who I am, if I’m not sure where I’ve come from? How do I know who I can trust, or who loves me, or who my family members are? Truly, memory is one of God’s most important and most precious gifts to us.

In our first scripture reading this morning, the apostle Paul has some words to say to a group of Christians who were in danger of losing their memory. This reading comes from a letter Paul wrote to the Christians living in the Greek city of Corinth, probably around 58 A.D. In those days, of course, they weren’t meeting in public buildings as we do today; they were probably meeting in small groups in private houses. Those little house churches in Corinth had all sorts of problems, and Paul spends the first fourteen chapters of this letter dealing with them. But in chapter fifteen he comes back to the central issue, and he begins in verse 1 with these words: ‘Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand’.

If I feel that it’s necessary to remind someone of something, it would usually be because I think they are in danger of forgetting it. For instance, when my youngest son was still living at home I didn’t feel the need to remind him to go out and spend time with his friends, because he never seemed to be in danger of forgetting them! However, I did think it was important to remind him to take his house key with him when he went out, because from time to time he did forget that rather important item, and then he would ring my doorbell at two in the morning so that he could get back into the house! So if Paul feels it necessary to remind the Christians in Corinth about the good news, or gospel, that he proclaimed to them, it must be because he thinks they are in danger of forgetting it.

How could that be? How could a Christian church forget the good news of Jesus Christ, the ‘gospel’ as we call it, which is the central Christian message? Sadly, it happens all the time; churches easily get distracted. They get caught up in the maintenance of old traditions, or they become obsessed with single issues like homosexuality, or they get caught up in buildings and liturgies and theological controversies. Individual Christians can forget the gospel as well; in fact, maybe they’ve never even really heard it. I’ve explained the good news of Jesus to hundreds of people down through the years of my ministry, and I’ve stopped being surprised at the number of church people who tell me they’re hearing it for the first time.

So, what is this good news that Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians? Let’s look a little more closely at this; you might like to turn to 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, on page 176 in the New Testament in our church bibles.

First, then, the good news isn’t about what we do, but about what God does for us.

If you think about it for a moment, you will quickly see that there’s a world of difference between good news and good advice. We parents give our kids good advice all the time – at least, we think it’s good advice! Get enough sleep, clean up your room, study hard, get a good summer job, etc. etc. – it all seems vital to us, but after a while their eyes start to glaze over, they’ve heard it so many times before! But if we share some real good news, they wake up with a start!

When I ask people what they think the central Christian message is, the most common reply is usually ‘love thy neighbour’ or ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’. But this can’t be the central Christian message, because in the New Testament the central Christian message is described as the ‘gospel’, which means ‘good news’. But ‘love your neighbour’ is not good news; it’s good advice! Very good advice, and I don’t have a word to say against it, but it’s just not the first and most important thing in the New Testament.

The good news isn’t about what we do, it’s about what God does for us. And when Paul talks about what God does for us in this passage, the word he uses is ‘saved’:
‘Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved’ (vv.1-2a).

In our society today, ‘saved’ is a word that is usually associated with a particular kind of Christian – the sort of person who goes up to a total stranger on the street and asks, ‘Are you saved?’ The reason many people find that offensive is because the message they hear behind the words is “I’m better than you”. But if you think about what the word ‘saved’ actually means, it’s obvious that the last thing that’s really being communicated is “I’m better than you”. Imagine if I were to get myself into trouble swimming in the ocean – perhaps through going into the water from a beach where there’s a clear sign for all to see saying, “No swimming”, because the currents are dangerous. Let’s suppose I’m being pulled out to sea by the dangerous current, and I’m on the point of exhaustion and drowning, when along comes a lifeguard boat, and I’m plucked from the sea and rescued. If I were to cry out at that point, “Thank God, I’ve been saved!” it would obviously not be a claim to be better than anyone else. Rather, it would be an admission of stupidity and helplessness: I was silly enough to swim where I shouldn’t have been swimming, and through my own fault I was on the point of drowning. I couldn’t save myself, but these lifeguards came and saved me.

That’s the situation that we’re in, according to the New Testament. We human beings rebel against God and we choose the way of sin instead. This sin is leading to all kinds of trouble – hatred, prejudice, murder, war, greed, poverty, family breakdown, and so on. Furthermore, this sin has caused a breach in our relationship with the God who created us. But the gospel story is the story of how God, in his mercy and love, has made a way for us to be forgiven our sins and to be set free from the chains that bind us, a way for us to face the future with hope and not fear. This is what the good news is all about. It’s not about what we can do, but about what God has done for us.

