The Old, Old Story

Scripture: 1Corinthians 15:1-11

Forgetting

Have you ever forgotten something really important?

A doctor’s appointment?

A meet-up with a friend?

A school project or paper?

A bill?

There is something ubiquitous about forgetting important things. We’ve all done it. And we all know that panic that comes with remembering and realizing this failure and its gravity in our life and relationships.

Busyness & Forgetfulness

I’d like to blame it on our addiction to busyness. Various researchers have concluded that we now have more irons in the fire than perhaps ever before. And that constant activity—that constant engagement—that constant busyness has far-reaching and negative health and wellness consequences.

But the reality is that we did not only recently begin to forget important things. I believe that we have been created by God to live in the present, and that our forgetfulness comes from our attempts to live rather in the future or to remain in the past.

It may in fact be the biggest and most important things in our life that we are most likely to “forget”—or at least neglect.

How many marriages have atrophied because of pressing concerns that took away from the spouses’ investment in each other?

How many children have stunted relationships with a parent because of that parent’s focus on work, getting ahead, and providing a better life for their family?

How much of our relationship with Jesus takes a backseat to the more mundane concerns of life in this world?

There’s an expression we sometimes use—we “forget ourselves,” we say—meaning that we have lost track of our core priorities…… of the things that matter most to us. 

We can recognize—at least cognitively—that things like our marriage and family relationships and our relationship with Christ are among the most important realities in our lives, and yet…… Yet they are among the first that are neglected.

It may be they are neglected because they are obvious.

It may be they are neglected because our closeness leads us to believe that these relationships can survive a level of inattention. 

It may be that we just get distracted and deceived into priorities that are vastly different than the ones we would cognitively set—or that were demonstrated for us by Jesus.

Sometimes, we just need that gentle nudge—that reminder of what we already know and believe and think. That reminder of what we have, perhaps, forgotten at some functional level.

To the Scripture Text

That’s where Paul begins with the Corinthian church in today’s scripture lesson. There is nothing new here. If anything, Paul is taking them back to their elementary-age Sunday School class. He’s giving the children’s sermon, knowing (then as now) that it is often the adults that get as much or more out of it than do the kids themselves.

“Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters,
of the good news that I proclaimed to you,
which you in turn received,
in which also you stand,
through which also you are being saved”
(1Corinthians 15:1–2 NRSV)

What Paul—that great speaker, that master of rhetoric and debate, that dynamic catalyst of the missionary movement of the early church, that rhetorician able to stand toe to toe with anyone of his age—what Paul effectively does in the verses that follow is simply tell “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

The Story

Long ago, in ways that are both obvious to us and mysterious to us, God entered the world. 

God didn’t look like we expected……
didn’t appear where we expected……
didn’t do what we expected……

And yet……
The reality of God’s heart and being was more accurately portrayed than anything we could have expected.

I am talking about Jesus, of course. 

 

From the perspectives of culture and philosophy and sociology and psychology and even the more truthy perspectives that drive so much human behavior, it was all wrong.

But the scriptures say that Jesus entered the world “at the right time” (1Timothy 2:6). Or to quote Paul as he writes to the church at Galatia: 

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Galatians 4:4–5 NRSV)

In more grown-up terms, Paul speaks this old, old story in Colossians, where we read:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15–20 NRSV)

Or still again: as the reality of Christ is described in the old creeds:

“I believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all worlds;
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God;
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father,
by whom all things were made.” (Nicene Creed)

All of this, of course, is mysterious to us—in the sense that we cannot comprehend how the God who created the world actually entered it, and chose to do so with such humility. We can only confess this reality—and recognize that if God chose to do it this way, it must be the only way it could be done if God’s purposes for creation are to be fulfilled. 

Real Reality

But more to the point for Paul in 1Corinthians 15 is the historical reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s why all these eyewitnesses are invoked. 

Jesus—as Paul tells the Corinthians—was really real. And among the incredible things he has done for us, Jesus died for our sins, thereby opening up new possibilities for life with God in the here and now, as well as the ever-after. 

Though Jesus did die and was buried—like any other human being—he (quite unlike any other human being!) did not stay dead, because there is nothing (not even death!) that can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). 

There is no obstacle that can appear in this mortal life that the God who brought all things into being cannot overcome. 

There is no brokenness or death that cannot be reconciled through the power of the Kingdom that Jesus announces is available to us right now.

But the story doesn’t stop there…… because this isn’t just a fairy tale. It is true reality.

Can I Have a Witness?

This resurrected Jesus—fully and newly enlivened in the Kingdom of God—was seen by…… well… everybody it seems. 

To Peter (and of course to the women at the tomb even before then!)

