Preaching 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Today's sermon can deal directly with the explicit content of the Epistle (the centrality of the resurrection in the Christian faith) or with what the reading implies about the nature of religious knowledge (that it is a gift revealed to us by God, not the product of human intelligence or inventiveness). Or, you may decide to combine both in the sermon, since God's activity is at the center of each. The decision will depend upon the interests and needs of your congregation as you perceive them, and upon your larger preaching program over a period of months. These options will be considered in turn.
(1) The contemporary understanding of resurrection often is too anemic to be central to a vital Christianity. Often the resurrection is regarded as a kind of isolated act by which the man Jesus is restored to life--a resuscitation not unlike that of Lazarus, Jairus' daughter, or the son of the widow of Nain. As such, the resurrection becomes a puzzle to the scientifically-oriented believer and yet another manifestation of superstition to the skeptic.
But Paul is not announcing a mere prolongation of days (or years even) to the existence of the historical Jesus; he is proclaiming a cosmic victory, in which we are to find the clue to God's renewal of all that is. This is the theme of the entire fifteenth chapter of 2 Corinthians; if, on the next several Sundays, you do not wish to concentrate on the Epistle, in today's consideration you will want to draw upon the full message of the chapter, in order that Paul may adequately challenge interpretations which mistakenly equate resurrection with resuscitation. What needs to be stressed in the sermon is that resurrection is something far more than the reviving of a corpse, not something less (as often appears to be the case when preachers amble on about how Jesus seems real to the disciples in his absence, as if resurrection were simply wish fulfillment for those beset by deep grief). A chief task of the preacher, then, is to expand the understanding and excite the emotions of the listener in relation to resurrection.
Resurrection understood theologically is something radically new and beyond the categories of description we have. Even the usual symbols often are more constrictive (because they domesticate resurrection) than expansive. Butterflies, spring flowers, and sunrises do not do it because none of these is radically new, no matter how refreshing each may be. Anyone who knows the elemental laws of biology or astronomy can explain these as expected phenomena. But the resurrection is unexpected and beyond explanation. That is why it is such a difficult subject for preachers.
A few years ago, Prof. Rebecca Abts Wright, who teaches Old Testament at the University of the South School of Theology, while preaching on the resurrection and at what seemed might be about the midpoint in the sermon, said: "Ultimately the resurrection is one of those things beyond our ability to discuss, a mystery too great to be fathomed. There are some things we need to talk about and some things we need to be silent about." Whereupon she descended the pulpit steps. Quiet gasps rippled across the congregation as listeners realized what she had just done. Other preachers may or may not wish to emulate her dramatic technique; but any preaching on the resurrection that is effective should cause the congregation to gasp, even if only metaphorically.
(2) Implied in the Epistle is helpful teaching about religious knowledge. Paul asserts that he is handing on what he has received. "Tradition" literally means that which is handed on. Thus religious teaching is not simply the unchecked opinions of one person. Granted all the problems of institutionalized religion, this is a crucial guard against the excesses of a David Koresh or a Jim Jones. It is for this reason that the church takes so seriously its scriptures, handed on from generation to generation, and to the hermeneutical assumptions (though I would never use such a phrase in a sermon) by which they are interpreted.
Even more crucial is a second Pauline assertion: that what the apostle has handed on is centered in divine activity. There are many traditions that can be transmitted, and some are mutually exclusive. What Paul is handing on has to do with God's self-revelation in Jesus. This is not something invented by anyone, including the apostles, but is God's gift experienced by Cephas and the 12 and the 500; by James and all the apostles; and finally by Saul of Tarsus himself.
Thus the sermon may well begin with the question, On what do we base our faith as Christians? On hearsay? On philosophical speculation? On direct communication between an angel and each believer individually? No! The sermon can then proceed with affirmations about the importance of the corporate community of faith, about its heritage filtered through generations of human experience, about serious, sustained study within the church with a view to correcting distortions and misunderstandings (which are inevitable in human interaction generally, and certainly in any human interaction that is centered on knowledge of God). This process within the church incarnates the sage piece of wisdom which advises us that all of us are wiser than any one of us.
But then the preacher must delve more deeply: Christian faith is more than even the best collective wisdom of the ages. It rests on the goodness of God made known in Jesus Christ. God does not leave it to us to try to figure out the meaning of life, but comes to us in Jesus with good news beyond our best collective wisdom.
(3) If desired, the two themes can be joined, though this may produce a rather full sermon: The Christian faith is centered upon a radically new life, a transformation of cosmic proportions announced to us in the resurrection of Jesus. This is so beyond our grasp that human beings cannot have invented it nor can we adequately describe it. It comes to us as sheer gift from a gracious God. It is passed from generation to generation of faithful people, who struggle to put the unspeakable into human words, and who seek to make necessary corrections when that process goes awry. Thus we look to the past to learn this wonderful truth of God's love; and we wrestle with the problem of how we can most effectively and faithfully pass this faith on to our children and to generations beyond.