Sermon Ideas For 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Part 9
Mention to just about any knowledgeable Christian that the lectionary text of the day is 1 Corinthians 15 and they will say, “Oh, the resurrection.” Today’s lesson is indeed drawn from the great, soaring Pauline take on the resurrection—with a twist. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that this particular text represents Paul’s take on the resurrection with one less twist than we have come to expect. Readers of Paul are well conditioned to associate resurrection with salvation. Whenever Paul brings up the subject of the resurrection, we prepare ourselves to hear about its significance—i.e., its saving power. To say that this linking of subjects represents a favorite homiletical move of the Apostle Paul is to put it mildly. However in the first eleven verses of 1 Corinthians 15, the Preacher Paul has a different agenda.
Since the super-spiritual Corinthians seem to be skittish about bodily-ness in general, and in danger of underestimating the importance of the resurrection of the dead (anastasis nekron, literally, “the rising of the corpses”) in the greater scheme of things, Paul sets out to make the case for the centrality of the doctrine. Resurrection is an essential plank in the gospel, he argues, reminding the Corinthians of their belief (vv.1-2) in Christ’s resurrection and of the creed (vv. 3-5) in which it is expressed. He goes on to mention the hundreds of witnesses who could verify Christ’s resurrection, including the Apostle himself (vv. 6-11). The great rhetorician is winding up to correct the Corinthians’ theology, and he starts by reminding them that the resurrection of Christ is a well-attested fact, one that is fundamental to the faith. While it is impossible to imagine that Paul is ever indifferent to the saving significance of the resurrection, it is not the primary thing on his mind in vv. 1-11. Instead, he is like a grade-school teacher whose students have lost track of the value of x in a complicated math problem. “Back to the beginning,” he says. “The resurrection of Christ is real.”
In this emphasis on the reality of the resurrection is one possible focus for the sermon. Preachers who can adopt the approach taken by John Updike in Seven Stanzas at Easter, calling for a return to the belief in a “real resurrection”—a belief in the body of the resurrected Christ “weighty with Max Planck’s quanta”1—will be able to preach a sermon quite close to Paul’s. These preachers can make liberal use of words like “tangible,” “literal,” “concrete,” and “bodily” in their sermons with the assurance that they are being very faithful indeed to the text’s original argument. Those of us who, like the Corinthians, are more flummoxed by Paul’s subject will either have to settle for a secondary level of the text’s message or preach the intention of the text in more general terms—i.e., emphasizing the “reality” or theological “importance” of the resurrection.
Despite eschatological differences, all Christian preachers can agree on the second possible approach to preaching this text, which depends simply on admiring Paul’s opening rhetorical move (vv. 1-5) and imitating his use of the creed. The creed that has long played a key role in shaping Christian worship and nurturing the faith of individual believers, has fallen on hard times lately. A sermon which affirms the value of creeds for converting imagination and strengthening faith may be a timely one. Periodically, it is necessary to call the people of God back to basics—either for the purposes of re-examining core convictions or confirming them. Without the continuity (“in accordance with the scriptures”) that creeds, scriptures and traditions represent, our faith is vulnerable to subjectivism, syncretism, and relativism, to name just a few of the potentially corrosive “ism’s.” Without the community that the creeds form, social differences overwhelm us and theological agenda divide us and our “faith is in vain.”
Finally, there is a sermon in Paul’s digression. Though his main goal for this section of the letter is to correct the Corinthians’ view of resurrection, he is not above taking a side trip if it serves his larger purposes. In vv.8-11, he finds a profitable rabbit trail. “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me.” This allows Paul not only to subtly reinforce his own authority but to turn a personal insult to advantage. The insult, found in the phrase “one untimely born,” is thought to have been leveled originally against Paul by his critics and to refer to his physical weakness. Paul cleverly seizes the opportunity to make the point that God works through weak flesh—in fact, the effectiveness of his own ministry is proof that “God’s grace is not in vain.” In doing so, he models a homiletical form sometimes neglected in contemporary preaching, that of personal testimony. Note that he models it effectively, avoiding casting himself as a hero, keeping the focus on God’s activity and employing irony and self-effacing humor.
San Francisco Theological Seminary
San Anselmo, CA
1. John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” in Collected Poems 1953-1993 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1005), pp.