What has God done for us then? The second thing about the good news is that it’s not about ideas, but about events, and what those events mean. Look at verses 3-7:
For 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, 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. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

Paul lists four events in these verses; two of them are the central facts, and the other two are there by way of confirmation of the truth of the first two. First, he says, ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures’. Then comes ‘he was buried’, which is a confirmation of the fact of his death. Thirdly we read ‘that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures’, and this is followed by a list of people he appeared to, which is a confirmation of the truth of his resurrection. So the death and resurrection, and what they mean, are the vital things here; the other two events, the burial and the appearances, confirm them.

‘Christ died for our sins’. The death of Jesus on the cross is not just a tragedy or a historical accident; it is ‘according to the scriptures’, that is to say, it’s been part of the plan of God from the beginning of the Bible story. On Good Friday, the Roman governor released a prisoner called Barabbas because the people asked for him, and condemned Jesus to death in his place. Jesus was innocent, but Barabbas was guilty; you might say that Jesus died in Barabbas’ place, so that Barabbas could go free. And so it is with us; we are the guilty ones, but Jesus offered himself, out of love for the whole world, in obedience to his Father, so that we could be reconciled to God. Forgiveness is now freely offered to all people as the love of God is poured out into the world through Jesus and his cross.

But the death is only the beginning; the event that really transformed the early Christians was the resurrection. So Paul goes on to say, ‘He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures’. Before Easter Sunday the disciples were hiding behind locked doors for fear of the authorities, but after they met the Risen Lord they left their fears behind. They had seen the rulers of this world kill Jesus, but his resurrection showed that the power of love really was stronger than the love of power – that love really is stronger than death. That’s why they went around the world fearlessly, many of them going to their deaths with joy, because they knew that the same God who had raised Jesus from the dead would one day raise them from the dead as well.

It’s understandable that many people would find it difficult to believe this story. First century people were as sceptical about it as we are today; that’s why Paul mentions the eyewitnesses. He lists them as people known to his Corinthian friends: Peter saw him (Cephas is another name for Peter), then the twelve, then about five hundred at once (most of whom were still alive when Paul wrote), then James, then all the apostles. It’s as if he’s saying to us, “You don’t need to be in any doubt over this; he was raised from the dead, and there are hundreds of people who saw him alive again. Just ask Peter next time he comes through Corinth!”

So the good news tells us that the tyrannical rulers who crucified Jesus are not the real lords of the world. Jesus Christ is Lord over all – even over death itself. So we can boldly go out and live in his name, confident that even death is not the end for us; that as he was raised, so one day we also will be raised from the dead and will live with him forever.

We’ve said that the good news is not about what we do, but what God does for us. We’ve said it’s not about ideas, but events, and what those events mean. The third thing Paul wants us to know in this passage is that this is not just a matter of hearsay but of personal experience. Look at verse 8:
‘Last of all, as to one untimely born, he 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. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain’ (vv.8-10a).

Paul had a dramatic experience of the risen Christ. He was not a Christian at the time; in fact, he was an enemy of the Christian faith; he was riding his donkey to the city of Damascus where he intended to hunt down Christians and arrest them. But on the way he was blinded by a great light from heaven; he fell from his donkey and then heard the voice of Christ speaking to him. From that moment on the persecutor of Christians became a Christian himself, and went on to be the great missionary of the early years of the church.

I’ve never had that sort of dramatic encounter with Jesus, but here’s what I have experienced. When I was two months old my parents had me baptized in St. Barnabas’ church in Leicester, in England, because they wanted me to grow up as a follower of Jesus. They took me to church every Sunday and they taught me the Bible stories and prayed with me. And then one evening in my early teens my father challenged me to make a decision of my own, a decision to give my life to Jesus. I went up to my room and prayed a simple prayer in exactly those terms: giving my life to Jesus. I didn’t have a dramatic experience like Paul, but I know that Christ came into my life in a new and fresh way that night, and that event has transformed the rest of my life.

So here is the good news that Paul wants to remind us about. It’s not about what we do, but about what God has done for us, saving us from the power of sin that was about to overwhelm us. It’s not about philosophical ideas, but about what Jesus did for us by his death for our sins and his resurrection on the third day. And although these events happened two thousand years ago, they aren’t just ancient history; event today, we can get to know the Risen Christ ourselves and experience the saving power Paul talks about.

My brothers and sisters, don’t forget this good news! Don’t let anything else distract you from it! Don’t let anything else rob you of the joy it brings to us! Christians who remember the good news are joyful Christians; those who forget the good news are miserable Christians, for whom their faith is a burden to carry rather than a joy to lighten their hearts and put a spring in their footsteps.

And if you haven’t done so already, let me encourage you, on this Easter morning, to step out in faith and meet the risen Jesus for yourself. The risen Christ is here with us this morning, ready to come to us and fill us with his Holy Spirit. Simply put your life in his hands in faith and ask him to make himself real to you, and then wait patiently for his answer. It may not come immediately, but it will come – and when it does, like those early Christians who first met the Risen Lord, you will never really be the same again.

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