Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 19-34 Raised: The Firstfruits

I wonder if you’ve ever got a shock when doing the laundry. You’ve had a load of whites in the wash, you open the washing machine, and your nice white shirts or blouses are now a delicate shade of pink. One stray red sock made it into the pile, and everything else is affected by it.

We’re taking a few weeks to look at 1 Corinthians 15 - the resurrection of Jesus and what it means for us. So far we’ve seen that Jesus was raised according to the Scriptures (as told by the eyewitnesses); and last week we thought about the consequences of Jesus not being raised - our preaching would be in vain, your faith is in vain, we’re telling lies about God, we’re still in our sins, and we’re to be pitied most of all.

But, Paul says, we don’t need to worry about those things - because ‘in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.’ So Jesus really was raised - we can be sure of that fact. From today on, we get to see what that means for us - both in the future, and in the here and now. It all starts with v20. ‘But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.’ Jesus is described as the firstfruits.

The farmers and gardeners will know what this is straight away. After you’ve planted your seed there’s a bit of a wait. You might wonder if anything is happening. But eventually, you’ll see the first shoots appear, and then the very first apple or tomato or ear of corn. That’s your firstfruit - the first fruit of the plant, the sign that the harvest is on the way. The rest of the crop will follow, and it’ll soon be time to gather it in.

Jesus is the firstfruits - ‘of those who have fallen asleep.’ So Jesus’ resurrection is a pointer to our resurrection, if we’re linked to him. Do you see how verses 21-22 compare and contrast? ‘For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.’

Death came into the world through one man - Adam. That was in the Garden of Eden, when he took the forbidden fruit, when he disobeyed God’s command, and sinned. As Romans reminds us - the wages of sin is death - so Adam’s sin brought death into the world. But now through one man - Jesus - the resurrection of the dead has also come. Jesus has done all that was necessary to overcome death, through his perfect obedience and his sin-bearing death and his being raised to new life, so resurrection to new life is available to us.

We just need to be connected to him. That’s what v 22 shows us. By nature, all of us are in Adam. You see, Adam wasn’t just acting on his own behalf in the Garden of Eden. He was acting as our representative, our head. The choices he made, the action he took affects us all. We see something like it all the time. For example, you might talk about how ‘we won’ or ‘we lost’ even though you weren’t playing on the field - how your team plays affects you, you are connected to their actions, for good or ill.

Or maybe your boss decides that everyone will have to work longer hours. Their decision affects you, whether you like it or not. Well, in the same way, we are all in Adam. He chose to disobey, and we all follow him in sin, and will also die. But the contrast is there again - ‘so also in Christ shall all be made alive.’ Being connected to Adam brings death, but being connected to Christ brings life.

So which one are you in? Or, if you’d like to put it like this - who is driving your bus? We all start in Adam’s bus; we all have the end destination of death - but have you got off his bus and got onto Jesus’ bus? Are you in Christ? It’s not automatic. The ‘all’ in Adam is not the same ‘all’ in Christ - as we see in verse 23. ‘But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming, those who belong to him.’ Those in Christ are those who belong to him.

The bus driver gets to the stop first, the passengers follow behind. The firstfruits are gathered in first, and then comes the rest of the harvest. Christ has been raised. That has already happened. We can now be sure that those who belong to him will also be raised. So are you only in Adam, or are you also in Christ? Are you confident of this hope?

Jesus has been raised, the firstfruits. Our resurrection in him is assured. But Jesus’ resurrection is also the first taste of his kingdom rule. The Old Testament prophecies of Psalms 8 and 110 are fulfilled as Jesus reigns until all his enemies are under his feet. It’s maybe a sign that I’m getting old, but I’ve invested in a footstool, which sits in front of my rocking chair. It’s so good to sit down, but even better to rest my feet on the stool. Well Jesus’ enemies are what he rests his feet on, and Paul says that the final enemy to be destroyed is (26) death.

