Sermon delivered on the fourth Sunday before Lent C, February 10, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 6.1-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; Luke 5.1-11.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every three years in between the Epiphany and Lenten seasons, provided Easter falls late enough like it does this year, the lectionary allows us to read St. Paul’s theology on the resurrection found in 1 Corinthians 15. Given the shoddy teaching about the resurrection, and in some cases the outright dismissal of it, this is an appropriate time for us to talk about our resurrection hope, even though it isn’t Eastertide. So today we begin a three-part sermon series on St. Paul’s teaching about the resurrection. It is my hope and prayer that we will all be refreshed and encouraged by it so that we can continue (or start) to live as people with real hope, obedient to our Lord’s call to do the work he calls us to do as we navigate living in a sin-darkened world.
St. Paul starts out by reminding the church at Corinth and us of the Good News or gospel that he proclaimed, and we need to be clear in our thinking about what constitutes Good News as well. Good News refers to an event that has happened in the world that results in the world and our lives being changed forever. The gospel can energize our thinking about God and how we are to live our lives, but first and foremost it is an announcement about a world- and/or life-changing event. And what was that world-changing event for St. Paul? Actually there were two things as he tells us in verses 3-4: The death and resurrection of Jesus. In these two critically important events for St. Paul and the rest of the Apostles (those who had seen the risen Lord) we find our salvation. Specifically it is our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus that allows us to live life with hope and confidence and St. Paul warns us that if we don’t really believe in Christ’s death and resurrection, our faith is useless and we are therefore lost forever.
So what are we as Christians to believe about Christ’s death and resurrection? St. Paul tells us this as well. He has handed down for us, a term that in the Greek means to carefully transmit for instructive purposes, the Good News that Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. The apostle doesn’t tell us if he has specific OT passages in mind or the entire trajectory of the OT. Here it is important for us to remember the stories of Creation and the Fall contained in Genesis 1-3, how God created all creation good and humans to reflect God’s image so we could run God’s good world wisely on God’s behalf. Before the Fall, a term that describes our rebellion against God that resulted in our hostility toward and alienation from God, humans enjoyed perfect communion with God in paradise on earth. God walked with Adam and Eve and they knew him in ways we simply do not, and this perfect communion with God resulted in their perfect mental, physical, and spiritual health. But then came the Fall, our rebellion against God, which got us booted from paradise and resulted in our alienation from God and each other and the introduction of Evil, Sin, and Death as corrupting powers in God’s world and our lives. We have not known perfect health since then. But God being who God is, could not and would not tolerate this state of affairs. God loves his image-bearers too much and wants us to enjoy him, his creation, and each other as he intended for us. So the rest of Scripture contains the story of how God is working to restore his good creation gone bad and us to our pre-Fall state. We would expect no less from a good and loving God who can countenance no evil or corrupting force that dehumanizes us and makes us mortally sick. St. Paul may have had this story of Scripture in mind when he tells us that Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said.
Now I could spend the rest of the sermon on this topic of Sin’s power alone. The other readings certainly allow it. But that must wait for another day because today we are focusing on the resurrection. Suffice it to say here that St. Paul wants us to understand that on the cross, Christ bore the full force of God’s perfect judgment on our sins so that we would be spared having to suffer it ourselves, and in the process freed us from our slavery to Sin’s power. Nowhere does St. Paul or the rest of the NT writers explain exactly how Christ’s death freed us from our slavery to Sin’s power, only that it did, and so we must accept this by faith if our faith is to be useful to us as St. Paul stated at the beginning of our lesson. As our OT and gospel lessons make clear, whenever human beings become aware of their sinful nature, an awareness that can only come from an awareness of a perfect and holy God, we realize how desperate is our predicament and how unfit we are to live in God’s good and holy presence. Our reaction, then, is to try to escape God’s perfect holiness as Isaiah and St. Peter did. And if God does not intervene on our behalf, we are forever undone and God cannot restore his good creation and creatures gone bad so that we can once again enjoy perfect communion with God and live in his direct presence forever. Christ’s death on the cross, says St. Paul, is God’s solution to this problem. God absorbed his own good and just judgment to spare us and to free us from Sin’s power. In the first part of Romans 6, St. Paul makes clear that in this mortal life we will never be entirely free from Sin’s power and that can make living faithfully, shall we say, um, “interesting” at times. However imperfect our freedom from Sin might be in this mortal life, we are still free and able to act accordingly. This knowledge and belief in the power of Christ’s death to free us from our sins is the basis for us having a useful faith, not a useless one. If you really do not believe that God has paid the price for you in Christ so that you can be his forever, however imperfectly your freedom looks in this mortal life, your faith is useless and you will be picked off eventually by the dark powers. So this should be an object of our constant praying, for God to give us hearts and minds of faith that Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. As you come for intercessory prayer and anointing, this might be a good place for you to start should your faith in the power and efficacy of Christ’s death for you be faltering or need developing.
