Of First Importance

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Kephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NAB)

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Those of us in the church have become so accustomed to the story of Christ’s resurrection that that we miss its strangeness. Do you remember the Hale-Bopp comet that came by here a few years ago? Do you also remember the group of people in California who dressed in purple, committed suicide and thought that they were dropping their bodies so that they could ride in the space ship traveling behind the comet? Now that was a strange story.

For many people, Christian talk about a man beaten to a pulp and hung on a cross to die, who then rose from the dead, is equally bizarre. They think that it is wishful thinking on our part. They think that we are so desperate to find some hope in this world that we’ll believe anything. Life is hard, and they think that we’re just not tough enough to deal with reality. Dead is dead. They think that the first Christians were either sick in the head or charlatans who perpetrated the greatest fraud on earth.

So, is it true? If it’s not true, we are lost. Dead is dead. If it’s not true, we are a pathetic lot. People ought to feel sorry for us poor, deluded Christians. If it’s not true, let’s just go home and never come back here again.

Did you know that there used to be a time when the testimony of women didn’t count as much as that of a man? And who does the story say were the first witnesses of the resurrection? A group of women! I believe that if I were making up a story like this, I would have a different set of witnesses. Remember Otis on the Andy Griffith show. He was the town drunk that always came and slept it off in Andy’s jail. If I were going to make up a story, I don’t think that I would make Otis the star witness. Who is going to believe him? Two thousand years ago, who was going to believe a group of women?

And speaking of making up stories, I don’t believe that I would make myself look bad in a story I made up. I think I would make myself be the hero. But the disciples didn’t even go to the tomb. They left it to a group of women. And then nobody could believe it at first. Even the women went running and screaming from the tomb. If we were truly to try to recreate that first Easter morning, we shouldn’t be trying to recreate joy. We should be trying to recreate fear and terror. That was their first emotion.

And I also think I would make things more spectacular. One early Christian writer did just that. A hundred or so years after the New Testament was written, a Christian wrote a story that scholars call “The Gospel of Peter”. In this story, the disciples actually see Jesus rise from the dead and leave the tomb. He goes shooting up to heaven like a fourth of July rocket, and his cross comes flying up behind him. Now, that’s a story! But is it true? No, it’s not. But our story isn’t like that. It has little touches that are unlikely to be intentional fabrications.

And remember, early Christians came to believe that Jesus rose not only because they found an empty tomb on Easter morning, but because Jesus appeared to many different people in many different places and circumstances over a period of time. Mark doesn’t record them in his gospel, but Paul reminds us of them.

Of course, some have argued that these appearances were all mass hallucinations. There is no evidence for this type of phenomenon, and the internal evidence from the New Testament suggests that Jesus’ followers resisted the idea of him rising from the dead. According to their own testimony, they were ready to call the whole thing off and go home. How and why would such a widespread hallucination take place? The mass psychosis theory is clearly grasping at straws.

Or some have argued that the disciples knowingly perpetrated a fraud. They conspired to trick people. It would be a strange conspiracy, indeed. What did the first Christians get from the resurrection story except for persecution and ridicule? It certainly didn’t make them rich or powerful. Their opponents put them to death, fed them to wild animals, cut off their heads, set them on fire, and no one ever said, “We made it all up.”

Or maybe the first Christians were just wrong. Some people think that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. Interestingly, that little detail in John about blood and water coming from Jesus’ side fits perfectly with modern medical knowledge about post mortem effects in the body. Of course, the Bible was written before modern medicine knew such things. And I think it would be hard to confuse a half-dead, bruised and bloody wreck of a man for someone that had just conquered death.

One thing I can tell you for sure: there was no tomb that held Jesus’ body. All that anyone would have to say the minute that these Christians started talking about Jesus rising from the dead was, “Are you nuts? Here’s his corpse.” For this reason, some have argued that his corpse was simply thrown in the trash. Again there is no evidence for this. Opponents of the resurrection argue for it out of necessity. The consistent witness of the church, however, has been that “he was buried.” In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says, in effect, “We proclaim to you that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, and that he appeared to many,” including some who had a hard time believing in him.

Is it true?

Early Christians proclaimed that Jesus rose from the dead based on an empty tomb and people claiming to see Jesus alive. Those who do not accept the resurrection of Jesus need to find a better explanation for the stories around the empty tomb and the appearances. If you take a close look at all the theories that have been proposed to explain those two facts, you’ll find that each of them calls for an incredible leap of faith. In my opinion, none of the alternatives offers a more intellectually satisfying explanation. Such reasoning doesn’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus rose from the dead, but I think that believers today do need to know that the core of their faith – that which is of first importance – is not any more “irrational” that its alternatives.

Some women came to the tomb of a man named Jesus one Sunday morning, but they found the tomb empty. Do you know why that is? It is because Jesus rose from the dead, defeating forever the power of sin and death.

And that’s the truth.

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