1 Corinthians 15.1-11
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
My college campus ministry was going nowhere.
We had a solid band that played some of the newest Christian music.
We tried exciting and new initiatives to reach out to other students on campus in order to get them to join us for worship on Sunday evenings.
We even tried to create series around relevant topics like recent blockbusters or culturally important topics.
But we just had the same people showing up week after week.
We never had a real conversation about it, but there was a feeling in the air that if we weren’t growing, then we were failing.
Every summer I’d go home to work at the church that raised me, and every fall I would return to school with new ideas about how we could get new people.
And sometimes it worked. We’d be setting up for worship in one of the local United Methodist Churches that let us use their space for free, and a college student would walk in explaining that he/she wanted to check us out.
Our spirits would soar in joyful hope and anticipation, but then of course we would be incredibly nervous for the rest of the service hoping they’d come back next week.
But they almost never did.
During my final semester of undergrad we decided that the only way to really reach new people was to start over.
We scrapped everything and began with a clean slate.
The ways we had been “doing church” no longer worked, so we decided it was time to make a new church.
The core group met over at a bagel place in town, and even though I was soon-to-graduate, I attended in order to offer my opinions about how the church might re-create itself.
Our leader pulled out a pad of paper and started by saying, “If we’re going to do this, we need to create a list of what we believe. We’ll put it all together, put it online, and that way people will know what to expect when they come join us.”
Perfect. Back to the basics.
So we went around the table and people started throwing out their ideas…
I believe that the church should welcome everyone no matter what.
I agree, but I also believe that the church should have expectations of what it means to live like a Christian.
I believe that the people who join us should agree to believe what we believe.
By the time it came to me to say something we already had three pages front in back with a list of our beliefs.
And almost none of them had anything to do with God.
Now I would remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the gospel that I proclaimed to you, which you received, in which also you stand, through which you are being saved.
I passed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.
Christ died for our sins.
He was buried in the ground.
He was raised on the third day.
He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once.
Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. The least of the apostles.
To Paul, this was of first importance.
Not our behavior.
Not even a list of beliefs.
But a story.
Jesus lived, died, and lived again.
And he appeared to the disciples.
Now, I know that if you’re like me, you’re heard this story a lot. So much so that we just accept it as is without giving it much thought. But, seriously, what was Jesus thinking?
He is resurrected and shows up for Peter! You know, the one who denied him!
Don’t you think Jesus would’ve been better off doing something a little more effective? For maximum results in spreading this new religion, you don’t waste your time talking to someone off the street, let alone a denier. You’ve got to go to the movers and shakers, the powers and the principalities.
The ones who get things done.
If Jesus really wanted to shake up the world, why didn’t he go straight to the top?
Our Jesus, the one whom we love and adore, didn’t go to the emperor’s palace, he didn’t fly up to the top of the temple waiting for crowds to gather in wonderment and awe.
The resurrected Jesus showed up right in front of the very people who abandoned him.
Think about it for just a moment – The most incredible thing in the history of history has taken place, and Jesus appears before the same ragtag group of would-be followers who misunderstood him, forsook him, and fled from him into the darkness.
Jesus chose, in this most profound and powerful of moments, to return to his very betrayers.
Of all the people, Peter and Paul are the ones to whom the resurrection is made as clear as day. Peter was a perjurer and Paul was a murderer. A denier of the faith, and a killer of the faith.
It would have been news enough that this first century rabbi rose from the dead, but the Good News is that he rose for them, and for us.
Churches are forever trying to figure out how to reach new people. They’ll take a good hard look in the mirror, and trim back the fat of whatever it is they were doing so that only the lean meat remains.
On Sundays the music is always easy to sing, everyone wears comfortable clothing, and the pastor will tell a story about how to find something better for your lives.
Not that far from us is a relatively new church that meets in a movie theater on Sunday mornings. They have a rock band that sets up by the front, and when the appointed time arrives they jam away for three to four songs while the words appear on the screen.
And when they finish a man will appear, not in person, but on the big screen as well and he will talk for 15-20 minutes about how God wants you to be the best you.
The band will stand back up for one more song, and then its over.
And they are bursting at the seams.
Week after week more people show up wanting to know how they can make their lives better, and week after week more people have to sit in the aisles because they run out of space.
And the church should be doing what it can to reach new people, even those who are caught up in the never-ending desire to make their lives better.
Except that’s not really who we are, at least according to the Bible. The Gospel isn’t about how we can get better by getting closer to God, though it certainly doesn’t hurt.
The Gospel is about how groups of bad people come together to cope with their failure to be good.
But that doesn’t sell, and it doesn’t drive people in through the doors. It doesn’t ring well as a promotional slogan or fit nicely on a bumper sticker. It doesn’t compel people to go home and invite all of their neighbors back for next Sunday.
And yet the story of Jesus Christ doesn’t revolve around people trying to find God and find themselves along the way.
Over and over again the Gospel is the truth that God keeps seeking us despite our worst, and even our best, intentions.
God is the shepherd who doesn’t shrug his shoulder when one of the fold is missing – God goes out and does whatever it takes, risks everything if necessary, to find that missing sheep.
God is the father who does not sigh in disappointment about the wayward son. He reaches down into the muck and mire of life in order to grab the prodigal son so that he may rejoice with his father forever.
God is the sower, who regardless of how bad the weather looks or the soil appears, keeps tossing out seeds in the hopes that they will grow into new life.
We Christians might like to think that we’re good, and always getting better; that we have special access to something the world otherwise ignores.
But at the heart of being a Christian is the recognition that something has happened to us, in spite of us. The risen Lord came back to us.
We might not be able to pinpoint it, or even describe it, but we are here simply because Jesus did not give up on us, nor did he abandon us.
Jesus found us, grabbed us, and forgave us.
What is of first importance for Christ’s church?
To the poor and wretched and struggling Corinthians, who were failing at being the church, arguing daily, and refusing to welcome the other as brother and stranger as sister, Paul takes them back to the middle – to the decisive and most important moment in the middle of history – Easter.
Paul reminds them, and us, that when the gathering of Christians happens the risen Christ finds them. Not the other way around.
If we are honest, a decisively difficult thing these days, we like Paul, are the least of the apostles, unfit to even be called apostles.
In the last ten days, our state has seen its share of controversy. The governor’s medical school yearbook surfaced with a picture of a man in black face and a man wearing a KKK robe in hood all on his page.
The second in command, our Lieutenant Governor, has been hit with a number of credible accusations about sexual assault.
And the third in command, our Attorney General, also admitted to having worn blackface in the past.
That’s just Virginia, and it’s only the three most powerful political figures in Virginia, and that’s only in the last week and a half.
I could go on and on, and I have plenty of times, I love picking on politicians from the pulpit. It’s easy. And it’s easy because we so deify those who hold office. Governors, Representatives, Presidents, Senators, we hold them to a standard that we ourselves would not.
And then we are shocked to discover that they are flawed.
That they are like us.
And the great theological smack in the face, is that God died in Jesus Christ for them too.
So we can do what we think we need to do. We can change what we do on Sunday mornings. We can make it more appealing (whatever that means). We can even blow up the church and start over from scratch.
But of first importance, at the very heart of what it means to be who we are, is a story.
And not just a story, or even our story, but the story.
The story of God.
Who came back for us. Amen.