The second part of the Good News St. Paul proclaimed is the resurrection. To proclaim that, however, St. Paul had to first testify that Jesus was indeed dead and buried. He would not have believed the baloney of the swoon theory that states Jesus wasn’t really dead; he was just unconscious and revived in the tomb. No, St. Paul knew the Romans were efficient killers. He knew that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. But, St. Paul continues, on the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, again just as the Scriptures said. Like his reference to Christ’s death, St. Paul does not tell us whether he had specific Scriptures in mind or the whole trajectory of the OT in view. Before we go any further, it is essential for us to understand clearly what St. Paul and the other Apostles meant when they used the term, resurrection.
Resurrection for the apostles and the early Church meant that dead people would be given new bodies, i.e., resurrection dealt with physicality of a new kind in the manner of our risen Lord’s body. Resurrection did not mean life after death or the intermediate state between our mortal death and our resurrection. Former Anglican bishop and NT super scholar N.T. Wright helpfully uses the term life after life after death to describe the resurrection. Neither was resurrection a general term to describe what happens to people after they die, and it certainly did not refer to dying and going to heaven. For St. Paul and the early Church, resurrection meant a new embodied existence not unlike the one the dead person had before. What kind of body did St. Paul have in mind? That’s an important question and one we will examine in two weeks. For right now, however, it is critical for us to understand that St. Paul had in mind a new bodily existence and by definition a new world that would be compatible with those new bodies, the new creation, God’s new heavens and earth. This belief was distinctly contradictory to the rest of first-century pagan thinking about life after death. Almost no other culture believed in resurrection except for first-century Israel, and even there we find groups of people like the Sadducees who didn’t believe in the resurrection. That’s why they were sad, you see, and who can blame them?
This, then, was the Good News that St. Paul proclaimed, the twin and interrelated events that left the world changed forever. Prior to Christ’s death for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, human beings remained under the terrible but just judgment of God’s wrath on our sins. Because we are enslaved by Sin’s power and unable to free ourselves from it, we are catastrophically separated from God’s eternal love and trapped in our own worst self, whether or not we realize our predicament. That’s why our feelings about our guilt and sin can be notoriously fickle. As we have seen, however, once we become aware of God’s perfect holiness, the realization of our sinful nature in relation to God’s holiness makes us miserably aware of the chasm between the way we are and the way God intends us to be with no way out. That was our pre-crucifixion state. But because Christ has borne God’s judgment on our sins to spare us from it, and has broken Sin’s power over us, however imperfectly that might look in this mortal life, we now have new life and new hope. This is the turning point of human history. The game has changed forever. And when God raised Christ from the dead, he pointed us to our future existence—new bodily life in God’s new world where we will enjoy a restored relationship or communion with God that will be even better than our first human ancestors enjoyed with God in the garden. So the cross and resurrection need each other. The resurrection allowed the first apostles to see that Jesus was no failed Messiah who got whacked by the Romans. His death meant something and on a massive game-changing scale. Without the cross, there would be no resurrection because there would be no one to inhabit God’s new world, and God’s work to restore his good creation and creatures gone bad would be a failure. In other words, the cross made the resurrection necessary and the resurrection confirmed that the NT’s teaching about Jesus dying for our sins was true, just as the OT Scriptures had said. Christ’s death and resurrection were the penultimate act in God’s plan to restore his creation, the final act, of course, being our Lord’s return to consummate his perfect work. No other religion offers a breathtaking hope and vision like this. This is why we call it Good News, my beloved. Once we were lost. Now we are found. Once we were dead people walking. Now we are people with a real hope and a future. We deserve none of this, but it is ours for the taking. It is a gift of sheer grace on God’s part that flows from God’s loving heart for us, thanks be to God! Amen?
