1 Corinthians 15.12-20
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not be raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ — whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
He boarded the plane, a well dressed 6 foot 8, and hoped for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs during the flight. He was a pastor and a professor of theology and he knew better than to tell people, on a plane, what he did for a living.
He loaded his carryon above his head, sighed at his average sized seat, and squeezed himself in. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large lumbered down the aisle and sat down right next to him.
The preacher stuffed another small bag under his seat, and closed his eyes.
“Is that a Bible?” His seat mate intoned.
The preacher looked down and saw the spine of the Good Book sticking out for all eyes to see.
“What are you, a preacher?”
“Something like that” he responded while crossing his arms and closing his eyes, again.
“Well, I’m not a believer” the man said.
“That’s fine,” the preacher said without opening his eyes, “Frankly, it doesn’t make much of a difference what you do, or don’t believe. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”
The preacher thought that would keep his seat mate quiet for the remained of the flight. But he was wrong. Even though he sat there with his eyes clothes and arms crossed, the man started talking, and he didn’t stop.
First it was just the usual flying-next-to-a-stranger chit chat but eventually it turned serious, and the preacher’s seat partner started talking about Vietnam.
That’s when he opened his eyes and really listened.
The man went on and one, talked the entire flight, describing all the terrible things he did and how, went he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about what he was told to do.
Eventually, the man said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”
And then the preacher leaned over and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”
“What you mean ‘confessed’? I ain’t confessing!”
“Sure you are, it’s what you’ve been doing the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to had over the goods and speak a particular word. So, if you have any more burdening you, nows the time to hand them over.”
The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”
And suddenly, he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plane, and said, “But I already told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”
The preacher unbuckled his seat belt, and stood up over the man and declared, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says it’s what’s inside of us that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one person to another. And I’m going to speak faith into you.”
The fasten seat belt sign lit up and dinged for the whole cabin to hear, and a steward came over and asked the preacher to sit down. However, he ignored it, and placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”
“But you can’t do that,” the man whispered, while his eyes watered up.
“Oh yes I can, and I must, and I’ll keep doing it over and over again.”
And he did. Only this time he said it louder, loud enough for all the other passengers to hear it, and the man became a puddle of tears and he wept over himself like a child.
The rest of the plane was silent, reverent even, knowing that something strange and holy was happening.
When the plan finally landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the good news. So the preacher did it one more time and the man started to laugh.
He said, “If what you said is true, then it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if I can believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”
And the preacher laughed too, and said, “It takes a miracle for all of us. It’s too true to be good. That’s why we call it the Gospel.”
That’s a true story and I love it. I love it because its so good and true.
Notice, the preacher didn’t sit back and merely listen to the other man. He didn’t fill the voids of silence with drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or, “I know what you’re going through.” The preacher didn’t minimize the sadness with talk of duty or responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.
Instead, he offered absolution.
He, to use the language of Paul, took the man out of his sins.
It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
Paul is worried about his friends in the faith, his Corinthian Christians – that’s what the whole letter is about. They’re drifting away from the path of the truth and the life and the way that Paul first shared with them.
He catches wind that they are no longer sharing the eucharist together, so he writes about the body of Christ having many members.
He learns that they are fighting constantly over who is the best and who is the worst, so he writes about Christ alone being the head of the body.
And here, in chapter 15, he gets to the heart of the matter – the resurrection of the dead.
Paul, if you can’t tell, is spitting logic through the pages of his epistle – “This is it you Corinthian Christians! It’s this or nothing! Everything, and I mean everything, depends on the truth of the One who is truth incarnate.”
He writes first of the story that he shared with them – Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.
It’s an announcement about things that happened – not a collection of generic religious principles, not a list of things to do or not to do.
The heart of the Gospel – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So Paul doesn’t pull any punches – If there is no resurrection from the dead, then we are all fools, and we are still in our sins.
It’s hard for us Christians, today, to hear the radical nature of Paul’s proclamation. We forget that this letter was written, sent, and read by Christians before any of the gospel stories were written down. We forget that without Paul’s witness and prayers and ministry, there’s a good chance that the Gospel would have stayed among the Jews alone and never spread to Gentiles like us.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then the entire foundation of our faith has been in vain, and Christian preaching is nothing more than wishful delusions and empty gestures.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we mock ourselves with our faithless worship all while expecting people to live into a new world order that doesn’t really exist.
If there is no resurrection from the dead, then the only thing we can offer the world is a pious lie that leaves us completely and utterly hopeless.
But, let us remember: there is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God.
And yet, the desire for proof remains. We’re addicted to certainty, us moderns. We want clarity above all else, and we can’t imagine a world outside the binaries of our distinctions.
But what is life if not a mystery?
I can’t prove the resurrection. No one can.
Believe this, believe that, we say in the church. And somehow the genuine character of one’s belief has become the litmus test for Christianity. Which is made all the more strange when we consider the amount of doubt right smack dab in the Bible!
My former professor Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “What a lost people we must be to think that God really cares whether we believe in Him or not.”
You see, one of the most incredible aspects of what we call our faith is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not continent on our belief. Even in the days of our greatest doubts, Jesus is still Lord.
We can’t prove it; we can only trust it – we can only point to it, and to the results of it around us.
Consider – Mark’s gospel tells us that, on Easter, the women fled from the tomb and told nothing to anyone because they were afraid.
But they told somebody something, otherwise, none of us would be here.
We experience Easter even now, all these years later. Some of us rejoice in the Good News, and some of us are terrified by it. And yet, Easter is why we are here. We’re here because, one way or another, we have heard the call of the Risen Christ, even when we may not have known that was what we heard.
Maybe some of us are here because we’re looking for proofs. I say look around, and you will begin to see it.
The women who went to the tomb that Easter morning were looking for and expecting a dead Jesus. And the angel says, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead. He ain’t here! He’s in Galilee. Go!”
When Jesus mounted the hard wood of the cross, when he drew all things unto himself, he took all of our sins, past, present, future, he nailed them to the cross and left them there forever.
Therefore we are no longer in our sins, they do not define who we are, we have been set free forever and ever.
In church speak we call that absolution.
It is the proclamation of the promise that Christ made to us through his death and resurrection.
It is the declaration that even though Paul has a lot to say about sin, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died – namely all of the them.
It is the conviction that Christ will keep coming back to us, banging us over the head if necessary with the only thing we really need – forgiveness.
God so loved the world that God got down from the throne and condescended to our miserable existence to reduce us from ourselves through the blood spilled on the cross.
God so loved the world that God broke forth from the tomb and left behind the chains of death so that death will never be the final word.
God so loved the world that God died and lived again in order that we might do the same and no longer live lives defined by our sins.
The preacher from the airplane absolution walked through the airport with his seat partner after their encounter with the Holy One of Israel. And right before they made for an awkward goodbye, the preacher handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow, or the next day, or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you trust it.”
The next day the man called the preacher, and he kept calling the preacher every day thereafter just to hear the Gospel. In fact, he called the preacher once a day until the day he died. And later, when asked why he kept answered the phone, the preacher said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”
Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
It’s too true to be good. It’s Gospel. Amen.