Our text for this
morning comes from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15.
Paul is responding to a concern that has been raised in that community:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
you happen to catch Newsweek this week? The cover declares:
"The Decline and Fall of Christian America". Really? You
wouldn't know it here.
Even as they report in the article
there has been a decline of about 10% of those who affiliate with the
Christian faith in this country, I think it may be just a bit premature
to declare the "fall" of Christianity. Still, 76% profess to be
Christian in this country. And that compares to about 1.2% who are
Jewish, less than 1% that are Muslim. The article itself I think
is actually well-written, very thought-provoking. But I suspect
Newsweek is more interested in making sensational headlines for their
Easter edition than they are in making any serious claim about the fall
so they try to bolster their sales with a sensational cover during holy
week. That should come to us as no surprise. The surprise is
that a Palestinian Jew from the first century should be remembered at
all. And not only remembered, but is still making news some 2,000
years later. So even if you are a complete died-in-the-wool,
card-carrying skeptic, you have to admit that something
remarkable happened after Pilate had Jesus crucified.
That should have been the end of the
story. It always was before, there's a little rebellion among some
anti-Roman instigators and so they put up a few crosses, put their
leaders on them, and BOOM!, problem solved. Why should this time
be any different?
You see, Pilate knew very well that
there was nothing more shameful for any self-respecting Jew in that
period than to be publicly crucified. Who would ever think of
following a crucified Lord? It's absurd. Paul, earlier in
this same letter to the Corinthians said that it was a 'stumbling block
to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles'. It was unthinkable.
Kind of like thinking the Ducks would ever have a baseball team again
And in their first year after a 28-year absence that they would have any
hope of ever beating the national champion Oregon State Beavers.
See my tie? J
[Green & Yellow]
Any Blazer fans out there? Yeah,
yeah. If you're following the Blazers, you know what's happening.
After a number of years down in the cellar, problems both on the court
and off the court -- they called them the "Jail Blazers" -- second
youngest team in the NBA, and now they're in the playoffs and the new
slogan on their web site declares: "Rip City Uprising", with a
sub-theme of "Rise and Believe". I mean, talk about an Easter
message -- the dead coming to new life! Even in Portland
Well, you know there's one big
difference with the message we declare. We talk about Duck fans
and have a lot of fun with it. Whether it be in Mac Court, or
Autzen Stadium or now PK Park, the fans are the "6th man" in basketball,
or the "12th man" in football. They make a difference. But
the reality is, no matter how much you cheer for your favorite team, you
are still a spectator. You cannot score any points.
Folks, here's my Easter message in a
nutshell: Easter is not a spectator sport.
are not called to be spectators to the resurrection. Paul it makes
it explicitly clear: we are participants in it. It's
why I think, by the way, that there are no actual accounts of the
resurrection in scripture. There aren't. There's lots of
stories of the appearances of Jesus after the
resurrection. But no accounts of Jesus actually coming out of the
tomb. Because there are no spectators for Easter, only players.
There is 1 account of the actual
resurrection of Jesus coming out of the tomb, not found in our
scriptures, but (Bible students from Wednesday night) where is it found?
The Gospel of Peter. Say what? We've heard of Matthew, Mark,
Luke, and John. Some of heard of the Gospel of Thomas. The
Gospel of Peter is an 8th-century text of which there are fragments from
the 2nd century so we know that it is at least as old as the 2nd
century. Largely forgotten because it was not included in the New
Testament. And so it disappeared from history, re-surfaced a few
has a very interesting story in it that includes all kinds of mythical
elements, like a cross that moves and follows Jesus out of the tomb and
speaks. It's a text that I actually used for a sermon that I gave
when we moved our cross from Skinner's Butte overlooking the city to
Eugene Bible College. But that was another sermon for another
It does raise some interesting
questions about when we should take these stories literally and when
should we take them metaphorically. I don't think anyone in the
2nd century would have taken the story of a moving, speaking cross
literally. They understood it as a metaphor.
And so how do we know which is which?
Take, for instance, the wonderful story of the two followers of Jesus on
the road to Emmaus, the 24th chapter of Luke's gospel. After the
resurrection, they're confused. And a stranger joins them and
begins conversing with them about the events of the day, and they don't
understand. And this stranger begins to open their eyes to
understanding scripture in a new way. And so in good tradition of
Middle-Eastern hospitality, when the arrive at their destination they
invite him in to share the evening meal. And then, in the breaking
of the bread, their eyes are opened and they see Jesus. And poof!, he's
gone. He disappears.
Now how are we to take a story like
that? Did God suddenly make the body of Jesus disappear? I
suppose that's one possibility. Or, perhaps it's a vision they
have of Jesus. And don't ever say "just" a vision -- anyone who
has had an authentic vision from God knows that it is not 'just' a
vision, it is a very powerful, overpowering experience. Read again
the story of the conversion of Paul when he has that vision of Christ on
the road to Damascus. Powerful experience. So that's another
Or, maybe it's a parable. After
all, Jesus told parables. Maybe this is a parable the followers of
Jesus tell about him. A parable that talks about how Jesus
appears to us in the breaking of the bread. That's another
All of them valid interpretations.
And by the way, that's why
John Dominic Crossan says "Emmaus never happened, Emmaus always
happens". I love that. Now, don't go away from here and say
"Ah, the preacher said that story of Emmaus wasn't true". That's
not what I'm saying. It's more than history. It's a deeper
If you do say something like that, I
have a new technique. To help people learn, I tie them up to a
chair and then I play 20 years of sermons non-stop, until they get the
I call it "sermon-boarding" J.