The resurrection is like D-Day in World War Two. The victory is assured, but the war isn’t over yet. Death continues to claim us. We continue to have funerals, but not forever. Death will not have the final say. Death cannot have the final say. It too will be like my footstool, under the feet of Jesus. Death will be no more. The firstfruits shows us that. Just as Jesus rose, so we too will rise, freed from death, in new resurrection life, just like Jesus.

And knowing that this will happen in the future must change how we live in the present. The Corinthians seem to be aware of that, based on what might be one of the hardest verses of the Bible to understand. Verse 29, people being baptised on behalf of the dead. One commentator suggests there are 400 different possible interpretations. We’ll not look at them all today. It might be that someone had believed in Christ, but died before they were baptised, and someone else was baptised on their behalf. But why bother with that if the dead aren’t raised?

Or why would Paul bother putting himself in danger, travelling round the known world to tell people about Jesus if the dead aren’t raised? No reason at all. To sum it up, look at verse 32b: ‘If the dead are not raised, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ If this world is all there is, if this life is all we have, then we might as well enjoy it while we can. And that’s what the Corinthians had been told by the false teachers they were listening to, and by the society around them. They needed to stop being deceived, waken up, and not keep on sinning.

Christ has been raised as the firstfruits. We too, if we are in him, will be raised. The life we have is not our own - it is Christ’s, for him to use us as he pleases. For Paul, it felt like dying every day, as he gave himself to share the good news of Jesus, in danger every hour. Of seeking to persuade people to move from being united to Adam, to being united to Christ. Of giving people a hope and a future.

Harvest time is coming. The firstfruits have already been gathered in. Christ is raised - will you be gathered with him to reign with him?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 24th April 2016.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 Raised - According to the Scriptures

I wonder if you can guess what one of my favourite children’s TV programmes was? Mrs Goggins featured in it, as did Patrick Clifton. If those names are too obscure, perhaps a line from the song will help. ‘Maybe, you can never be sure, there’ll be knock, ring... letters through your door.’ You’ve guessed it by now - I loved to watch Postman Pat. He and his black and white cat Jess would go around Greendale delivering the post - bringing what he had been given, and delivering it to the people.

In our reading today, we get the idea of Postman Paul. Look at verse 3. ‘For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.’ Paul had received something, he had been given something, and now he has passed it on. He delivered it - just like Postman Pat. He brought it to the people in the city of Corinth.

If you’ve posted a letter recently, you’ll have realised that the price of a stamp has gone up again, on the 29th March. So when you have a letter to post, and you come to the Post Office counter, you have a choice to make - is it really urgent to justify 64 pence for first class, or will it do second class at 55 pence? Did you see how Paul described his delivery? Was it something that didn’t really matter, something that could take its time? Not at all - ‘For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received...’ Of first importance - it would need a first class stamp, or maybe even the guaranteed next day signed for delivery service. And what was so important? What was of first importance?

‘That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared...’ (3-5)

If you come along to the Family service, you’ll recognise this as one of the creeds we use regularly. And the reason we use it is because Paul says it is of first importance, this little summary of what Jesus did - he died, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared. If you’re looking for a summary of what Christianity is all about, then this is it. This is the very heart of the Christian faith - historical truth about what happened that first Easter weekend.

Postman Paul tells us that he received this - he didn’t make it up, he was told this, and passed it on, delivered it to the Corinthians. He makes clear that Christ died - that Jesus was crucified, and really died. But notice that it isn’t just a historical explanation, it’s also a theological explanation. ‘Christ died’ - that’s history. ‘Christ died for our sins’ - that’s theology. This is why Jesus died - for our sins. He died to take the punishment we deserved. He died the death we deserved. But there’s more. ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.’

