Of first importance

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An Easter meditation on 1 Corinthians 15

By Jim Holm

Tomb

 

Easter is, without question, the most important day of the entire year. It beats your birthday or anniversary, 4th of July or Mother’s Day. Easter is even more important than Christmas, though Advent often receives more attention in our church festivities than Holy Week.

Easter is the day that makes our Christian faith possible. It is the day that made the church possible. It is the day that validates our existence as humans; it makes our lives meaningful in the most ultimate way.

The apostle Paul records his longest Easter sermon in 1 Corinthians 15.  From the very first line, he tells his readers that this is “gospel,” good news.  He writes, he says, to remind them of the gospel. It is a gospel (vv. 1-2) with a past which they have received, a present in which they are standing and a future by which they are being saved.

In other words, this gospel covers every aspect of their lives. That’s why Paul calls it “of first importance” (v. 3). Of all the things God did, of all the events in world history, of all the people that ever walked the stage of life, this event is the most important. If they remember nothing else of what he tells them in his letter, this they must not forget.

 

Died, buried, risen

Here’s how Paul describes that gospel. First, “Christ died for our sins.” The gospel is anchored in history. Somebody died; somebody had to die. Sin leads to death and the Scriptures say that a death sentence must fall somewhere.

Not only does Christ die, “he was buried.” This is important. Paul’s readers, who had not been there when it happened, need to know that Jesus really died. Jesus did not faint; he did not pass out; he didn’t play dead. His disciples didn’t go to the wrong tomb; they didn’t imagine the whole thing. He was buried.

But Jesus is “raised on the third day.” Here is the center of the story. He came to life; he lived. This is of first importance. The writer goes on to say that this risen Christ appears to many people. They were not hallucinating; they were not confused; they were not mistaken. Finally, Jesus was seen alive by the author of this letter, Paul himself.  This is of first importance.

 

But why?

But why? Why is Jesus’ rising from death so important? Why not just enjoy his teachings and profit from them? Why not just read his stories—there are good, moral lessons there. Why not just put Jesus alongside Confucius, the Buddha, Mohammed and other great religious leaders? Why does Jesus’ death and resurrection top them all?  Paul answers in the rest of the chapter, beginning in verse 12, by making a series of incontrovertible factual statements.

Fact 1: If Christ was not raised, you are wasting your time (v. 14).  Give up on Jesus; he is not a great teacher or a moral example. You’ve been lied to, and all the sermons you’ve heard were a waste of time. Instead of celebrating at Easter, we should be holding a funeral. If Christ has not been raised, let’s stop pretending.

Fact 2: If Christ has not been raised, you have believed in something useless and “your faith is vain” (v. 14).  Noah spent 100 years building a boat because he believed in something. Moses led a grumbling people for 40 years in the desert because he believed in something. Paul gave his life to persecution because he believed in something, and countless people since have done the same thing. And it was all a waste of time, all empty, hollow, useless—if Christ has not been raised.

Fact 3: If Christ has not been raised, we have made a liar out of God (v. 15).  We have said God raised Jesus, which God did not do if Jesus has not been raised. This is a terrible lie, and it is placed at the spot where people are most vulnerable—at the center of their lives where they are looking for meaning.  We tell them how to find God through Jesus, and it is all smoke and mirrors.

Fact 4: If Christ has not been raised, all our Christian visions, values and virtues have accomplished nothing. We are going to die as sinful people. We are going to hell; there is no hope. As Sartre wrote, “There is no exit.”

Fact 5: Everyone is gone forever (v. 18). This is hard to believe, but the news gets worse. All our deceased relatives, all of them, are gone forever. Mother, father, sister, daughter, son—they are gone. There is no resurrection. I have stood by caskets many times in my ministry, offering words of hope. But there is no hope if Christ has not been raised.

Fact 6: We have wasted our lives. This is the worst news of all (v. 19). We have wasted our lives. We are pitiful. We gave ourselves to something that is empty; we built our life on a hope which does not exist. And we are to be pitied more than other people because we should know better. We should have recognized that this whole thing is a fraud, because we knew that people could not rise from the dead.

What an incredibly dark, dismal and depressing picture. What if the chapter had ended there? Thank God it didn’t. Note the first word of verse 20 is “but.” This conjunction reveals a breath-taking answer to the depression of the previous section. Thank God we don’t have to remain there. Thank God we don’t have to live lives of hopeless desperation.  “But, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead” (my highlight). 

 

One more fact

Paul has been listing facts in the previous verses. I’ve summarized six of these facts. But there is one more fact. This fact negates, cancels out, reverses all the other facts Paul has enumerated. This is the fact: Christ has been raised from the dead.  He is alive; he is alive! 

Not only that, he is the “firstfruits.” Christ is only the first one to rise from the dead, never to die again. There will be a whole lot of people following Christ into this resurrection life. In fact, from the moment of his resurrection, our vocabulary changes.  You can see that in verse 20. The word “dead” is changed to “sleep.”  At the instance of Jesus’ resurrection, death turns into sleep. Jesus has risen, and even the way we talk about dying needs a renewal.

One more thing—well, actually two. Jesus’ resurrection, which we celebrate this Easter, makes two things inevitable. These two things must and will happen. They cannot not happen, and they cannot be stopped from happening. 

1. The resurrection of Jesus changes the course of the world, the destiny of the universe. Jesus’ resurrection puts in motion something which cannot be stopped. First, the resurrection means that the inevitable process of death, which began with Adam, is reversed by the inevitable process of life which comes in Jesus Christ (vv. 21-22).  Since God raised Christ from the dead, all who follow Christ will be raised from the dead. This will happen; you can bank on it. There is no doubt about it.

There is more.  When believers are raised from the dead, the end of evil will come (v. 24). Evil will be annihilated, and Jesus will hand the universe, purged forever of darkness, over to his Father. Friends, there is power in this resurrection. We need never surrender to the forces of darkness. There is power, wonder-working power.

We have not yet seen all that is evil destroyed, and we may not live to see it. But the inevitable has begun. And it cannot be stopped any more than you can stand on a railroad track and stop a speeding locomotive by putting up your hand and crying, “Halt!”

2. The resurrection of Jesus means death itself will be destroyed (v. 26).  It is not just that things and people won’t die anymore; it is that death itself will cease to exist.  There won’t even be any possibility of death.

Jesus was sent to earth on a mission, to reclaim the rule and reassert the sovereignty of God, to bring in the kingdom of God. All of creation will submit to our heavenly Father. And when that task is completed, Jesus will hand the universe over to the Father and say, “Mission accomplished.” This is inevitable. It will happen because of the resurrection.

This day, this Easter Day, makes all the difference in the world.  It is of first importance.

Jim Holm is the pastor of the Faith Community Congregation, one of four congregations of Butler MB Church in Fresno, Calif.

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