Approved by the CIA -- if that's not torture, I don't know what is
So listen closely, here is what I am
saying: Christian faith has never been merely about history.
So much more than that. Even if we all agree on exactly what
happened, if we can get all of those stories from Luke and Matthew and
John that are so different, and we can combine them and we could all
agree which of those stories are factual accounts, which are metaphoric,
which are parables, and we could come to some agreement, still the
question would be: what do they mean?
let's not get hung up on what did or did not happen to the body of Jesus
and focus instead on what happens to the body of Christ, as Paul calls
the followers of Jesus. That's us. You see, the power of
Easter is not contained in what happened 2,000 years ago in a distant
land. The power of Easter is in what happens now.
The oldest accounts of the appearances
of Jesus are not found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Some of
you may know that they're found in the letters of Paul that Paul wrote
probably 20 years before the gospels were written. And scholars
are pretty much all in agreement that the first letter Paul wrote was
his first letter to the Thessalonians. So here are the very first
words written as far as we know about the resurrection:
14For since we
believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God
will bring with him those who have died.
And that's all Paul says about it.
I mean, c'mon Paul! Your first letter where you're talking about
the resurrection, surely you could have said more than this?!
Undoubtedly Paul did when he spoke to the Thessalonians, but he didn't
know this letter was going to end up in the Bible. So that's all
he wrote about it.
Scholars are pretty much also in
agreement that Paul's last letter he wrote was the letter to the Romans.
Paul had not yet been to Rome. Had not spoken to that community,
so we might expect him to say a little bit more about the resurrection.
And he does, about 4 times more -- four verses in Romans. In
chapter 6 we read:
Do you not know
that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were
baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with
him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was
raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too
might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we
have been united with him in a death like his, we will
certainly be united with him in a resurrection like
Do you hear our participation?
And then again in chapter 8, one verse:
If the Spirit of him
who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ
from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his
Spirit that dwells in you.
This is the way that we are called to
Paul's lengthiest treatment of the
subject is in the 15th chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians,
of which I read part already. Prior to that section is the only
place where he speaks of the appearances of Jesus. He says:
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,
4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in
accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas,
then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred
brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive,
though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the
apostles. 8Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared
also to me.
What I find most striking in that
listing of the appearances of Jesus is what's not there. Paul
evidently is not aware, or does not choose to pass on, the stories told
in the Gospels of the first appearances of Jesus to the women at
the tomb. In fact, Paul says almost nothing about many of the
appearances that we know so well -- like that story on the road to
Emmaus, or the wonderful story when Jesus cooks breakfast for the
disciples fishing on the lake of Galilee. Or the appearance to
Thomas. Or when he appears in a closed room. None of those
stories does Paul mention.
place of those stories, in place of Jesus coming and going, of eating
and walking, showing his wounds to Thomas, all those wonderful stories
to help us to see Jesus, to visualize the risen Christ, in place of
those, there is in the letters of Paul this one overwhelming reality
which can be verified by no one but experienced by everyone: in
the risen Christ, we find new life. The one who raised Christ from
the dead will give life to us through His spirit that dwells in us.
This is the meaning of Easter:
that we are called not to be spectators but participants. Those in
whom the spirit of the risen Christ dwells.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, author,
popular speaker, spiritual director, speaks of this reality. He
says: "To understand Jesus in a whole new way, we must first know
that Christ is not his last name. But his transformed identity
after the resurrection. Which takes humanity and all of creation
along its sweet path. Jesus became the Christ, and included us in
this new identity".
Now here comes the thing that I think
many Christians do not fully get: to die and rise with Christ, as
Paul speaks about it, is not some future event. It's not something
we do once at the end of our life. Rather, it's an on-going event.
It's something we do every day, in every moment, with every breath we
You see, it's not about getting into
heaven in the next life so much as it is about bringing heaven to earth
in this life. 'Living for Jesus a life that is true, striving to
please him in all that I do' as the gospel hymn says.
Paul calls Jesus the 'first fruits' of
the general resurrection. That's another way of saying that the
harvest has already begun. The new age of God, falsely understood
by some as the end of the world, the new age of God's reign -- what
Jesus calls the Kingdom of God -- here on earth as in heaven, that
happens through our participation in it.
In Christ, we are called to die to the
old way of the world. The way of empire, the way of violence, the
way of death. We are called to rise to the new way of God, the way
of light, and hope, and peace.
And I'm not talking about some vague
utopian ideal but about lives that are changed in concrete ways.
About the ways of the world that are transformed.
When someone breaks an addictive habit,
there is resurrection.
When a family is lifted out of poverty,
there is resurrection.
When George Mitchell led that peace
process that culminated in the signing of the peace accord for Northern
Ireland -- on Good Friday of all days, in 1998 -- there was resurrection
after decades of violence and killing.
When Desmond Tutu established the Truth
& Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, there was resurrection for
an entire people that experienced centuries of oppression.
When peace is made, there is
When the estranged are reconciled,
there is resurrection.
When the hungry are fed, there is
When the homeless get a house, there is
When a life is saved, there is
When the lost are found, there is
Decline? There is resurrection
all around us.
The life of the spirit is present,
dwells in us, when we live in Christ.
It's happened. It is happening
The only question is: will you be
a spectator, or a participant?
Our Lord is risen. Alleluia!