First Things — A Sermon for Epiphany 5C (1 Corinthians 15)

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

You may remember the Roots miniseries from the 1970s that told the story of Alex Haley’s ancestors, beginning with Kunta Kinte, who was ripped away from his home in Africa and sold into slavery. One of the key elements of the series is the family story that is passed on from generation to generation. In telling his own family story, as it moved through slavery, emancipation, and Jim Crow, he invited others to remember and retell their own family stories. While watching that mini-series as a white college student, I can tell you that it was not a comfortable experience. It was, however, a powerful one. 

This increased interest in genealogy and family history has only increased in recent years, with the dawn of DNA testing. Whether its “23 and Me” or “Ancestry,” we can now discover our genetic roots. People are exploring their roots as a way of discovering a sense of identity. People want to know where they come from.  Although I haven’t taken the DNA test, my mother has. My father probably would have done this had he lived long enough, because he was very interested in the history of the Cornwall family.  My own searches are largely incomplete because I’m too cheap to pay for the full package. But, I am the possessor of family stories passed down through time.

One story, from my mother’s side of the family, tells of our family ancestor John Rogers, who was the first Protestant martyr Queen Mary sent to the stake. There is also a story that comes from my father’s side of the family about  a ruby necklace that Cheryl now possesses. According to the story, this necklace  was smuggled out of Russia during the Revolution by my great-grandmother, who sewed it into the hem of her dress. Family stories like these are passed down from generation to generation, so we can know who we are and where we come from.

We as a congregation have our own “family stories” that have been passed down from generation to generation. These contribute to our congregational DNA. Anniversary celebrations can help us retell the stories. So, for instance, this year marks forty years in this building. When we moved into this building, we brought reminders of what went before, like the Lord’s Table that remains front and center. Then in 2020, we mark the centennial of Edgar DeWitt Jones’ arrival in Detroit, which led to the merger of several congregations and the building of the cathedral on Woodward Avenue. We could go further back, as I have been doing recently. I’ve been doing some research that centers on the 1860s when Isaac Errett came to Detroit. During his tenure in Detroit, two very different congregations ultimately emerged. One trajectory led toward the presence of the non-instrumental Churches of Christ in metro-Detroit. The other trajectory led to us. Both branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement can trace their history back to a gathering of families in 1841, which then diverged in the 1860s. Both branches of the movement share some DNA, even as both groups have added new strands of DNA over time.

As we turn to chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, we find Paul reminding the Corinthians of the story which had first been shared with him, and which he had then shared with them. In other words, he wanted them to acknowledge their own spiritual DNA. This reminder comes to us after we’ve spent the previous three Sundays with Paul.  We’ve heard him talk about spiritual gifts, the body of Christ, and the more excellent way of love. In this reading Paul takes us back to the basic message he had shared with the Corinthians and now shares with us, so that together with the Corinthians we can remember who we are in Christ.

The word we hear this morning leads to a longer conversation about the resurrection of Jesus. Chapter fifteen complements the message Paul shared in chapter one about the cross, which “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). This message that begins with the foolishness of the cross in chapter one concludes in chapter fifteen with the message of the resurrection. These two chapters serve as bookends to chapters 2 through 14, which offer words of guidance about the Christian life, which according to Charles Campbell, “is lived in the dynamic relationship between crucifixion and resurrection” [Campbell, 1 Corinthians, p. 244]. 

Paul begins chapter 15 by reminding the Corinthians “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.”  That is, “if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you.” What is this message? The answer comes in the form of an early creed. He offers them what he believes is “of first importance.” What he is about to tell them, was first told to him, though he doesn’t reveal the source, at least not at first. 

While we Disciples call ourselves a non-creedal church, and claim part of our family history the slogan “No creed by Christ, no book but the Bible,” this creed is found in the Bible. So, we might want to pay attention to it. This is, in Paul’s mind, a statement of first things. They’re centered on three events: Christ died for our sins, he was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day. This confessional statement is in accord with the Scriptures and was witnessed to by a multitude of witnesses, beginning with Cephas, otherwise known as Peter. The remainder of the list includes the twelve, then five hundred brothers and sisters, all at one time. While some had died, many remain alive.  Then the risen Jesus appeared to James, the brother of Jesus. Finally, the Risen Christ appeared to Paul. While the Gospels offer us a few other witnesses, including Mary Magdalene,  not named here, this is Paul’s list.

When Paul offered up this confession of faith, he had more than one concern in mind. One of the issues he faced had to do with his authority in the Corinthian Church. Not everyone embraced his apostolic calling. So, he has to defend it. He admits he is counted among the least of the apostles. In fact, he admits that he’s unfit to be an apostle. After all, he has a few skeletons in his closet. I’m sure his opponents had brought up the fact that he had once persecuted the church of God. He acknowledges this fact and admits he was he was untimely born.  That phrase is interesting in that it carries the sense of having been aborted. But, by God’s grace he was made clean. Yes, he had an unsavory past. But, by God’s grace Jesus called him to be an apostle so he could bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus. He might not have been there on Easter morning, but Jesus had issued the Apostolic calling.   

Paul acknowledged the questions circling about in the community. He understood people were wondering whether they could trust him. If he had persecuted the church before, might he do it again? All that Paul could offer in response was the grace of God. 

In a moment we’ll sing John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace.”  Like Paul, Newton had a past. He had once been a slave ship captain, but now by God’s grace he was a new person. So, he sang out in praise to God: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” Paul had been lost, but then he was found. Because Jesus found him, by God’s grace he could pass on this foundational confession of faith in the one who was crucified, buried, and then raised on the third day. If we receive this message, we receive the gift of salvation. This three-point confession is the starting point of our faith. It is  the origin of our Christian DNA. 

In the readings from Isaiah 6 and Luke 5, which accompany this reading from 1 Corinthians 15, we hear about the callings of Isaiah and Peter to their respective ministries. Their encounters with God led, as one commentator noted, to “missional engagement.”  We may not have as powerful a call to ministry as Isaiah, Peter, or Paul, but each of us has been called to live in the grace of God that comes to us as we embrace by faith the one who was  crucified, buried, and then raised to life. 

After Paul offers up these first principles of the faith, he invokes a chain of witnesses to the resurrection, counting himself among them.  Beth Felker Jones suggests that we can add ourselves to this list:  

“We are the next link in the chain of those created by the resurrection of Jesus, but we are not to be the last link in that chain. Though we do not see Jesus in the flesh, we are connected to this line of witnesses, to the fleshly eyes that saw him so, and we are called upon to join this chain of witnesses to the resurrection story to others who stand in need of its hope.” [Connections, p. 234].

As another old song declares: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going,  . . .  [so] you want to pass it on.” That is our calling. Like Paul, Isaiah, and Peter, we have been called to pass on to the next generation the message of God’s grace, which is revealed to us in the one who was crucified, buried, and raised to life on the third day “in accordance with the Scriptures.” 

Preached by Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor