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A Final Reminder

San Williams

April 6, 2015
I Corinthians 15:1-11

A reading from 1 Corinthians:

Now I should 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 hold 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 someone 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 towards 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. 

San Williams

With less than a month left in my preaching ministry at UPC, I realize I’m running out of Sundays. If I have any reminders for you, I need to speak now or forever hold my peace. Actually, I can think of any number of things that I’d like to call to your attention. I would remind you to maintain a strong missional focus that keeps the congregation reaching out in love to our neighbors. I would hope you will continue our practice of sound liturgy, inspiring music, and strong preaching. Oh, and don’t forget to be good stewards of our much improved building and grounds. I remind you to give generously of your time, talent and money. Continue to be a welcoming congregation, one that makes room for families, little children, youth, and college students. These are just a few of the mental post-it notes I’d like to leave behind.

Well, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he doles out reminder after reminder. He reminds the congregation at Corinth to maintain unity in the bond of peace, to conduct themselves honorably, avoid idol worship, help the weak, honor everyone, to pursue love, and strive for the spiritual gifts. On and on Paul goes with his reminders to his beloved congregation.

But as he draws his letter to a close, he gives one final reminder that is more important than all the others. He writes: “Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you…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.”

Paul’s terse, one-sentence reminder of the resurrection is actually the oldest of all testimonies to the resurrection of Jesus. Some two to five decades later, the writers of the four Gospels expanded the Easter story to include such things as the women discovering the empty tomb, the angel’s announcing, “He is risen,” and Mary’s encountering the risen Lord in the garden. But the earliest and most concise recital of the resurrection is the one we read this morning.

And remember how this earliest of all Easter testimonies exploded on the world with an exhilarating, bedazzling, beyond-words joy. It was first received by Cephas, then by the twelve, then by James, and “last of all” writes Paul, “as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” All Christian preaching—from the first disciples, to Paul, to the present day—is, in essence, a reminder that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and, in accordance with scripture, was raised on the third day.

Now it’s possible that what was first heard as an exhilarating explosion of good news can harden, over time, into an obscure creedal statement with little personal impact. What some people receive as a beyond-words joy, others may hear as only a dull abstraction.

So what gave this Easter proclamation such explosive, life-changing power? Paul mentions twice that Christ’s dying and rising was “according to the scriptures.” He doesn’t say that in order to back up his claim with a few proof texts from the Hebrew Bible. Rather, he grasps how Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are grounded in the narrative sweep of the Bible, a narrative that begins with God’s good creation, depicts God’s agony over a fallen world, and proclaims God’s promise to set all things right. Paul was literally struck to the ground with the good news that, in Christ’s dying and rising, sins have been forgiven, the power of death overcome, and God’s promised new creation guaranteed—and all of this takes place according to the scriptures.

So far from being a dull creedal statement, Paul’s reminder of the resurrection gives us a new perspective on nearly everything. A few weeks ago, our UCP Deacons hosted a lunch and a speaker on the topic of Hospice and End-of-Life Issues. The speaker, a hospice chaplain, recommended a book by Atul Gawande called Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. This is an excellent book that everyone should read. Gawande writes that for human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. He helps us understand how, even within the limits of a terminal illness, we can still make certain choices that give us some control over our story’s final chapter. He encourages family members and medical practitioners to facilitate and honor final wishes. This, Dr. Gawande contends, is what matters in the end. But in addition to such sound wisdom, what also matters, and matters most, is having the grace to face death knowing that its power has been broken. As one of the prayers in our Book of Common Worship goes: “Help us to live as those who a prepared to die. And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in Jesus Christ our risen lord.”

Samuel Wells is the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. In a very provocative essay in Christian Century, Wells contends that our view of dementia changes in the light of the resurrection. He notes how our culture’s thinking on dementia comes down to three words: deficit, decline, and death. “But in light of the resurrection,” Wells suggests, “ we can reverse the deficit and the decline, because we stop assuming they’re moving away from something good and start appreciating that they’re moving into something new. Dementia, “ he concludes, “ is not a living death. It’s an invitation to see how we can remain the same person, yet take on new and rather different characteristics. In that sense it’s a training in resurrection in which we shall be changed but still recognizably ourselves.”

But remembering the resurrection is not only a perspective that’s useful for viewing end-of-life issues. It changes the way we look at everything. For example, these days one hears a lot of downward spiral thinking about the church. People easily fall into despair, fearing that the church is dying. But listen to what John Calvin said back in the 16th century:

“Although the church is at present time hardly to be distinguished from a dead or at best a sick man, there is no reason for despair, for the Lord raises up his own suddenly, as he waked the dead from the grave. This we must clearly remember, lest, when the church fails to shine forth, we conclude too quickly that her light has died utterly away. But the church in the world is so preserved that she rises suddenly from the dead. Her very preservation through the days is due to a succession of such miracles. Let us cling to the remembrance that she is not without her resurrection, or rather, not without her many resurrections.”

Friends, in the years I’ve been at UPC we’ve experienced many resurrections. People in whom faith has been reborn…new ministries that have sprung to life…building spaces that have been refurbished and repurposed…young adults, families, and young children who have brought a burst of new life and energy into our congregation. Truly, we have not been without our many resurrections.

So as a final reminder: You are an Easter people. Many resurrections await you. Thus, greet the future not with fear but with hope. Cling to this good news. It is a matter of first importance.