1 Corinthians 15:1-11
When I was learning to swim, I did fine on the backstroke, the sidestroke, and the breaststroke, but I just couldn't get the crawl down right. My instructor, Hans (not Frans), and most of the rest of the class all took their breath on their left side. I just couldn't get the rhythm down to breathe at the right point in the stroke. I would try to turn my head to the left and breathe, but I'd suck in a big gulp of water, or I'd get completely out of rhythm with my arms. I'd try, over and over, and every time I'd mess up. My mother, who couldn't swim a stroke, said, "Why don't you try breathing on the right?" Rolling my eyes in my very best seven year old manner, I'd say, "No, Mom, you're supposed to breathe on the LEFT!" And back I'd go in the water to sputter and splash and fail.
After days of this humiliation, Hans said, "Brooke, try breathing on the right side." So, filled with doubt, I pushed off from the pool wall, took a stroke, and turned my head to the right. DUH. Suddenly it worked. I knew the basics of the stroke, but I had to adapt the details to myself.
Such is the case with following Jesus Christ. There are core beliefs and practices for everyone, and then there are adaptations at the edges that differ from person to person, according to call and to ability. This morning's lesson from 1 Corinthians 15 reminds us of both the core and of the adjustments.
I would remind you, Paul writes, of the good news I proclaimed to you, . . . through which you are being saved. Notice the language -- salvation is not an accomplished fact. It is an ongoing work. The believers are being saved. Salvation is never done; it is a process.
Moving on, in verse 3: I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received. Paul is rehearsing the core of the good news of Jesus Christ, which he had received from the original apostles. What do Christians believe, at the absolute center? Nothing about how or when to baptize, who should join the church or what to believe about sexuality or abortion or foreign policy. What is the absolute core of Christian belief? That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised in accordance with the scriptures on the third day (I have changed the order of the wording here because the Greek is unclear and the Hebrew scriptures are clearer about resurrection than about three days) and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers . . .
That's it. That's the heart of the matter. Christ's sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection. Not the order of Creation, or the virgin birth, or the plenary inspiration of the Bible. The cross, the tomb, and the empty tomb. If you believe those things, you can call yourself a Christian. If you don't, then don't.
That's the core, for everyone. But Paul then talks about how it applies to him, in verse 8: Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. "Untimely born" is the translation of ektroma -- a word that means stillborn child. Paul is telling us that he is weak and helpless, in part because he had persecuted Christians before his conversion. He also saw the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, even though it was after Jesus had ascended to heaven. Therefore, Paul is made an apostle -- a witness to the resurrected Jesus -- at the wrong time.
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God's grace to me has not been in vain. This is the personal adaptation of the gospel to Paul's gifts and situation. Paul holds to the core -- the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus like every other Christian who has ever lived. On the outside of that core belief shaping Paul's life, the gospel meets Paul where he is, when he is. He comes late to the resurrection. And, where the original apostles understood their call to minister to other Jews, Paul understands God's call to be to minister to non-Jews, like the people in Greek Corinth.
What's your relationship to the core of Christian faith that you share with every other believer? Then, how have you heard God's particular call to you as a unique disciple? The heart of the matter is throwing ourselves on the mercy of God, poured out in the cross, trusting that we are forgiven and reconciled to God not because of our own goodness or our own work, but because in Jesus God loves us more than life. It's only when we surrender our lives to God as completely as Jesus did that we can know the life-giving power of the resurrection and victory over sin and death and despair. The cross, the tomb, and the empty tomb. That's for each of us.
And then there's a path of discipleship that's different for each of us. Some of us are called to share great wealth. Others of us are called to feed the hungry or put roofs on poor people's houses. Some of us are called to teach the faith, others to sing about it, others to a deep life of prayer for the sake of the world. Some are called to work with neighbors, some are called to the far ends of the world to share the gospel. Some are called to the Finance Committee, some to Missions, and others to the kitchen. For all of us, the cross, the tomb, and the empty tomb are the hub around which our unique callings revolve.
How's your core? Have you been crucified -- and raised -- with Jesus, or are you still trying to buy your way into heaven? And, how is your faith being lived out through the unique combination of gifts, passions, and experience that God has given you and you alone?
If we're not faithful both to the core and to our personal calling, we can't be the Body of Christ God intends us to be.