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“A Christian Home”

Date: May 13, 2024/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

May 12, 2024 (7th Sunday of Easter)

Our Last Enemy

1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-58

I was in my first or second year of college when, just before Easter, I became aware that there are New Testament scholars who believe Jesus was not actually raised from the dead.  I didn’t know any of the details, and didn’t know the names of any of those scholars, but I’d heard this little snippet of information as I went about my everyday business.

That’s been more than thirty years ago now; nowadays I know that two scholars whose work I like and respect, John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg—whom I had the honor of meeting when I was working at the council of churches in Portland—are among those scholars who don’t believe Jesus was actually bodily raised from the dead.  Crossan, in fact, got into a lot of hot water when his books on Jesus[1] came out where he said that Jesus’ body probably ended up just like anybody else’s who was crucified:  left hanging on the cross to be picked at by carrion birds until it fell off, then buried in a shallow grave right there at the foot of the cross, and then, perhaps, dug up and eaten by wild dogs.  That is hard to hear, and it isn’t any wonder that there was quite a public outcry.

Like I said, I do respect Crossan’s work, especially the book on Paul that he co-wrote with Marcus Borg (whose views on the Resurrection are considerably more nuanced than Crossan’s, so much so that I can’t really do them justice here).[2]  But this is one thing I just can’t agree with him on.  My opinions about a lot of things have changed over the years, but about this I have not changed one iota since college.

As far as I’m concerned, Paul has it right:  if Jesus wasn’t raised, then we might as well all go home.  If he wasn’t raised we are wasting our time here.  If he wasn’t raised we ought to be pitied for devoting our lives to a delusion.  But he was, and so we are not deluded.

Remember that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians long before any of the Gospels were written, so what he says about Jesus’ resurrection is the earliest account we have in the New Testament.  It’s simple—so simple, in fact, that many scholars see it as a creed of sorts, or what in Greek would be called kerygma—and he says he gave the Corinthians the testimony he had in turn received.  So here, perhaps 20 years before the first Gospel was written, it’s already tradition being taught to all Christians.

“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, …he was buried, and…he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”

And just in case anybody wanted to double-check, Paul mentions several eyewitnesses, including Peter—whom Paul consistently calls by the Aramaic version of his nickname, Cephas—and the rest of the twelve;[3] many other disciples and apostles,[4] and Jesus’ own brother James.  You don’t have to take my word for it, he says.  Jesus appeared to me later (and in a different way, as we see in Acts),[5] but there were plenty of people who saw him right after that Sunday, the third day after he died.  You can ask one of them.

We, unfortunately, don’t have the option to go ask one of them.  But for me it’s enough to know that at one time there were eyewitnesses to the Resurrection, and they were out there telling what they knew, regardless the cost.

In between today’s readings, Paul makes the same case I would: 

if the Resurrection of Jesus didn’t really happen, then why did Paul and others risk their necks to proclaim the gospel?

People don’t, as a general rule, put their lives on the line for the sake of a lie.[6]  Not only that, but with so many of the earliest Christians being arrested, beaten and even killed for their beliefs, if the Resurrection hadn’t actually happened somebody, somewhere, would have cracked under the pressure and said so.

We Disciples have always been people of slogans, and we have lots of them.

“We are Christians only, but not the only Christians.”

“Christian unity is our polar star.”

“Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”

“No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no law but love.”

This one is one I cherish, even though it is not unique to Disciples:  “In essentials unity, in opinions liberty, in all things love.”[7]  As we live out that slogan, we discover that the polarization that is happening in the world around us doesn’t have a place in the church—Paul would absolutely agree with this, based on everything he says in 1 Corinthians.  Christians can have different political views, different understandings about nonessential matters of faith, and still be united at the Lord’s table.  This is the reason our most recent past General Minister, Sharon Watkins, described the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.”  We offer an alternative to tribalization, to dividing ourselves up by our beliefs about one thing or another and building walls to keep ourselves separate from one another.

