Sunday Sermon: How Can You Say Something Like That?

 |  Sunday Sermon

Text: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Series: “The Dawn of a New Day”

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was, as you probably know, a man of many interests. We’re all familiar with his interest in architecture and how Jefferson put that knowledge to use by designing Monticello, his plantation home outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. He was also a man of letters, evidenced by his authorship of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, as well as his role in founding the University of Virginia to be, in his words, “a public university designed to advance human knowledge, educate leaders, and cultivate an informed citizenry.” He was an archaeologist of sorts and a wine aficionado. However, you may not know that Jefferson also had a keen interest in theology and did a revision of the gospels he titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, better known as the Jefferson Bible.  But as a Deist, one who did not accept God’s intervention in world affairs, Jefferson could not accept the supernatural elements in the Bible and so he cut out all the miracles of Jesus and left intact only his moral teachings. Jefferson’s “Bible” closes with these words: “Now, in the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus and rolled a great stone at the mouth of the sepulcher and departed.” End of story.

Now, I cannot take issue with Jefferson over his architectural skills or his literary genius or his diplomacy or, as a Baptist preacher, I certainly cannot take issue with his taste in wine. But I can and must take issue with Jefferson with respect to his rejection of the supernatural in general and the resurrection in particular. For without the resurrection, our faith in Christ has nothing to stand on and isn’t something anyone should take seriously.

That last statement would have gotten a hearty “Amen” from the Apostle Paul, who in his first letter to the Corinthians dedicated an entire section to the topic of resurrection in which he argues forcefully that far from it being a needless doctrine that could be accepted or rejected, resurrection is the essential truth undergirding every aspect of our faith and without it, we’re only kidding ourselves and chasing after a pipe dream. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ,” writes Paul, “we are of all people most to be pitied.”

When we go back and look at what precipitated Paul’s teaching on resurrection, we see that the issue at stake in Corinth was how some in the church were discounting the relevance of resurrection for believers in Jesus. In other words, (and this is very important) no one in the church was saying that Jesus was not raised from the dead.  No one was denying Jesus’ resurrection. What some were questioning was whether the hope of resurrection extended to anyone else. And that is why Paul begins this part of his teaching on resurrection by raising a question, which comes off as more of a statement: “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”

I say that comes off as more of a statement from Paul because he actually knows where that belief is coming from. It’s coming from the prevailing culture of Corinth and the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul, a belief which is 180 degrees opposite to a biblical view of resurrection. Corinth was a Greek community; it wasn’t a Jewish city. Greek philosophy would have been something in which most of the church had been brought up to believe. Consequently, when it came to the afterlife, what the Corinthians had been taught was that the body was nothing more than a container for the soul, which the soul is constantly endeavoring to leave behind. But Paul, having been raised a Jew and having been trained as a Pharisee, believed in the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul. And as a Christian, one who experienced the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul didn’t believe that God had only raised up the spirit of Jesus; Paul believed that God raised up the body of Jesus, which as we read in the Gospels was able to be seen and to be touched. 

Later in this chapter, Paul will go into greater detail as to the nature of the resurrected body, but for now, in this part of the chapter that’s before us, Paul wants the Corinthians to know that such a notion of the afterlife doesn’t apply only to Jesus, it also applies to all who believe in him. Give up that belief, Paul says, and here is what you're left with: (1) You’re left with a preaching that lacks substance and an empty faith to go along with it; (2) You’re left with a God you can’t count on to show faithfulness to those who trust in Him in the face of their adversity, if He didn’t raise Jesus in the face of his adversity; (3) You’re left with all no certainty that you have been forgiven of our sins; in fact, you’re still in a condition of sin in which you remain far short of the glory of God; and (4) You’re left with no hope beyond this life, which amounts to no hope in this life as well. In short, you’re left with a belief that cannot sustain you when life comes at you with full force.

