Resurrection 1 – The Church’s Message
The first in a series of three sermons preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
So, this week’s Gospel reading has provided us with a fishy tale about Jesus. After using his boat as a pulpit from which to address those on the shoreline, Jesus persuaded Simon Peter and his partners to throw out their nets one more time. The immediate result was a catch which brought the boats to the brink of sinking. The next thing was that Simon Peter, aware of his sinfulness, recognised that Jesus was all that he was not, so pleaded with him to go away! The upshot, though, was that it was Peter, and his mates who went away – away with Jesus, seeking to catch people, not fish.
That’s a great story but what has it got to say to us today? Well, here’s a generalisation with some truth to it: when you want to learn about Jesus, go to the Gospels. When you want to figure out how a church should respond to Jesus, go to the New Testament letters, including those written by Paul. I want to talk now about what Paul says in one chapter of one of his letters: the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the congregation in the Greek town of Corinth. Maybe a letter written to Christians in one town located near the coast might have something to say to another one.
Why follow Jesus and go fishing for others? In part, of course, we follow Jesus because his teaching and ministry speak to us; what he taught and did provide the example for how we should live our lives. But why Jesus? Why not some other laudable teacher? There’s a hint of the ‘why not’ in Simon Peter’s response, which seems to have little to do with what he heard Jesus say to the crowd. Rather, Peter’s response – ‘go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man’ – seems to be about something ‘other’ in Jesus; that Jesus was not one good human being whose example you might choose to follow, but something quite different. And that thought takes us from Peter to Paul.
‘I should remind you, brothers and sisters,’ writes Paul, ‘of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand … for I handed on to you as of the 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 and the Twelve.’ (15:1, 3-5)
Being followers of Jesus, we go fishing for people because the Jesus-story we share is not only the story of his life and ministry. It is also the story of his death and resurrection. This places Jesus into a category way beyond being one good example among others that we might choose to follow. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians, ‘I should remind you’ … concerning Christ’s death and resurrection. So, today I want to remind you of the reliability of that message, of the content of that message, and something that says about God.
First the reliability about the Paul’s message about the death and resurrection of Jesus. He writes, ‘I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.’ (15:3) Jesus was crucified somewhere around 33 AD. Paul’s ‘road to Damascus’ experience likely came four or five years after that; say, 38 AD. Paul is now writing to the congregation in Corinth about his time with them in about 50 AD. Back then, he says, he was handing on to them what he had in turn received. This is technical language, used to describe the careful handing on of an established tradition. Paul employs similar language earlier in the letter when he talks about institution of the Lord’s Supper: ‘for I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you …’ (11:23)
In other words, what Paul shared in Corinth about the death and resurrection of Jesus was information previously discussed and agreed as a shared statement of faith, possibly less than five years after the events of the first Easter, almost certainly within a decade. This shared statement of belief is what Paul had passed on to the church at Corinth in AD 50. We have been taken all the way back not just to Paul’s letters (which probably predate the Gospels) but also to the church before Paul ever came along, This is the shared, tested witness of those who were there, and it has reliability.
And this reliable witness has a specific content: ‘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 and the Twelve.’ (15:3-5) That’s the earliest church’s statement on the matter. Then, it’s thought, perhaps Paul added the list of other appearances: ‘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 and all the apostles.’ (15:6-7) Finally, says Paul, the risen Christ appeared to him.
So here’s the content. Jesus was dead and buried. He was raised from death on the third day. There are numerous witnesses to this, and some of them, at the time of writing are still alive, and so available for interview. These include those who were with Jesus at the lakeside, such as Simon, known as Peter or Cephas. Others include the Twelve and those associated with them and called, ‘apostles.’ There was an appearance to a crowd of hundreds. There was an appearance to Jesus’s brother, James, who had not been one of his followers prior to that experience, but by now was a major figure, if not the main leader of the church.
So this statement of faith, which Paul shared, and to which he made some additions, was reliable; agreed from the earliest times. Also, it had content, saying that Jesus had truly died but was now truly alive, and that this assertion was backed up by witnesses. Then third, in addition to its reliability and its content, this statement also said something about God: that Christ’s death for our sins was a gracious action by God. In fact, the very first part of the statement is that Christ died for our sins: ‘I handed on to you as the of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins.’ (15:3)
Now we could spend a lot more time today unpacking the word, ‘sins’, but let’s not go there, unless you have all brought your sandwiches along with you. Today, let’s just think of sin as a condition which imprisons us, leading to be not the people we know we should be; preventing this world – social, economic, ecological – from flourishing as it should. And from its beginning the witness of the church is that Christ’s death was to deal with sin. And it was a gracious act from God i.e. it flowed from God’s generosity, not form our deserving it. Paul recognised this from out of his own experience: ‘I am the least of the apostles … because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain.’ (15:9, 10)
So then, Jesus Christ is not like other laudable figures to whom we might look for ideas about how to lead out lives, though his teaching and ministry does offer that. As Peter sensed and as Paul stated, Jesus is more than that. In and through the death of Jesus, God has acted to deal with the sin that weighs down the world and the lives of each one of us. This is something far beyond any other human teacher or leader offers. It’s why we respond to Jesus, and not someone else. This belief originated with those who were closest to Jesus and to the events around Easter. Their witness is reliable, it has content, it tells us that God is a gracious God. It’s a faith that’s worth holding and sharing with others; it’s worth taking with you when you go fishing.
Of course, not only did Christ die, but Christ was raised on the third day (15:4). What might be the implications of that? Find out next week, same time, same place, same preacher – and this sermon, part 2!