No Facts No Faith
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (KJV)
1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;
2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:
6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.
7 After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
8 And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
9 For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
11 Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.
There is a famous line from the radio and television police drama, Dragnet. Sgt. Joe Friday says to female characters he’s interviewing, “Just the facts, ma’am.” There’s just one problem. The fact is he never said it. The line came from spoof of the show.
Unless you’re playing Jeopardy that fact doesn’t matter. But the Gospel is different. The Gospel stands or falls with facts.
1. The Gospel and the Corinthians
Corinth was a seaport town, capital of the Roman province of Achaia, and, with a population of 200,000, one of the largest cities in the Empire. It was a Gentile city with a large Jewish community. Corinth had many pagan temples, and its citizens practiced many forms of immorality. It was so bad that the verb “to Corinthianize” meant engage in sexual immorality.
But in Corinth people, both Jews and Gentiles, had become Christians and a church planted. How did that happen?
St. Paul preached the Gospel. What is preaching? Preaching always includes teaching, but it is more than teaching. It is an announcement, or proclamation, of the good news of what God has done in Christ with a call to respond with faith, repentance, and discipleship.
Paul arrived in Corinth and each sabbath reasoned in the Jewish synagogue seeking to persuade Jews and Gentiles that Jesus is the Messiah. The Jews became hostile. Paul left synagogue and moved to the house of a Gentile believer. Over a year and a half many people believed and received Christian baptism. (Acts 18:1-17)
The Gospel Paul preached was the same all the Apostles preached: “...whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.” There can be great differences of personality and style among preachers, but no differences of message. There is only one Gospel.
Paul had received and passed on the Gospel. Paul uses the language of tradition. Families have Christmas traditions. Susan’s family opened presents Christmas mornings, working their way around the room from youngest to oldest, each opening only one gift at a time We received that and passed it on to our kids. So it is with the Gospel. Christ gave it to the Apostles. They preached and inscripturated it. By the Scriptures they handed it down to the church, a tradition to be preserved unchanged from generation to generation.
The Corinthians received and believed the Good News of salvation. Faith means more than possessing information, or believing the information is true. It is entrusting yourself to the Jesus Christ proclaimed. The Corinthians had not just received and believed while Paul was there. They continued to have their secure standing with God by the Gospel.
They were being saved by the Gospel. They had been saved from sin’s guilt and condemnation when they believed. But the Gospel’s work is not static but dynamic. The Gospel preserves us now in our relationship with God, delivering from sin’s control, and gradually transforming us into Christ-likeness.
The Gospel has this saving effect for us, assuming we continue to hold fast to it (better ESV “if you hold fast to the word I preached to you” than KJV “if ye keep in memory”). Paul does not mean to undermine our sense of security in Christ or to suggest we can move in and out of salvation but to tell us that not believing in vain means continuing to believe and hold fast to the Gospel.
We, like the Corinthians, are Christians because the Gospel was preached to us and because we believed.
2. The Gospel and the Facts
The Gospel is based in historical facts. Some think that Christianity is not a religion of historical truth but mythological truth. A myth is not necessarily a lie but a truth not dependent on objective historical facts. The original audience may have thought it was historical fact. We know better. There were no fire eating dragons, but myths about evil dangers in the world. Some take this view of the history in the Bible, including the history Jesus. Jesus may or may not have ever lived, but the story of his life tells about a life lived with love, goodness, and God-consciousness.
Paul stakes the Gospel on facts.
Christ died. No one then or now would object to saying he died, for all die. They would have a problem but with the way he made sense of it: “Christ died for our sins according the Scriptures.” Paul is thinking about places such as Isaiah 53.
... he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities...the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all….he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors (Is. 53:5,6,12).
Jews and Greeks had their problems with Christ’s dying for sins. But what about today? The main objection today is, “Why would it be necessary for Christ to die for our sins? We’re doing the best we can. And, if God has anything against us, why can’t he just be nice and let it go?” But the Gospel is for transgressors. It is good news for those who cry out with the Publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” They find mercy because Christ died for our sins.
He was buried. One significance of Christ’s death is to establish the reality of his death. He was, as Scrooge said of Marley, “dead as a doornail.” When he appeared to be dead, to be certain a soldier thrust a spear into his side. Then he was buried.
Christ rose again the third day. This is the most controversial fact. Then and now, people object, “Dead men don’t rise.” Paul says that Christ was seen by (1) Cephas [Peter], (2) the Twelve [the other Apostles], (3) 500 brethren at one time, most of them still alive, though some by now had died, (4) James, the half-brother of Jesus, and (5) all the Apostles, not just the original Twelve, but all including Matthias and Paul. Paul is saying that there are eyewitnesses and so many of them who saw him at different times that the resurrection cannot be explained as an hallucination.
Nothing is more likely to be re-interpreted as myth than Jesus’s resurrection. On a Good Friday the Washington Post had a story about the coming Easter. It quoted a theologian who said that, if the bones of Jesus were discovered tomorrow, it would make no difference to her faith. She would still go to church on Easter. Some take the resurrection as a myth that about renewal and hope or the conviction that the dead are alive to our memories or alive in some spiritual way.
Paul will have none of that kind of stuff. He writes later in this chapter:
And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up.. And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. (1 Cor. 15: 14,15,17,18)
Christianity is a faith built on facts. The facts of Christ’s death for our sins, his burial, and his resurrection from the dead. By believing these things and entrusting ourselves to Christ we are saved. St Peter says, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).
Paul was not just a preacher of this Gospel. He was first a recipient of the Gospel and its grace. He had been “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” but “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:13, 15). But so great is the grace of God in the Gospel that, though Paul had persecuted the church of God, God chose him to be the last eyewitness of the risen Christ who appeared to him on the road to Damascus. And Christ chose him to be an Apostle to take the Gospel to the Gentiles.
If the Gospel saved Paul, don’t you think it can save you and me? If the grace of the Gospel is such that God made Paul an Apostle, don’t you think he can use people like you and me?
At this Holy Table we testify that we believe Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he rose from the dead. And here by faith we have Holy Communion with the risen and ascended Christ who nourishes us with the food of his sacrificed body and refreshes us with the drink of his shed blood.