To the Twelve, the group we call the “disciples,” even though Jesus clearly had disciples numbering far in excess of this inner-circle.

Then there was that time when Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at once—a story which, despite being noteworthy enough that Paul heard about it, apparently wasn’t included in any of the four gospels.

Then to James, and then to the rest of the apostles, which Paul certainly intends to be a larger (and seemingly altogether different) group than the Twelve.

Finally, in a post-Ascension appearance, Jesus was witnessed by Paul himself.

Expired Witnesses

Now in some ways, we could easily gloss over this list of witnesses, much as we often do the 2000 intervening years between them and us. After all, unlike Paul’s immediate hearers we cannot chase these sources down and hear their stories—not anymore.

But there remains something of great importance here for us too, as we consider the old, old story that Paul tells and that we confess. We should not miss the fact that Paul was offering verifiable proof of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. 

We human beings have trouble believing in invisible things. I don’t think that was always the case, but it certainly is in these post-enlightenment, post-modern, post-Christian, (to-often) post-traumatic times.

It’s hard to accept as real something that our normal five senses cannot help us grasp. Especially something like: God’s present Kingdom, for instance.

After all, that is really what’s being testified to by these people. In experiencing the resurrected Jesus, what they actually offer is factual evidence for what Jesus called the Kingdom of the Heavens—that invisible-yet-very-real reign of God which is available to us through Jesus, and which enables a life of blessedness and meaning and value beginning right now.

Their testimony matters because they were able to experience with their five senses something that most of us cannot. 

They were able to experience as real something that most of us struggle to see as reality.

And so even though we cannot interview them and fact-check their testimonies personally, what they offer demonstrates to those who believe (all over again) the reality of the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

Our Experiences

Now……

While most-if-not-all-of-us have not had an identical experience to that of these witnesses, we disciples of Jesus today do believe because we have had experiences of our own. 

We do offer testimony of a living Christ and a loving God and an active Spirit that has brought us into the Kingdom rule—at times (perhaps) despite our apparent attempts to avoid such things. 

Though our experiences may not be able to be verified in the same sorts of ways as these early witnesses:

Our experiences too testify to the very real reality of Christ’s Kingdom and its power. 

They too bear witness of the invisible things in which we struggle to believe. 

They too reinforce and nurture that mustard seed of faith that has begun to grow in each of our lives. 

It is the old, old story…… lived all over again.

That, after all, is the task of those who would be disciples of Jesus: to live the life of Christ in our present setting—to the best of our abilities and as empowered and transformed by the love of God and the Kingdom of Christ.

By recounting the old, old story and our place in it, we remember together that the life of Christ really is that easy. As Jesus beckoned two thousand years ago, so he beckons still:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28, 30 NRSV)

Experiencing God

Scripture: Psalm 71:1-6

A Challenging Week

It’s been one of those weeks. We’ve struggled against extreme weather. Several members of my own family have been quite ill, and I’ve needed to be a caregiver to them. And on top of it, I received a call to do a funeral, which took place yesterday.

It’s been one of those weeks that has left me feeling ill-prepared and under-equipped for this moment—the sermon. And this is a moment that some—rightly or wrongly—see as the most important task of my wide and varied job description.

But it’s not as though there hasn’t been preparation—through my own intent or through God’s abundant provision. Whether I realized it at the time or not, the words of this psalm have been echoing through me this week, as I have myself felt run down, overwhelmed, and even at times attacked.

Experiencing God

As I was reflecting and writing yesterday, I realized that God was preparing me through far more profound means. I anticipated writing a sermon based on this psalm about experiencing God. But God was focused on leading me through an experience of God that paralleled this psalm. That’s quite a difference.

“In you, O LORD, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me and save me. 

Be to me a rock of refuge,
a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.” (Psalm 71:1–3 NRSV) 

Maybe… (I have come to believe)…… maybe preaching about experiencing God wasn’t in the cards for this week. After all, many times in faith what we need is not to learn some new thing, but to be reminded of the thing we have known for some time.

What is it like to experience God as refuge? to find yourself somehow strangely secured in a fortress of the Great Another’s making?

You’ve experienced this. I’ve heard some of your stories. 

Think about your close calls…… your near misses…… 

Think about the dangers you anticipated that never materialized. 

Think about those things you worried about that ended up being nothing.

But remember too the very real dangers you experienced. That aggressive person. That car accident. That time you were lost in a strange place. 

You know what the refuge of God feels like because you’ve been there.

You know what it’s like (v.4) to pray for rescue. You know what it’s like to be threatened by unjust and cruel people and systems. You know these things because you’ve been there…… and you’ve told me and one other of how the presence and power of God saw you through.

