As I was looking at the hymns for this morning, I was struck that many of the ones that echoed the themes of our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth were in the “Easter” section of the hymn books. I had a bit of a question mark in my head. How do we feel about singing “Easter” hymns at the wrong time of year? Somehow at Easter, when we’ve had Lent and all the drama of Passion Week leading up to Easter Sunday, and the daffodils are out properly, it feels appropriate to come and sing joyfully about resurrection and new life. But what about the middle of a cold and stormy February?
I wonder if some of this wasn’t what the trouble was at Corinth.
On that first Easter Day Jesus friends and followers didn’t know what had hit them. It took them a little while to get their heads round it, and really believe what had happened. But, within a couple of weeks, there were so many independent eye witnesses of visits from the resurrected Jesus that they couldn’t stop telling people about it. In some senses it was easy to believe, because it was so recent, and there were so many people around who had shared the experience, first hand.
But now, in Corinth, people were beginning to wonder about this whole resurrection thing. They had heard about it, and they may even met a few people who claimed to have seen Jesus after his resurrection, but the vast majority hadn’t experienced it for themselves, and perhaps it was too difficult to hold on to. This may have been particularly difficult in Corinth, a Greek city where the dominant religions and philosophies did not believe in life after death or resurrection.
We catch a glimpse of this in Acts 17, when Paul goes to Athens, a similar Greek city. Paul met with a group of local philosophers at their discussion group, and spends some time telling them about Jesus, and they’re listening fine until he says, “God has given proof of this to everyone by raising Jesus from the dead”. When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘we want to hear you again on this subject’”
The idea of resurrection was completely new to their way of thinking. Some of them rejected it out of hand, and others wanted to hear more, but none of them accepted it initially.
The Corinthian Christians were a long way physically from Jerusalem, where Jesus’ resurrection happened, they were a long way from it in time, and they were a long way from it culturally. No wonder they were struggling to hold on to their faith in it. No wonder they were struggling to sing resurrection hymns.
For Paul this is a critical issue. It has to be addressed. It can’t be allowed to go on. He insists that resurrection is a reality, and not just at Easter, or just in Jerusalem, or just if we find it easy to believe. Resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith.
He identifies three key problems if there is no resurrection, and especially if Jesus were not raised from the dead, which he lists in verses 16-19.
Firstly, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
Secondly, “Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”
And thirdly, “we are of all most to be pitied.”
Let’s take a moment to look at each of those in turn.
Why does Paul say that if Christ has not been raised, we are still in our sins? Earlier on in this chapter, in verse three, Paul himself writes “Christ died for our sins.” We often talk about Jesus dealing with our sins on the cross, where we died. We talk about the sacrifice that he made for us, the consequences of sin that he bore for us. Why isn’t Jesus’ death enough, why isn’t the cross enough to free us from our sins? Why is the resurrection necessary? Paul gives us a hint later on in the chapter, in verses 56-57.
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In our natural state we are separated from God by our disobedience and sinfulness. God is the source of all life, and if we are separated from the source of something, we run out of it, and so when we die, we die. Jesus died on the cross to deal with that consequence of our sin, to reconnect us to God, so that we could live. His death did that, and his resurrection demonstrated that he had done it. His return to life is the proof of his victory, on our behalf. Now, if we trust him, if we are in Christ, when we die, we live on, connected to God, the source of our life.
So Paul’s second point is linked to his first one. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, if he did not only bear death but beat death, then those who have died in Christ already haven’t lived on. They have perished. Those we have known, those we have loved, who have gone before us, most recently Roger Griffiths, if Jesus was not raised from the dead then all those things that were said and sung at his funeral in the faith that he is now with his Lord and ours, they were all untrue. If Jesus wasn’t raised then Roger has perished.
No wonder Paul builds into his third point, that if Jesus were not raised then we are to be pitied more than anyone. We’d be building our lives, our hopes, our future on nothing. We’d be trusting in something that is not trustworthy, that in the end will let us down. This is no way to live, and certainly no way to die.
That’s all a bit sobering isn’t it. But I also find it immensely encouraging. Just think about the flip side of the coin for each of Paul’s points.
Because of the resurrection of Jesus, I am not dead in my sins. I still do sin, I am still disobedient to God, but I am forgiven. Jesus did bear my sins on the cross and he beat my death by his resurrection. Sin has no power or authority over me. I am free to live in forgiveness, as one who is forgiven and as one who forgives. I am alive in Christ, and will continue to live in Christ beyond the death of this body.
Because of the resurrection of Jesus, those who have died in Christ, live in him. Roger is alive in Christ. Although the pain of parting and the grief at the absence of a loved one is still there, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We can have an assurance that those we have loved that we see no more, who are in Christ, live on.
Unlike the Corinthian culture, it seems to me that I meet quite a lot of people who do believe in some kind of life after death. People who believe that their loved ones have become stars or angels, who leave little white feathers to reassure and comfort those left behind. Now, I am not so insensitive as to challenge these beliefs when people’s grief is fresh, but it seems to me that these beliefs have very little foundation in contrast to the foundation there is to the Christian hope of resurrection.
Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we are to be envied more than anyone. Because of the resurrection of Jesus we can live without fear of death, without anxiety, looking forward to the fullness of God’s Kingdom. We are daughters and sons of the most high God, adopted into God’s family, filled with God’s Spirit, living as ambassadors of God’s kingdom. We are royalty, and so is anyone else who wants to be.
I am encouraged by these things because I do believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. I think that this is a reasonable belief. There is good evidence for it and no objections to it that I find credible. There are independent eye witness accounts that we can read and weigh up for ourselves. There is the explosive growth of the early church. There are the number of Jesus’ early followers who chose to die for their faith rather than recant their witnessing of the resurrection. There is the sheer number of people who saw Jesus alive again.
I haven’t got time this morning to go through all the arguments for and against, but if you’re not convinced, then I suggest that you do some research, this is not an optional extra to the Christian faith, it is central. One of the best known books on this is called, “The Case for Christ”. It was written by Lee Strobel, who was an atheist investigative journalist, angry about his wife’s conversion to Christianity. He decided that the best way to convince his wife that she had made a mistake was to prove that the resurrection didn’t happen. As he researched and considered the evidence, rather than disproving her faith, he came to believe that the most rational explanation of the evidence was that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and became a Christian himself as a result.
You see, we are even further away from first century Jerusalem in time, in distance, and in culture than even the people of Corinth, and we might struggle to hold on to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, but we are still Easter people. The Christian hope of resurrection is founded in the actual, real, witnessed, resurrection of Jesus. And so we are free to sing resurrection hymns, not just on Easter Sunday, but every day, even in the middle of February.