But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
1 Corinthians 15:12 (NIV)
Every author and storyteller knows that you leave the best for last. The “climax” of a story is where you carefully lead your readers. Paul’s letter to the believers of Corinth was not a story or a novel, but there was definitely structure to the message he crafted. After highlighting all of the fighting, disagreements, and behavioral issues within the fledgling group of Jesus’ followers Paul leads his reader to a climactic chapter about love; Arguably the most beautiful treatise on the word that has ever been penned.
But, I still count a few chapters left in the letter. What is so important that it comes after Paul’s climactic and beautiful admonishment to love?
If love is Paul’s behavioral climactic admonishment, then the resurrection is his climactic admonishment of belief. His point is clear: if I don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then all of my faith, religion, and altruistic behavior (including love) is in vain.
Resurrection was a hot topic in the days of Jesus and Paul. Even Jesus encountered it. Within the Jewish community there were different schools of thought on the subject of resurrection and life after death. One of the more powerful scholarly groups, the Sadducees, did not believe that there was a resurrection and even confronted Jesus on the subject (Mark 12:18). The Greeks and their philosophy had no concept of life after death. They were focused on meaning in this life.
It’s also important to remember that at the time of Paul’s letter it is likely that none of the four Gospels (the biographical accounts of Jesus ministry, death, and resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) had even been written. It’s likely that many of Jesus’ followers in Corinth had been attracted by the radically different world-view out of which the early believers acted as they broke down walls of social separation between gender, race, and socio-economic status. Believing that someone could die and come back to life, well that was a different story. Like many throughout the centuries, some Corinthian believers were taking the “I like the teachings of Jesus and I’ll try to follow them, but I’m not sure I can swallow the whole ‘risen from the dead’ bit.”
Paul leaves the final climactic ending of his letter to address that which he believed was most important: Jesus died and then came back to life. Paul claims that the resurrection is real and it is the critical cornerstone belief of our faith. He started his discourse on love by saying “If you do all these religious things but don’t have love then your religious deeds are hollow and bankrupt.” Now he’s using the same approach, saying “If you do all these things to follow Jesus but deny the resurrection, then all you’ve done is in vain.”
To that end, Paul offers into evidence the eyewitness testimony of Cephas (whom the Corinthians knew), the twelve, up to five hundred others who saw the resurrected Jesus. Finally, Paul offers his own eyewitness testimony, having encountered the resurrected Jesus on a trip to Damascus. Paul also applies logic (death and resurrection are the natural order of creation) and reasoning (why would I torture myself and perpetually submit myself to death and persecution if I wasn’t convinced there was more than this earthly journey?).
This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about our current season of Lent. The annual celebration of Easter is coming up in a few weeks. The resurrection of Jesus is the climax of the traditional church calendar year just as it is the climax of Paul’s letter. The resurrection of Jesus remains an audacious claim that requires faith. It remains the transformative cornerstone belief of those who would claim to be followers of Jesus.
I’m also reminded this morning of John’s eyewitness account of the resurrected Jesus’ words to his follower named Thomas. Doubtful of the truth of the resurrection, the resurrected Jesus invited Tom to examine the nail holes in His wrists and place his fingers in the spear wound in Jesus’ side. Tom was convinced and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.”
“You believe because of what you’ve seen,” Jesus said, then added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and believed.”
To the latter group you can add this doubting Thomas.