Telling of the Experience

This is a psalm about experiencing God. It tries to put into words what it feels like when God comes through for you. 

But in my experience, it doesn’t seem to matter what words we use, they never feel quite enough, do they? Even when we try to testify to God’s action in our life, it never seems that we are able to communicate the depths of what we really feel—what we really experienced.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. As the scriptures tell over and over, there will always be those who are not disposed to hearing. Repeatedly in the New Testament, we encounter stories that look to us as unexplainably miraculous, yet the scriptures speak of persons who were present and who dismissed these displays of God’s Kingdom power as unremarkably mundane or even negative things.

Those Needing to Hear

But there are always others in those stories too—and in our stories. 

Others who are hurting. 

Others who are chewed up by life. 

Others who are disadvantaged by the system. 

Others who are aching for the slightest glimmer of hope.

Others who need to hear the testimony of people like you and I—testimony that speaks of God’s presence, God’s goodness, God’s compassion, God’s provision, God’s protection, God’s healing, and all the other ways that God demonstrates love and power.

Fishers of Folk

Sometimes in churches today I think we forget who we’re fishing for. We are quick to bait our line for those monster catches—you know, those young families of the middle- and upper-class. You catch one of those and it makes a big difference in the energy and resources that flow into your congregation. But there’s also a lot of fishing pressure for this species, and they’re shy to bite.

And yet there are thousands of un-fished-for folk practically swarming around us. Landing them may not bring as much prestige. They may not look like they have much to contribute. In fact, it may seem that they will absorb more resources than they will ever be able to contribute…… which (of course) is why so few churches “fish” for them.

But what is it Jesus said in Mark 2:17?

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (NRSV)

It’s the Pharisee leaders that Jesus is speaking to and about here; they are the ones who “have no need of a physician”—or at least they think they don’t. 

In their society, they are the ones who look like they’ve got it all together, who are respectable, who have some resources, and who are the “catch of the day.”

But in case you need a reminder, Jesus does not spend the bulk of his time trying to recruit the Pharisees to his mission. Instead, he spends the bulk his time with people that the Pharisees thought were the zeros of his world. 

The Beatitudes

In fact, this is how the Sermon on the Mount begins—with the shocking revelation that even the nothings of the world have equal value, and access to the Kingdom.

Dallas Willard begins his paraphrase of the Beatitudes like this:

“Blessed are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’—when the kingdom of the heavens comes upon them.” (The Divine Conspiracy, p.100).

In his Cotton Patch Gospel, Clarence Jordan follows a similar path:

“The spiritually humble are God’s people,
for they are citizens of his new order.

They who are deeply concerned are God’s people,
for they will see their ideas become reality.

They who are gentle are his people,
for they will be his partners across the land.

They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people,
for they will be given plenty to chew on.

The generous are God’s people,
for they will be treated generously.

Those whose motives are pure are God’s people,
for they will have spiritual insight.

Men of peace and good will are God’s people,
for they will be known throughout the land as his children.

Those who have endured much for what’s right are God’s people;
they are citizens of his new order.”

You see, these un-fished-for folk are the ones who need to experience God. They are the ones who—to be blunt—end up being most amenable to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and why? Because they realize they can’t do it on their own. They realize they need some help to get through. They know they haven’t done everything right—or even anything to deserve favor or kindness—and so experiencing the compassion and love of God through the Body of Christ is revelatory…… it is revolutionary. It’s like…… being born again.

And that’s what all this faith-in-Jesus stuff is about, really. It’s about discovering that the kingdom life available to us through Jesus begins in the present, and continues uninterrupted by physical death into a “forever after” with the God who loves us.

That was the content of Jesus’ first sermon, and that was the revolutionary thrust of the early church.

Transforming Experience

But it was never an idea that changed anyone’s mind. It has always been an experience that mattered—an experience of God. 

That experience is what transforms us in ways that we could not change on our own. 

That experience is what fuels us to live out the radical commitment of love that is a hallmark of the Kingdom. 

And that experience is the one and only thing that will ever convince anyone of the reality of God, Christ, and his Kingdom.

Prayer

Let us pray.

God, we thank you for your love,
a love most fully experienced
through Jesus the Christ,
who demonstrated his love for us
by entering this world,
and by dying that we might have life.

We thank you for your abundant provision,
your oft-unseen protection,
and your omnipresent availability and presence.

Draw us deeper into experience of you,
that we might be transformed into your likeness,
sharing your heart and mind,
by submitting to your rule in our lives;
so that through our transformation and testimony,
others will be drawn
into their own life-changing experience of you.

To you be the glory and the honor and the praise forever, Amen.