With so much at stake, no wonder St. Paul took pains to establish that Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a myth or fairy tale or some human fabrication. I don’t have time to explore all those things today. Suffice it to say that in talking about the eyewitnesses still living in his day, not to mention his own untimely encounter with the risen Christ, St. Paul establishes the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection. And our Christian faith has to be rooted in history because God’s old and new creations by definition are rooted in history. Real lives are changed, new creations come into existence everyday in the context of our individual and collective lives. Our future is living in a physical world with physical bodies. That’s history being played out.
So the question becomes for us, is this our faith? Is this the Good News we have in mind when we say we believe in the Good News, or is it something else? Only the Good News of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection has the power to save us because only in Christ do we find forgiveness of sins and freedom from Sin’s power. This is why baptism is so important for us because we believe that in our baptism we put on a new identity, Christ’s identity—all other identity politics are a farce and a sham—and in that identity with its attendant lifestyle, we find real hope, real life, and the beginning of a restored relationship with God the Father in whom we live and move and have our being, all made possible by the death and resurrection of the Lamb of God. My beloved, if this hope is not sufficient to sustain you in the darkest valleys of your life with the help of the Spirit, nothing can help you in this life. Nothing.
Our resurrection hope and belief will also affect our thinking on all kinds of moral issues in our world, from sexuality to abortion to our stewardship of the environment and God’s world. The resurrection signals that our bodies are important to God. He paid a terrible price to redeem them and his Spirit lives in our bodies. Therefore, contra to the lies being propagated that our bodies are ours and we can do with them what we want, St. Paul’s resurrection theology proclaims something radically different. For those of us who call ourselves Christian, our bodies are the Lord’s and we must care for them and live according to the Father’s creative purposes and intentions for us. That’s why we are concerned for the total welfare of others, not just their spiritual or emotional existence. That’s why, e.g., we feed the hungry, tend the sick, and clothe the naked. Jesus died for our sins to reclaim our bodies for God and help put God’s world back to rights, and we must not undo this by our selfish and myopic actions. We must also bury our dead in accordance with our belief in the resurrection of the body. How we choose to dispose of our mortal bodies is our last great opportunity to proclaim the gospel to a hurting and unbelieving world, even in our mortal death.
Think on these things regularly and frequently, my beloved. Talk about them among yourselves and support each other in proclaiming the Truth. Make the Good News yours by faith and let it heal and refresh you. We don’t have to whistle through the graveyard because we know our eventual stay there barring the Lord’s return before then is only temporary. And if you struggle to believe in the resurrection of the body, that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it reminds you that you worship a God who calls into existence things that don’t exist and gives life to the dead so that you should expect to be confronted by the unbelievable. Embrace it, as long as it is Scripturally based and time-tested. Like St. Paul, let your resurrection faith change you so that you proclaim the Good News to others. If you really truly love others, i.e., you want the best for them, then proclaim the only message that gives real life and hope. Never be ashamed of the Good News and never let Christ’s enemies inside or outside the Church shame you into silence over your faith. Allowing that to happen might indicate you have a useless faith and no one benefits from that, especially you. But if you proclaim your faith boldly to the world and act accordingly, respecting both your body and others’ along with God’s good creation in ways consistent with the Father’s will, you will find that the power of the Spirit will take your faith and make it a useful and lively one, however imperfectly you live it out. And that, my beloved, is truly Good News, now and for all eternity. Live out that Good News and let God use you to help change his world in the manner he intends. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.