Commentary: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Paul has been wading through some volatile issues: sexual immorality, abuses at the Lord's Supper, speaking in tongues. He now pauses before the final topic, which may prove the most volatile of them all--the resurrection of the dead.
What authority can Paul claim vis-a-vis this foundational, yet deeply mysterious topic?
Does he have a graduate degree in the physiology of death and dying? Has he been inducted into the rites of the most exclusive Greek mystery religions? Has he, Paul, had a near-death experience that he can cite and use as tour guide to the after-life--bright light, familiar faces, decision regarding whether or not to return?
No. The movement of this transitional passage reveals grounds for authority much more mundane by worldly standards: an appeal to tradition, a citation of the line of succession, and the underlying movement of grace.
B. Appeal to Tradition
The controlling verbs of this passage are not verbs of discovery and novelty, but of transmission: "I remind you...that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received" (v. 1 ), "For I handed on to you...what I in turn received" (v. 3); "So we proclaim and so you have come to believe" (v. 11).
Likewise, the object of this transmission process is not so much a new insight, or marvelous wisdom, as the "good news" or "gospel" (v.1 ) grounded firmly in the scriptures (the phrase, "in accordance with the scriptures," occurs twice in this passage in consecutive verses, 3 and 4).
The core of this tradition (vv. 3-7) is recounted in a manner devoid of originality ("Christ died...he was buried...he was raised...") and personal touches (until verse 8 and Paul's "untimely" birth), all of which combine to make the point: "This isn't my idea, it's been a long time coming. This is the good news I received and, in turn, have passed on."
C. Line of Succession
Nevertheless, this tradition has been transmitted in a highly personal way.
The "I" and the "you" that overpopulate this passage, refer to two very particular entities: Paul, an apostle and former persecutor; and the Corinthian church, full of divisions.
These two entities' sins have been forgiven, not anonymously, but by the Christ who then appears to an embarrassingly specific group--beginning with Cephas, then running through the 12, the 500, to James and the apostles.
Rumbling beneath all the controversies of the Corinthian church has been the controversy of authority ("I belong to Paul. I belong to Apollos." 1 Cor 1:12). Rather than making an appeal independent of names, Paul grounds his appeal in a list of alternative names. "This gospel as received by me and passed on to you."
D. Movement of Grace
It is this very juxtaposition of a scripture-old tradition and as-tangible-as-Cephas succession that forces the final move toward an underlying authority. The fact that the Corinthians are ultimately dependent on the least of the apostles, Paul, for the accurate receipt of this greatest of gifts, the gospel, makes clear that something other than mere tradition and succession is at work here--the movement of God's grace (as the phrase "in accordance with the scriptures" appeared twice consecutively early on in the passage, so the phrase "the grace of God" appears likewise at the end, verses 10 and 11). This is the only basis upon which to move to a discussion of the resurrection of the dead. "God's at work here! This is revelation!"
The readings for the season of Epiphany gather to remind us of the strange combination of ordinary and extraordinary means by which the good news of God reaches us. Some--like the prophet Isaiah (Is 6:1-8), the apostle Peter (Lk 5:1-11), and, last but not least, the apostle Paul (our passage)--have the privilege of seeing and hearing directly. But most of us must more simply, yet just as reliably, receive and pass on. "Why do I believe in the resurrection of the dead? Because I, Richard Boyce, received from my Sunday School teacher, Mary Rice, what I passed on to my friend, Allen Joslyn. It is solely by the grace of God that I am what I am and now dare to speak to you about the following..."