I Cor. 15: 1Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
Two men adrift in a lifeboat for the seventh day at sea are staring at the last cup of water in the jug. The food’s been gone for three days. Their jokes and stories are all used up. The camradery by which they held up each other’s morale is wearing thin. Thirst is making the older of the two men reconsider his previous offer of letting the younger man drink the rest of the water, when he gallantly said, “you would still have so many more years ahead of you, should rescue ever come.” As hunger, thirst and despair take their physical and emotional toll, and as each person retreats into his survivalist, animal self, an observer would start to wonder, if these two are not rescued soon, will they both die natural deaths?
But just before sunset, one of them spots smoke on the horizon. That distracts their attention and delays the inevitable showdown over the last swallow of water. Suddenly, options to dying of thirst, or of one pitching the other overboard, become thinkable and possible. Its amazing the difference that a little bit of hope can make. Then, come nightfall, they can see a light in the distance. “This is our last chance,” the older one says. “Fire off the last flare.” Just after sunrise, they hear a chop-chop-chop sound, and soon they see a helicopter approaching.
“We’re saved!” the younger of the two men yells. And the two men who were about to kill each other over the last teaspoon of water are now hugging each other.
Technically, they’re not saved yet. That will come a few minutes later when the guy descends on the rope and hauls each of them back up into the helicopter. It would be more correct to say that they “are being saved.” And that’s the phrase that Paul uses for the gospel he taught to the Corinthian Christians. “By this gospel,” in verse 2, he says, “you are being saved.”
Like the smoke of that ship on the horizon, or the light in the darkness at sea, the Easter morning rescue of one man from the dominion of death is a hope-giving sign. It serves notice to all us other mortals, that rescue is coming for us as well. And good thing too, because death and the fear of death do all sorts of ugly things to our conduct and our consciences. You would think that with life being so precious, temporary and vulnerable, we would treat it and each other with care. You would think that, since we know we don’t have each other around forever in this shape and way, that we would therefore do all the more to love each other and treat each other accordingly. And some people do. I’m thinking of the hospice nurse I once met whose gracious, gentle way with terminally ill patients inspires me still.
But its at least as true that the impending reality of death also drives people into the most callous and brutal behavior. Some people come away from funerals or hospice centers or even battle fields believing that life is precious, resolved to treat it that way. But just as many come away thinking life is cheap, including their own, and therefore, the only thing to do is to amass as many treasures and pleasures as one can before the whole gig is up, whatever the cost to others, like the two men in that lifeboat, each one ready to kill the other over the last drop of water. I’ve spoken with several survivors of war who tell me that, even now, many years later, its hard to open up and make friends, hard to make lasting, binding commitments like marriage or friendship, hard to care about themselves and others, because they learned not to do that while they were getting bombed out of cities or while trying to stay alive in combat units. It was just too painful to make friends and lose them in battle, or to fall in love and then lose the beloved to a bombing raid. So just withdraw and hide within the safety of your daily duties and distractions. In which case you wonder, Is there life after birth?
Then there are people who embrace death as the biggest economic opportunity of all. Gangs and the peddlers of dope, guns and drugs. Or the biggest, baddest gangs of all, the international arms cartels, the makers and sellers of guns, bombs and bombers, land mines and nuclear weapons, profiting from the fear of death even while causing it.
Why some give in and surrender to death, to embrace it or exploit it or cause it, while others respond by treasuring life all the more and cultivate it, its hard to say. “There but by the grace of God go I.” But I’d go with what Dr. Victor Frankl said, some fifty years ago. He should know, because he spent several years in Death Central: in a Nazi concentration camp. There he saw strong, healthy, vigorous people die surprisingly quickly while some weak and unlikely people survived, or at least survived longer than you’d expect. The difference, he said, depended in part on whether they had some reason to hope for a better future, or whether they chose to cling to some sort of hope.
Paul’s immediate concern, in reminding us of the resurrection, is not as much the death-derived misconduct of the world, but misconduct and false teachings in the church. As we’ll see in future sermons this Easter Season from I Corinthians 15, their conflicts and misconduct come from a memory lapse. They’ve forgotten the gospel. More like, they have denied and down-played the gospel, deliberately. Paul started the letter by reminding them of the cross. Some of them were denying or down-playing that. Now he ends the same letter reminding them of the empty tomb. Some of them were denying or down-playing that, too. With disastrous consequences. Just as the cross makes a moral statement, about how we are to live and relate, so does the empty tomb. Get that right, understand what the resurrection really truly means, and they’ll unplug their conflict from its source of power.
Like that light on the night-time horizon is the resurrection of Jesus. Just when we thought we were abandoned, alone and forgotten by everyone but the Grim Reaper, there appears an approaching rescuer: the Risen Jesus. Because of his faithfulness and power, we are as good as saved. We are being saved, even now, by the hope that gives us reason, power and purpose to amend our lives and to treat life and each other with the love, the grace and the goodness they deserve. With confidence in our Risen Lord we can say that we are saved from a pointless and eternal death. Saved even from a pointless life. Saved from an existence dominated and diminished by the fear of death, or even the worship of death. Or the commerce of death. We still have to deal with death, and with the dehumanizing and distorting fear of death. But as we do so, we can say with Paul that we “are being saved.”
Two hundred years ago, if you had asked a New England Puritan, “Have you been saved?” his or her answer would have been, “I have been saved; I am being saved; and by the grace of God and not my own, I will be saved.” I think of something similar at every memorial service, or every grave side service I have officiated. We are entrusting this loved one to God’s power to save him or her from death and the dissolution of the body. That salvation was already underway as he or she was already saved in this life from from death’s numbing effect on our spirits and consciences. Saved from death’s claims to our worship and our fear. The empty tomb is God’s guarantee that this salvation is accomplished, its taking shape even now in our lives and loves, and it is coming. What a difference such hope makes, now and forever.