But as the slogan says, we need to be united in the essentials.[8]  The only thing we are required ot say we believe in order to be welcomed into this fellowship is the “Good Confession”:  “I believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and I accept him as my Lord and Savior.”  Beyond that we don’t necessarily acknowledge a lot of essentials—but I would personally argue that believing in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is essential.  Indeed, it looks to me like it would actually be hard to affirm the Good Confession without believing Jesus was raised.

It doesn’t say, “I believe Jesus was the Christ”; it says, “I believe Jesus is the Christ.”  If he died and stayed dead, how could we say that?  And how could he be our Lord, the one to whom we owe allegiance and to whom we look as teacher and leader, if he were not alive?

But Paul would remind us that just believing something, just having it straight in our minds, is not the point.  For Paul, our beliefs affect our behavior.  If you believe the wrong things about Jesus, you won’t live in the right way.  If, for instance, we see Jesus just as a wise man who taught wise things, we might look to him for words of wisdom, but we probably won’t be willing to devote our lives to him.

If we don’t believe in resurrection—not just Jesus’ Resurrection but the resurrection of those who belong to him—we will not necessarily be able to live the kind of fearless life that Peter, Paul, and so many other Christians have lived, down through history up to this very day.  If we do believe in it, then we really don’t have a lot to fear from those who would make our lives difficult—or, in some times and places, end our lives—because in Christ’s Resurrection God has begun a victory over death that Jesus will one day make complete.

As Paul said in so many places, because he followed Jesus Christ and did what he believed Christ had called him to do—taking the gospel to the Gentiles—he was beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, snakebit, and run out of an awful lot of towns.  But in the midst of all that, Paul was filled with joy, because he knew, as he told the Philippians, “…to me, living is Christ and dying is gain”;[9] and the Romans, “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”[10]

What we believe about the essentials matters!  It matters because it influences how we live.

If somebody doesn’t believe Jesus was raised, then there isn’t a whole lot of point in their getting up and coming to church on Sunday morning, unless they just like to sing hymns and their friends are here.  If a person doesn’t believe Jesus was raised, then they won’t have the kind of hope we Christians bear witness to at funerals—hope that our loved ones, like Jesus, will be raised, and we’ll be united with them again for all eternity.  Of course we grieve when we have lost someone, but as Paul tells the Thessalonians, our grief doesn’t lead to despair as it does when someone has no hope of resurrection to eternal life.[11]

But what we believe about resurrection matters beyond just Sundays and at funerals.  If you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, as Paul said, “the first fruits of those who have died,” how do you live your life?  How do you do your job?  How do you vote?  How do you use your time, your skills, your money?  How do you walk?  How do you talk?  How do you treat your friends, your family, your acquaintances—even your enemies?

Do you believe Jesus was raised from the dead?  It matters!

[1] Crossan has written two books on the historical Jesus, and I’m not sure in which one he made this statement; both came out after I heard about scholars who didn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection, so I must have heard it first somewhere else.  See The Historical Jesus:  The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991) and Jesus:  A Revolutionary Biography (1994), both published by HarperCollins.

[2] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul:  Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon (HarperCollins, 2009).

[3] Notice he says “the twelve,” not “the eleven,” as Matthew and Luke say after recounting Judas Iscariot’s fate.  Paul may not have known the tradition about Judas’ death after betraying Jesus.

[4] We tend to use these terms interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing.  A disciple is a student or apprentice; an apostle is one who is sent out to do ministry in Jesus’ name.

[5] Acts 9:1-9; 22:1-11; 26:12-23.

[6] “The Long Black Veil,” originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell, notwithstanding, as it’s a work of fiction.

[7] The slogan originally ended with “in all things charity,” which rhymes better; but the word charity has a different meaning now than it used to have.

[8] That’s assuming, of course, that we can agree on precisely what is essential; the divisions within the Campbell-Stone movement, it can be argued, were over nonessentials like whether musical instruments belong in worship (which is a lot more complicated matter than it appears to be).

[9] Philippians 1:21.

[10] Romans 14:8.

[11] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.