The Sermon Mall



First Things First

1 Corinthians 15:3-4
Max Lucado tells the story of two mischievous boys who, one night under the cover of darkness, slipped into a local department store after hours. Their intent was not to steal merchandise. They were simply searching for some boyish fun. They traveled the length and breadth of the department store, never shoplifting anything. The only thing they did was switch the price tags on items throughout the store. They took price tags of expensive items and placed them on inexpensive items. They took price tags of cheap items and put them on costly items, and then the boys left the store.
The next morning when the store opened for business, shoppers were amazed and bewildered to find expensive jewelry and big-screen TV’s with price tags under ten dollars. Shoppers also found cheap household items with price tags of hundreds of dollars. By switching the price tags, those mischievous lads had caused enormous confusion in that department store.
In a similar way, our spiritual enemy, Satan, is causing terrible confusion in the world by switching the price tags on our values and morals. The evil one sneaks into the family, the church, and the wider community under the cover of darkness and switches the price tags. Satan takes valuable things and makes them look cheap. Satan takes cheap things and makes them look valuable.
Priceless “assets” like godliness, devotion to family, monogamy, sacrificial service, and a life of prayer have been called cheap. Cheap things like the unrestrained gratification of our basest desires and looking out for “me, myself, and I,” with no regard for the community have been labeled as priceless.
Our priorities are all out of order. The evil one has switched the price tags. We don’t know anymore what is priceless and what is cheap. We are confused about what should be first on our list and about what should not even be on our list.
One might hope that the church would be sacrosanct from this moral helter-skelter, but unfortunately there is considerable “price-tag switching” occurring in the sanctified corridors and holy hallways of the church. We proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, but frequently, even in the church, our ethics are drawn more from “the Market” than from the Messiah.
The Messiah taught us to use our advantage for the advantage of the disadvantaged. “The Market” compels us to use our advantage for our advantage and only to help the disadvantaged if it offers us a tax advantage. Often, instead of faithfully following the blood-spattered way of Christ, we slide down the slope of crass individualism. Can we restore the “price tags” to their rightful places?
Perhaps, the apostle Paul may guide our efforts to regain some order.
In 1 Corinthians 15, as Paul hastens to close his involved missive, he reminds his hearers to keep “first things first.” This advice that was given in the first century is quite germane even in the twenty-first century. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”
The Corinthian congregation was experiencing “growing pains.” In Paul’s absence, certain aspects of community life had gone awry, and this fledgling congregation needed to re-establish its moorings. Throughout this letter, Paul struggles to clarify his vision of the church, dealing with everything from sex to money. However, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 Paul gets down to the “nitty-gritty” of the gospel message. Paul says, in effect, “In the preceding portions of my letter, I have talked about many aspects of life in Christ, but lest you get confused, let’s keep the main thing as the main thing.”
In this passage, Paul hands on to his converts what somebody had handed on to him. It is usually a dangerous practice to believe things that come off the “grapevine.” Marvin Gaye once crooned, “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” Hearsay can be treacherous. There are, however, exceptions to every rule. Paul is passing on “holy hearsay.” His report is not gossip but the gospel. “I handed on you to what I had received.”
The story Paul tells is not new, nor does it originate with him. He learned it from his forebears in the faith. In this age of rapidly developing technology, we are often seduced into believing that “newer” always means “better,” and we have an inherent disdain for tradition. I am grateful for our many technological advancements, but in spite of the forward February of progress, sometimes it is good to visit old landmarks. The gospel story is an old landmark that points each generation of believers in the direction of heaven. The Corinthians received it from Paul, who in turn had received it from someone else. We received the gospel from others, and as we live it and tell it, others will receive it from us. Our responsibility is to keep that old story first on our agenda.
In our Bible studies, Sunday school classes, and seminaries, we have every right to chronicle the history of the story, to analyze the rhetoric of the story, and to investigate the characters in the story. But above all else, our chief priority ought to be to believe the story, to live the story, and to proclaim to others the truth of the story. We must keep first things first.
Our spiritual disciplines and practices can quickly become vacuous if they are not grounded and nourished by this story. The voluminous biblical commentaries that line the walls of countless theological libraries are repositories of empty verbiage if they do not exalt the truth of this story, a truth that Paul synopsizes in a few pithy declarations. Lest we take this story for granted, Paul places it before us in its starkest simplicity.
“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures….” Throughout this letter Paul suggests that neither human wisdom nor rhetorical sophistication can secure our salvation. “I am aware,” intimates Paul, “that some of you are enamored with the lucid erudition of the philosophers and even the compelling rhetoric of my silver-tongued preaching comrade, Apollos. But in the providence of God, God has chosen weakness to demonstrate God’s strength and foolishness to demonstrate God’s wisdom. Since Christ came, the road to salvation does not lead to the halls of power and learning, but rather to a blood-soaked, skull-shaped hill, where on a dark Friday Jesus was shamefully affixed to a tree.”
On that tree, Christ was hung up for our hang-ups. On that tree, Christ made up for our mess-ups. “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures….” Such a simple, but powerful statement concerning forgiveness and atonement. Those of us who lead and participate in theological communities, whether they are ecclesial or academic, must be on guard that we do not make the gospel story so complex and sophisticated that the story becomes secondary to our need to appear erudite. Listen to Paul’s simple, essential statement of the gospel. “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures….” Christ stayed on the cross until our debt was paid in full. He stayed on the cross until the gates of hell swung shut and until the gates of heaven swung open.
But in the simple story not only did Christ die, and not only was he buried, but also Paul declares that Christ rose on the third day. It is a simple story, but Paul says it is of first importance. Keep first things first. Don’t major in minor things. Keep the central truth of the faith always first in your mind.
Remember Calvary, and by all means celebrate the resurrection every chance you get. The resurrection is not a truth to be politely re-enacted once a year. On the contrary, the resurrection is the truth of the Christian faith. Whatever else you do, always remember the resurrection.
Christ died and was buried for my pardon, but he rose again that I might have power. Pardon without power is a clean conscience but a weak life. Pardon without power is to win the battle but to lose the war. Pardon without power is like having a big check but no way to cash it. The resurrection is the guarantee that in Christ we have power! In another letter Paul reminds us that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead lives in you and in me.
His resurrection is my guarantee of victorious living. As we preach, teach, and reach in the service of God’s kingdom, let us always keep first things first. When people sit in our pews, share in our liturgies, and hear our sermons, may they leave not talking about how great we are but about how good God is. Keep first things first.
Because Jesus lives, I can walk right, talk right, sing right, and pray right. Because he lives, I can take it, and I will make it. Because he lives, I will keep climbing, even if I have to go up the rough side of the mountain. Because he lives, the grave is not my final destination; now, it is only a temporary layover. Because he lives, death is no longer the final tragic scene. In Christ’s resurrection, death has been reduced to a mere intermission before the grand finale of everlasting life!
Brad Ronnell Braxton
Divinity School