I read Paul’s words and I hear the urgency in Paul’s voice and I’m reminded of that most powerful parable Jesus used to conclude his Sermon on the Mount – the parable of the two men who built their houses on very different foundations, one who built his house upon the rock and the other who built his house upon the sand. And when the rain came and the streams rose and the winds blew and beat against the two houses, guess which one was left standing when the storm passed? It was the man whose house was built upon the rock, because he built it on a foundation that could withstand the fury that was certain to come his way. 

So, what about you? What kind of foundation have you built your life upon, and where does the importance of the Risen Jesus play into that? One week removed from Easter Sunday, are you still excited about the possibilities the good news of resurrection holds for you? Are you still emboldened by the assurance your experience with the Risen Jesus has given you? Are you still able to face your disappointments and your defeats because you know that they will not have the last word in your life, but that the Risen Jesus will?

There’s much about the state of Christian faith today that troubles me. However, I don’t think we’re at a place where the challenge Paul faced with the Corinthians is a challenge we face today. I don’t think that people today accept the fact of Jesus’ resurrection while denying the possibility of their own. I think our challenge is a different one and in reality a much more serious one. The challenge we face today is that while on one hand we accept the concept of resurrection, on the other hand we act as if it has no real bearing on everyday life. Our challenge is that we want to hold on to the possibility of our resurrection to be with Jesus whenever our life on this earth is over, but in the meantime, we want our life to be unchanged and undisturbed. But in the end, we end up in the same place as the Corinthians. We end up with a faith that can’t sustain us when the hard times of life come our way. So, in effect, we “waste” Easter!

That notion of “wasting Easter,” reminds me of a story Fred Craddock told. Craddock, a preaching professor at Emory over in Atlanta, told of a church in Georgia that had an Easter tradition, one shared by many Christian churches in the Easter season, including ours. Each year, on Easter Sunday, this church would decorate their sanctuary with 500 Easter lilies. Lilies were everywhere. They were in the windows.  They were across the platform. They were arranged on the chancel in the shape of the cross. Everywhere you looked on Easter morning you saw Easter lilies. And of course, each of those lilies had been given by members of the church in memory or in honor of a loved ones. You pay $10 and you get a lily, and if you chose to take it home after the service, fine, but if you didn’t want to, the church would either take the ones left over to homebound members or dispose of them. Most people chose to let the church do what they wanted with them.

And that plan worked fine, until one Easter Sunday after the service a dear lady went back into the Sanctuary to pick up a lily. As she explained, she had an aunt in the nursing home and if it was OK, she’d pick one out to take to her. Before anyone could stop her, she took one of the lilies out of the window next to where she was standing and in a loud voice that could be heard in the parking lot, she cried out in horror and dismay, “Oh my soul! It’s plastic!” Well, you can imagine what happened next. People came rushing back into the Sanctuary and began checking out the Easter lilies, only to discover that every last lily was plastic.

There was a board meeting called for the next night. The pastor and the chairman of the board felt as if they were facing a firing squad, as one church member after another shot questions at them. “Just how long has this been going on?” “Where do you hide 500 plastic Easter lilies?” And the one question asked repeatedly, “What happened to all those contributions?” It’s always about the money; is it not?

The board chair did his best to explain that the money had not been used for dishonest purposes. Each year half of it went into the general fund of the church and the other half went to mission causes the church supported around the world. And then the pastor spoke up, which more times than not always adds fuel to the fire when a congregation is upset. “Yes, and do you know what usually happens to real Easter lilies after the service? Most people take them home and water them for a few days until the blooms fall off, and then they are thrown away. So, we thought that was a terrible waste, and you wouldn’t want to waste Easter; would you?”

Right question, wrong application. You don’t waste Easter with investing in that which is real. But you do waste it when you deny it by acting as if it has no bearing for you.  The Corinthians made that mistake. Thomas Jefferson made that mistake. There’s no need for you to repeat it. Instead, there’s every reason for you to give yourself to it, and to do so with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. There’s every reason for you to say, “Because Jesus lives, I can face tomorrow.” There’s every reason to say, “Don’t pity me. Christ the Lord is risen today, and because of it I have strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”