1 Corinthians 15:1-11
What makes Easter Sunday memorable? I invite you to take a moment to picture in your mind something that stands out about Easter. Maybe it was something recent or something you remember from childhood . . . What came to my mind was picking up a pansy from the parish hall at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church after the Easter service. I don’t know why I remember those trays of pansies laid out on the table for the children to take home, but I do. I don’t even remember what I did with it when I got it home. Still, I remember those colorful trays beckoning me. Your memory might be similar or very different, but we all have memories of Easter past.
One of those memories might involve singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” For many of us, Easter is not Easter without singing this very old Charles Wesley hymn, which boldly proclaims:
Lives again our Glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death is now your sting? Alleluia!
Easter has a lot of traditions. Some are religious and others, like searching for Easter eggs, are not. What is of first importance, however, is the story of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after he was nailed to a Roman cross. Easter is a bold declaration that death has lost its sting. God broke the bonds of death, when “up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph over his foes.”
Each of the four gospels tells the Easter story a bit differently. They all have an empty tomb, but Mark lacks an appearance from the risen Jesus. We read in Mark 16 that Mary Magdalene and another Mary brought spices to the tomb. They planned on finishing preparing Jesus’ body, but when they get to the tomb, the stone had been rolled away, and a young man dressed in white sitting where Jesus’ body should be lying. He tells them that Jesus has been raised, so they should go and tell the disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee. Then the women fled the tomb in “terror and amazement,” and they said nothing to anyone. With that the story ends. There is the promise of resurrection appearances, but no actual appearance. Fortunately the other three Gospels fill in the rest of the story.
When it comes to Paul’s discussion of the resurrection, he’s more interested in the meaning than the details. This morning we have heard the first eleven verses of I Corinthians 15, but the entire chapter focuses on the resurrection. Paul wants us to know that our own resurrection is linked to Jesus’ resurrection. He is quite insistent that the message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is of first importance. In fact, he tells the Corinthians, if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then “our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been vain.” (1 Cor. 15:14). Without the resurrection, all you have is a dead messianic pretender. Fortunately, Paul declares, this isn’t the case. We serve a risen Lord! Alleluia! To borrow from Isaiah:
And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. (Is. 25:7-8).
With Isaiah’s promise that death has been swallowed up forever, we hear the good news that Paul proclaims:
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.”
Here is the essence of the good news in four verbs: Christ died, was buried, was raised, and was seen. This good news comes at a most opportune moment, for we seem to be living in the midst of a culture of death.
Last weekend’s marches across the country focused on gun violence, but they were about much more than guns. They were really a word of resistance against a culture that is marked by violence of all kinds. This violence is an expression of what Paul believes is the old age of sin. In the biblical story, the age of violence begins shortly after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. It begins when Cain kills his brother Abel, and death enters the world. We have been living with this violence from the beginning of the story, but the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus marks a turning point in that history. Death has met its match in the new age of God’s kingdom, which Jesus initiates, and into which Jesus invites us to enter.
It’s been a few years since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out. I don’t know if you saw it or how it affected you. I will confess that I found watching Roman soldiers beat Jesus to a pulp, mock him, and then hang him on a cross to die to be a numbing experience. I watched it in the company of my friend Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer. Arthur and I went to see it together so we could write a newspaper response. After all, it was a rather controversial film that had some features that seemed anti-Semitic. I remember sitting there, as the movie ended, totally drained. I remember Arthur asking me if I was okay. Here is what bothered me the most. I had sat there for what seemed like hours enduring the brutality of Jesus’ last hours on earth. Then the movie abruptly ends with this picture of an open tomb and the rising sun. That’s it. No appearance of Jesus. No reunion. No meal in Galilee or on the way to Emmaus. Mark has more to say than Gibson’s movie about the resurrection. I remember feeling like I needed more. What I needed was resurrection. I needed more assurance that life conquers death.
That’s the good news that Paul brings to us this morning. He tells us that our salvation, our future happiness, is wrapped up in the message that Good Friday, with its Roman cross, didn’t have the last word, because on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures, Jesus rose from the dead. Paul’s message to us is that Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of the new age of the kingdom, into which Jesus is inviting us to enter (I Cor. 15:20).
Jesus died, was buried, rose from the dead, and then he was seen. In fact, according to Paul, Jesus was seen by a large group of people. There was Cephas or Peter, along with the rest of the Apostles. Then there was James the brother of Jesus, and about five hundred more, with Paul being the final witness. I don’t know where these five hundred observers come in, but that’s Paul’s report, and his is the oldest account of Jesus’ resurrection. While Paul mentions a lot of observers, he left out a few people that are named in the Gospels, and I think they should have been mentioned. I wish I’d seen the name of Mary Magdalene, along with the other Mary’s, and the l other women whom the Gospels declare were the most faithful witnesses of the resurrection. Yes, I think Paul should have mentioned them, don’t you?
We have a message to proclaim. Death has met its match. That’s something worthy of celebrating. So, turning back to Isaiah’s word of thanksgiving for God’s rescue of Israel from its enemies, we hear this invitation to a feast:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. (Is. 25:6).
This weekend the Jewish people have been gathering to celebrate Passover by sharing feasts of rich food and well-aged wines. They share this meal in remembrance of God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of suffering. In a moment we will gather at the Table of the Lord to share the bread of life and the cup of salvation. These are signs that the risen Lord, who died and was buried, is now present with us, ushering us into the new age of God’s kingdom. In this new age, violence and death no longer have the final word. The elements laid out on the Table may not seem like a feast of rich food and well-aged wines, but they are reminders that the resurrection of Jesus ushers us into God’s banquet. So, let us keep the feast in fellowship with the risen Christ, and then in that spirit let us be beacons of life to the world! Alleluia!
Picture attribution: He, Qi. The Risen Lord, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46108 [retrieved March 31, 2018]. Original source: heqigallery.com.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 1, 2018