In a wee while we’ll say the Apostles’ Creed, which follows the same pattern - died, buried, raised. But it’s the Nicene Creed which we say at Holy Communion which uses the full phrases from this passage - in accordance with the Scriptures. But as I was growing up, and the BCP/APB said Jesus died and was raised ‘according to the Scriptures’ I always thought that meant, as we find in the gospels - we know this because according to the Scriptures of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But Postman Paul says that Jesus died ‘in accordance with the Scriptures.’

Jesus died in the way the Scriptures (the Old Testament) said he would. And Jesus was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. The promises were there beforehand. The story was already told. Psalm 16 is just one example - ‘You will not abandon my soul to Sheol (the place of the dead), or let your holy one see corruption.’

The Scriptures had already set out the blueprint, the plan of what Jesus would do. Postman Paul says that he did it all, and this is of first importance. But maybe you’re not so sure. You put up with Easter Sunday each year while on the inside you’re thinking, but dead men don’t rise. Was this how the disciples coped with the death of Jesus, by focusing on how he lived on in their thoughts and memories? Did they just make up the story that he was alive? Isn’t it just a fairy tale? Has Paul been led up the garden path by someone telling him tall tales?

But included within the first importance is also the last bit - died, buried, raised, and appeared. So who did he appear to? Cephas - that’s Peter, the one who denied knowing him on the Thursday night (and the one specifically mentioned in Mark 16:7); the twelve; more than five hundred brothers at one time; James, all the apostles, and finally... me, (Paul).

All these eyewitnesses testify to the fact that they saw the risen Jesus, met with him, ate with him, some even touched him. Jesus really was raised to new life. His closest friends, then a huge group of people - so it couldn’t be a hallucination (they’re always individual), and most of them could be interviewed, or asked what they saw. And the last two individuals names on that list were probably the best witnesses. James, the brother of the Lord - just think, what would it take for you to become sure that your brother was really God? (Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ family had tried to take him home, stop his ministry etc - but now James believes, convinced by the resurrection). And Paul - Paul who was persecuting the church, who hated Jesus and the Christians, yet God’s grace worked in his life, he met the risen Jesus, and his life was turned around, now a witness to the resurrection, an apostle, and a new mission.

Now you might be thinking - we know all this! Why have we spent this morning thinking about something we already know? Well, over these next few weeks we’re thinking about what the resurrection of Jesus means for us. But before we get to that, we need to see what Paul says is of first importance. We can’t enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ resurrection without making sure that Jesus really did rise.

You see, as Postman Paul brought this special delivery, this first importance first class post, as he preached this message, the Corinthians believed. They accepted the testimony, they believed that Jesus really did die, and that he really did rise. But more than that, they believed in Jesus - that he died for their (our) sins. Have you done that? Have you heard the testimony and believed in Jesus? Have you received this first importance delivery? Perhaps today could be the day the post arrives, you receive it for yourself. Make this the most important thing you know.

But maybe you’re already a Christian. And you’re thinking, but I know all this! Surely I can move beyond the cross and the resurrection now? But Postman Paul says we can never move beyond this. He was writing to Christians, and he needed to remind them of it. Reminded of - the gospel, the good news of what Jesus has done.

And we’re in the same boat. We too easily forget. We too quickly try to please God by our own efforts, or trying to pay back God for what Jesus has done. Paul seeks to remind us - so that we are in that chain of verses 1-2. The gospel preached, ‘which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you - unless you believed in vain.’

If you have received this gospel, this good news, whether today, or fifty years ago - stand in it (don’t move away, don’t potter about, stand firm on the only solid rock), because it is our only hope of salvation, our only way of having our sins forgiven; as we hold fast to the word. Don’t let it go. Don’t drop it for anything else.

The gospel doesn’t start with us. It’s something that we receive; something that’s delivered to us. And even if Postman Pat brings some post we would rather not open, Postman Paul brings us good news, great news - that Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised on the third day - all in accordance with the Scriptures - and he appeared to witnesses, who saw, and passed on the message. We can be sure that Jesus is alive, he has been raised - and as we’ll see in coming weeks - we too will be raised with him. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 10th April 2016.