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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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Easter Sunday

I Corinthians 15:1-11

Resurrection Living

New Religious News

This has been an incredible month for religious news. I cannot remember so many announcements and discoveries were made that totally changed my perspective on the faith. The release of the recovered version of the ancient manuscript entitled the Gospel of Judas completely altered my views about the relationship of Jesus to his disciples. Through my reading of the four gospels, I always thought that Jesus was closest to Peter, Andrew and John and that Judas was a traitor. I do not know why I would believe these four traditional accounts but thanks to this newly translated gospel that bears the name of Judas, I now know that Judas was Jesus' most trusted disciples. He was also the only one who really understood what Jesus wanted. Judas was actually honoring a request made by Jesus himself when he conspired with the Jewish authorities. While I was still digesting this startling new information, I watched a TV special on a recently released book, The Jesus Dynasty. The author is a professor in North Carolina and has been studying the historical documents and doing some archaeological research. During the broadcast I learned seven new things about Jesus:

  • Mary was not only NOT a perpetual virgin, but bore children from three men;

  • Jesus' real father, was not the Holy Spirit nor Joseph, but a Roman soldier named Panthera;

  • Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, actually I already new that;

  • The "beloved" disciple wasn't John (as traditionally thought), or Mary Magdalene (as "The Da Vinci Code" suggests), but James, Jesus' brother.

  • Jesus' brothers are among the twelve disciples -- though they weren't really disciples, but the regional managers, the "cabinet," of a provisional government Jesus was fashioning.

  • "Rather than a church, or a new religion, Jesus sought to establish a royal dynasty from his own family that would regain David's throne;

  • Jesus' tomb indeed was empty on Easter morning not because of the resurrection. According to this North Carolinian scholar, his own followers had exhumed his body and reburied him, in the family tomb outside the city of Jerusalem.

My head was still spinning with all of this new information, when I read that in a recent survey, most Americans do not believe in a resurrection of their bodies when they die. In some ways this does not surprise me. Many of those surveyed were not church goers but what did surprise me was only slightly more than half of the church goers said that they believe in a bodily resurrection. I thought to myself, well if almost half of the people who go to church do not believe in a bodily resurrection, how can I be so sure that there will really be one?

The True Believer

I hope you can hear my tongue-in-check tone as I recite all these new and startling revelations. They are merely further attempts to supplant the traditional teaching with a message more palatable to the enlightened mind and advocates for a less restrictive moral code. I do not at all feel threatened by these recent revelations. The translation of the Gospel of Judas provides an additional glimpse into the theology previously known as Gnosticism. James Tabor's is very creative in his interpretation of the archaeological record and through his efforts we may indeed find more factual evidence about Jesus and his family. However, until he restricts his writing to the rule of scholarly research, I would suggest that librarians shelve the book under religious fiction. However, as a pastor, I am deep troubled by the reaction by most lay people. Rather, than read the articles or listen to the TV broadcasts with an analytical mind, most people just say, “Well, that's one person's opinion.” or, “Fact can easily be interpreted or misinterpreted to support any position.” This is a lazy or narrow minded approach. It resembles the “The Bible says it, so I believe it.” mind set. It is equivalent to putting on blinders to avoid dealing with difficult arguments. The Apostle Paul would question whether this person even has faith that would lead to salvation.

This is difficult for us to understand in the 21st century. We believe that we are entitled to salvation and eternal life simple because we are born in a land that once considered itself a Christian nation. We assume that our heavenly reward is an automatic gift that God gives to everyone, However, notice what Paul says to the Corinthians,

1Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:1-2

The apostle attaches a conditional clause, “if you hold firmly to the word..” In his commentary on this passage, John Calvin considered a person careless or fickle who would so easily give up her or his faith. The true sports fan can appreciate this. Everyone believes that the Pistons are going to the NBA finals but only the true Piston's fan will believe that if the team happens to fall 0-3 to the Miami Heat in the semi-finals, they can still win. That true sports fan would ask, what good is your faith when everything is going right?

The same can be said for spiritual matters. What good is our faith, when everyone in the entire community professes to be a Christian? The true Christian for Paul is the person who believes in the resurrection even when the scientific evidence cannot substantiate it. The fully devoted follower is not the person who says “The Bible says it and I believe it” but rather “I know what and why the Bible says, therefore this is what I believe.” That is a whole different approach. It moves beyond the blind, mindless acceptance of childhood Sunday school lessons, to an authentic, intellectually supported belief. It is a faith that is informed by the Biblical record, because it knows that Biblical story. The tragedy is that so few Christians know the Biblical story.

This is evident by our Scripture passage this morning. How many of you said to yourselves while the passage was being read, “Hey, wait a minute, that is not right, Jesus appeared to the women first not Peter.” On first reading, Paul appears to contradict the gospel writers. Mathew, Mark and John all mention that Jesus first appeared to Mary. However, Luke leaves this detail out. Whether Luke is following Paul or Paul is following the sources for Luke's account, we do not know. What we do know is that a viable explanation exist for Paul's ordering of the resurrection appearances.

Paul knows the resurrection story and the historical reality of the story is important. Paul's intent in this paragraph is to show that the resurrection was not a creation of the imagination. Paul wants to remind the Corinthians that their faith is based in historical events but he is only presenting the events that are important to his argument. He is not providing a complete and detailed account of those events. He is intentionally excluding the women, just as his friend, Luke, did in his gospel because in Greek and Jewish law, women do not have standing as credible witnesses. Paul would have lost his argument if he had said,

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, then to Peter

Paul is attempting to defend the historical reality of the resurrection by showing them that not one but many people saw the Risen Christ. His appearance was not a hallucination seen by one or two people who were still in shock. His resurrected body stood before many. Paul wanted the Corinthians to trust the word of those who had seen with their own eyes, the Risen Lord.

What do you believe took place on that morning? Did the disciples overpower the guards, take the body and hide it in another grave? Did Jesus not really die on the Cross but only appear to die so, three days later, when he regained enough strength to stand up and walk the guards were terrified and fooled. Or did God raise this Jesus of Nazareth, who had been condemned to death and crucified, to new life?

What do you believe happened that morning?

Some may wonder, why I am making pounding away on this one point. What difference does it make if Christ rose from the tomb or not? The apostle answers that question when he writes

 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins Christ has not raised been raised, your faith is futile you are still in your sins.

Paul believes in following the logical consequences of an argument—B follows A. If there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ has not been raised and Peter and everyone else were hallucinating. If Christ has not been raised then our preaching and your faith is useless. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised and we are all wasting our time this morning. We would be better served to go play a round of golf than to dawdle away an hour singing songs off key. And if our faith is useless, then we are still dead in our sins.

If we were honest, each of us could quickly remember a day when we did something that we still regret. They could be times when we really hurt someone? When we said or did something really nasty. Maybe we stole something from a department store or intentionally wrote a bad check, or took some money from the cash draw? Maybe we engaged in a sexual tryst or just spent too much time surfing the wrong Internet sites. Every situation has a relational and a spiritual consequence. We can say we are sorry to the other person. We can attempt to right the wrong. But whatever we attempt, still does not erase the memory and seldom frees us from the inner turmoil. Relief from guilt and shame only happen when we experience the liberating freedom of the resurrections. Only when we share in the power of the resurrection is the bondage of sin broken.

Believing that the resurrection was a historical realty is not the easy. There are a lot of tricksters and a lot of fakes. How do we know that it was not a hoax? There have been plenty of religious hoaxes in the world? The apostle Paul says it was not a trick or a hoax because not just one person, not just Twelve people, but over 500 people witnessed the event and that one event has transformed their lives by conquering the power of sin and death.

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