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Sermon – “But in Fact” – March 31, 2013

Sermon for Easter, March 31, 2013

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

But in Fact Acts 10: 34-43; 1 Corinthians 15: 19-26; Luke 24: 1-12

Twenty-six years ago the store at Third and Market was Newberry’s, there was an electric clock in the bank parking lot one block west, Brozman’s was where Barnes and Noble now is, across Fourth Street from Roger’s. Troutman’s Pharmacy and Gessner’s Meats were on Market Street going the other way. The river bridge river was steel, level from bank to bank, its walkway attached to the south side with wooden boards underfoot.

For some of you that’s ancient history. For many of us, however, 1987 is not that long ago. I mention what I can easily recall about the community then in order to remind us that the letter Paul the apostle writes to the church at Corinth which we read as our responsvie reading is written that soon after the resurrection of Jesus Christ on which Paul insists.

When Paul writes his letter, most of those who were witnesses to the resurrection are still alive. Paul knows the most prominent of them, including Peter and John. After his conversion experience he consulted them. His instruction in Christianity is behind what he writes to the Corinthians “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received”–namely that Christ died, was buried, rose on the third day and appeared first to Cephas–the Aramaic name for Peter–and then to the twelve.

Paul emphasizes this because this early in Christian history there are those who say that there is no resurrection. Well, who can blame them? Paul’s letter and the gospel account both acknowledge the difficulty of accepting the resurrection.

Paul has a second motive for arguing for the Easter miracle. He has written this letter to persuade the Corinthians to live together as better Christians, and he suspects that insufficient faith in the fact of Jesus’ rising from the dead lies behind the petty personal motives and unimpressive priorities of so many individuals within the Corinthian church. Paul evidently believes that if people accepted God’s endorsement of Jesus of Nazareth by his raising him from the dead, they would work harder at following Christ. Isn’t this what Easter asks us every year? “How can you go on living in the world the way you do if you really believe that God raised Jesus from the dead?”

Paul relies on his correspondents’ belief in his own integrity to encourage them to believe. We count on that, too, but I don’t think it hurts to point out the short time between the first Easter and Paul’s testimony to it in this letter. It argues for the legacy of the first apostles not having much time to change when you consider that First Corinthians in the New Testament was written with no longer a memory than we employ when we recall the Blue Cue being open, or the SIlver Moon drive-in movie theater, or Mr. Stiefel standing outside the Campus Theater.

Those are not things we recall because they have been vitally important to us. Those things just stuck in our heads.

The factual basis of Christianity, on the other hand, is the most important thing in Paul’s life. It has turned him around. His conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead is the basis of everything he does.

The testimony is older than the letter. Not only Paul’s reference to its being something shared with him that he’s now passing on, but his summary of Jesus’ life, death, andresurrectionisidentifiedbylinguisticcluesasaformulaPaulhasbeentaught,. Assuch, it precedes Paul’s use of it.

The most important part of each of the gospels is the Holy Week story we have just heard again over the past week. That also, despite the later committing to writing of the gospels themselves, is another tradition established early. You can see that from the fact that it is the portion of the gospel story most similar across the four gospel accounts. Even John’s gospel, which significantly differs from the other three in many ways, retains the sequence of events that begin with Palm Sunday and conclude with the discovery of the empty tomb.

The first lesson I give my students preparing for baptism is to write a brief biography of some family member who died before their own birth. They have to consult someone a generation or two older than themselves to get the information necessary, and it isn’t difficult. Significant things about great-grandma or a great-uncle are recalled, and reported. I do it for the same reason that I try to locate the New Testament’s proclamation of the resurrection not in terms of a message from an authoritative book, but as a vital memory preserved within a time span which we find essentially trustworthy for retaining and relating what is striking about the past. I know that my pupils in Pastor’s Class may someday study the Bible enough to learn that the gospels weren’t written down until between forty and perhaps a hundred years after the events they relate, and it would be easy for them to discount the reliability of recollection about a person’s life for more than a generation–except that their experience is that it is possible for them to learn about someone whose life ended long before their own began, provided that there is some reason for someone to remember.

We recall things about great-grandparents as part of family lore, so that’s our motivation. What made it easy for the early church to preserve memories of Jesus was its conviction that God had revealed more through Jesus than God had ever done before, and that because of the resurrection, they were called to serve Jesus as a living Lord just as the first witnesses had been.

The world’s religions are sometimes described in two broad categories, the historical religions and the non historical religions. The historical religions are Judaism, and two faiths which developed out of it–Christianity and Islam. They are all historical in their premise, that they know what they do of God and God’s will for people from events which took place in particulartimesandplaces,involvingparticularpersons. Allthreerecallmiraclesaspartof their heritage. Miracles are difficult precisely because they are included in recollections of what are accepted as real events. There are no miracles in myths–myths are wondrous stories by their nature. Miracles make history wondrous, and it is no surprise that not only we but the people in the stories themselves wonder. The people in the stories wonder, and the people who hear the stories wonder.

When the traditions about Jesus, including the discovery of his resurrection, were being passed down among believers and finally being recorded, the uncanny and baffling quality of the occurrence was preserved. All of the gospels proclaim the empty tomb, but also the weird, otherworldly experience of it, and the hesitant, disbelieving reaction to it on the part of the first disciples. The women aren’t quite sure what to make of the messengers, the disciples don’t believe the women, those who meet Jesus face-to-face don’t recognize him at first. Those, like Thomas, who aren’t around when he appears to the other disciples won’ttaketheirwordforit. Allthismakesitintothegospels,despitethefactthatthe gospels are recorded by those who have accepted the reality of the resurrection. They know that coming to terms with Eater was almost impossible for the first disciples, and always will be hard.

That we ourselves should find it incredible is understandable. That we should be able to believe it, and believe in it as an instance of God’s prerogative to do the impossible, is a gift and a blessing. Faith in Jesus Christ, as Paul shared with Corinth, depends entirely for its worth on the Easter story being true. “If for this life only”, Paul says, “we have hoped in Christ, we are of all persons most to be pitied.” It is the reality of the resurrection, and the exclamation point it puts after Jesus’ teaching and example, which makes us aspire to humility, unselfishness, generosity, forgiveness, loving enemies, and relying on spiritual rather than material blessings to sustain us. It is because God raised Jesus rom the dead that we pray for the power to master our appetites, and repudiate self- seeking. It isn’t because of admirable ideals or kind deeds that we follow Jesus. It is because the resurrection has revealed him to be the Lord of life. It’s on the basis of the empty tomb that we dare to live for the sake of a being invisible to the eye, and inaudible to the ear. Faith is not foolish, delusional, and self-destructive, though we know that , humanly speaking, it sometimes seems true that “nice guys finish last,” and “no good deed goes unpunished.”

We know Paul needs to remind doubters everywhere, including us, when Paul says, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” We are not of all persons most to be pitied. It is not foolish to forgive, whether others or ourselves. It is not delusional to try and live by the power available in prayer. Seeking first the kingdom of God is not reckless, but responsible. When we believe in Easter we have resources the world cannot equal or undermine, and always before us the prospect of more completely achieving our true nature, as sons and daughters of God.

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