Uniform 04.05.2015: Of Resurrection and Moon Landings

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1 Corinthians 15:1-11, 20-22

On this Sunday, a high holy day for Christians around the world, many Americans will observe a holy moment in pop culture: the premiere of the final season of Mad Men. When we last met the advertising execs of Sterling Cooper & Partners and their dysfunctional families, they all paused, regardless of where they were and what they were doing, to see Apollo 11 land on the moon. Watching these characters who are so often disconnected by distance, pride, and ambition come together to witness history was powerful. I found myself longing to hear accounts of that day from actual people. I wasn’t alive to see it for myself, and I want to know what it was like to see Neil Armstrong step onto that unknown terrain.

My dad describes the way the structure of his elementary school day was disrupted when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. He was walking down the hall when he noticed some teachers huddled around a television set, crying. No one noticed that he was alone or out of place, and they didn’t immediately send him back when he walked up to see what had happened.

People of my generation will never forget what we were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. When they are old enough to learn about those tragic events, I will tell my children about seeing the news in my math class junior year and about huddling with a group of scared and confused teenagers to pray.

Inevitably, the time comes when these major moments in history become shadows, remembered by only a few people and then by no one at all. Paul understands this reality when he writes to the Corinthian Christians about the resurrection. He recognizes that, because they are removed from that event, they struggle to grasp its full truth and importance. They did not stand beside the risen Christ. They did not see his wounds. So Paul reminds them of the many witnesses who did encounter Christ after Easter morning.

Jesus’ resurrection was not a fun idea that the disciples made up to continue getting attention. Jesus really appeared to them, in bodily form, after his death. He also appeared to “more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time” (1 Cor 15:6), to James and the apostles, and to Paul himself. Paul wants his friends in Corinth to know that Jesus’ resurrection was a lived event, and he encourages them to speak to those who experienced it.

Two thousand years later, it is difficult for modern Christians to recapture this lived quality of the resurrection. We can’t find news footage of the risen Christ meeting with the disciples. We can’t interview our older friends who were alive when it happened. But this separation does not make Christ’s resurrection any less real for us today. We have the testimony of those who did encounter Christ after Easter preserved in Scripture. And we will gather this Sunday morning to proclaim and celebrate the good news that death did not win.

As we come together for our Easter services this week, let us approach the empty tomb with fresh eyes and hear the angel’s words with fresh ears. In our worship, may we remember that we are connected to Christians around the world who are witnessing the same unfolding truth that we are. Let us hear the Easter proclamation with as much awe and gratitude as Americans heard Neil Armstrong’s words in 1969. A more “giant leap for mankind” can hardly be imagined.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Discussion

1. What major historical events have you experienced firsthand? Which of these events left the biggest impression on you? Why?
2. Of what historical events would you most like to hear firsthand accounts?
3. Whose stories of the past are most meaningful to you? Why?
4. How can we “hold firmly to the message” of the gospel (1 Cor 15:2) despite being so far removed from its historical events? In the absence of firsthand witnesses, what sources do we depend on to remind us of its truth?
5. How can we share the story of the resurrection with others in a personal way, even though we neither witnessed it nor know people who did? How do we continue to witness resurrection in our lives today?

Reference Shelf

The recitation that follows appears to be an early creedal statement. It reads:

Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; he was buried;
he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

The first and third lines in the statement (death and resurrection) are the crucial elements for Paul. The second line, “he was buried,” confirms the reality of his death without further elaboration regarding an empty tomb such as we find in the Gospels. The fourth line, “he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve,” serves to confirm the reality of his resurrection, but since this is the element of the traditional statement that concerns Paul the most, additional confirmation is added. The importance of Christ’s death and resurrection for Paul is reflected in the creedal statement itself in that both are held to be “in accordance with the Scriptures.” While particular Scriptures were used in the early church to buttress and illuminate its claims about Christ’s death and resurrection, the creedal statement itself probably does not point to those texts but rather signifies that these two pillar events in the story of Christ were witnessed to and supported by the whole of the Scriptures.

The statement includes specific human witnesses to the resurrection: Cephas and the twelve. The use of “then” (eita) in reference to the twelve suggests a sequence. Unlike the accounts in the canonical Gospels (except, perhaps, Luke), the tradition asserts that the resurrected Christ appeared first to Cephas before appearing to the other members of the twelve. The importance of the witnesses to Christ’s resurrection leads Paul to add to the creedal statement references to other persons who could confirm that it happened. He then appeared to more than five hundred “brothers” at one time, Paul asserts, stressing that most of them are still alive (in case anyone needs to check out their story). He then appeared to James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, and then to all the apostles. (Note that the statement distinguishes between “the twelve” and that larger body of church leaders referred to as “the apostles.”)

To this impressive list of witnesses to the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead Paul adds his own name, which he stresses is of one who in certain respects is unimpressive. While his reference to his own experience of the resurrected Christ as “last of all” may mean that Paul saw himself as the final apostolic recipient of such a visitation, the phrase may also join other self-descriptive terms Paul uses to indicate his unworthiness to receive such a gift.

Resource

Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009) 398-99.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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