Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
St. Paul offers us today an introduction to his preaching and teaching about the Resurrection of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. It may seem to us sort of ho-hum since we take it for granted perhaps because of the annual Paschal memorial, but as the Apostle tells us in this chapter,
[I]f Christ is not risen [from the dead], then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. . . . [I]f Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep [died] in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most pitiable (1 Cr. 15:14, 17-19).
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the depths of Hades is the keystone Truth of the Christian Faith, the linchpin in the Gospel of our salvation. For, if Christ God is not raised from the dead, He remains just a dead man effecting no salvation, offering no forgiveness of sins, and certainly no hope of a future beyond this mortal veil! It is for good reason, then, that we Orthodox shout the Good News at Pascha, “Christ is risen!” For the Resurrection of Jesus Christ transforms this world and flavors our lives. By it, we live. By it, we die. By it, we shall live once again! “Christ is risen!”
As Paul says, and as we can confirm by our own experience in the Church, this is the Gospel he preached. This is the Gospel he received. This is the Gospel in which we stand. This is the Gospel by which we are saved, he says, that is, insofar as we “hold fast that word” preached to us and taught to us as catechumens, lest we believe in vain so that this divine and holy Word has no effect upon our lives or in our hearts. We must “hold fast” in faith to this Word that Jesus Christ the Son of God is risen from the dead, not simply in spirit, but in truth and in fact in His very body crucified on the Cross! “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received,” says the Lord’s Apostle who was late term in his spiritual re-birth. He is the “least of the Apostles” because he persecuted the Church viciously unto the killing of Christians, until the Crucified and Resurrected Lord confronted him on the Road to Damascus and made Paul His own chosen vessel of the Gospel.
Beloved brethren, I have nothing to give to you, nothing to offer to you except that which I have received from another and has been first delivered to me, that is to say, handed down to me, traditioned to me, from the Apostles 21 centuries later intact. And, guess what? It hasn’t changed. This Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified for our sins and raised for our justification (Rm. 4:25), is as fresh today as it was on the very first day it was announced and heralded, despite being 2,000 years old! It still saves the sinner today just as it did the very first day! Its Truth and historical reality remain unchanged. For, if its Truth and historical reality has been altered, even a smidgen, our salvation, too, has then been changed. If Christ is not risen from the dead in His body crucified on the Cross, God help us all! So critical is this our Fathers preserved it inviolate in the Creed:
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose Kingdom shall have no end (Nicene Creed).
The Resurrection of our Lord in His body – the very same body crucified on the Cross, suffered at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers, and buried in the Sepulcher – is at the center of our faith. Paul spends 58 verses in this chapter precisely on the reliability and trustworthiness of our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead, “according to the Scriptures,” and attested to by eyewitnesses who he names: Cephas or Peter, the Twelve (meaning the Apostles themselves), the 500 plus brethren, James the brother of our Lord, by all the Apostles (meaning the 70 chosen by our Lord at one point in His ministry), and last of all, by Paul on the Road to Damascus.
This apostolic appeal to eyewitnesses, to those who can attest to the truth and reality of the Faith, is not new. St. John the Theologian in his Epistles asserts this evidence, too: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of Life,” he says,
the Life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you, that Eternal Life which was with the Father and was manifested to us – that which we have seen and heard and declare to you, . . . . (1 Jn. 1:1-3).
It was vital for the Apostle to found his teachings on the very reality and Truth he personally experienced and encountered face-to-face. “This is the message which we have heard from [Jesus Christ],” he says, “and declare to you, . . . .” Why? So “that your joy may be full” (1 Jn. 1:4-5). If it ain’t real and it’s not true, then we’re wasting our time. St. Luke also bears witness in his Gospel that what he offers to Theophilus in his Gospel is trustworthy and sure. Theophilus can “take it to the bank” and be assured that what he was instructed in regarding the Faith is that which was delivered to Luke and all the others by “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” (Lk. 1:1-4).
But, beloved, what are we to do when the last eyewitness dies? What are we to do some 2,000 years later? What recourse is left to us? Does it mean that we are now set adrift, unmoored to any certainty save the waves of the spirit of the age, that we are at the mercy of novelty and speculation? Is it opinion or conjecture that is now our best option? Where are the eyewitnesses we can turn to, who can say to us with no uncertainty, “That which I have received I deliver to you in toto, unchanged, without deletion or addition or alteration of any sort, the God’s-honest Truth”? For some, it could be said the Sacred Scriptures serve that purpose. But, we all know where that ultimately leads us: to as many versions and variations as there are expositors and interpreters of the Scriptures.
Where, then, are we to turn? To whom shall we go (Jn. 6:68)? Well, let’s turn to the Scriptures and see. What does St. Paul say and where does he direct our attention? Writing to a Bishop of the Church (one who is charged to rightly divide the Word of God’s Truth), St. Paul has counseled him on several different occasions to guard and protect, preserve and promote the deposit of Faith entrusted to him at his ordination (1 Tm. 6:20-21; 2 Tm. 2:15). This, dear brethren, is “the Faith . . . once for all delivered to the saints” (Ju. 3). And, where is that Faith, that saving Truth, to be found at all times and in all places? St. Paul directs Timothy the Bishop, and us, to the Church. “[T]he Church of the living God,” says Paul, is “the pillar and ground [foundation, mainstay, bulwark] of the Truth” (1 Tm. 3:15). Now, we might suppose the Apostle should direct Timothy to Sacred Scripture as “the pillar and ground of the Truth,” but he doesn’t. He says, “Bishop Timothy, look to the Church. The Church, full of the Holy Spirit, is the fullness of Jesus Christ, and it is in the Church that He will guide you into all Truth” (Jn. 16:13; Ep. 1:22-23).
Brethren, the Church has existed from all eternity (Shepherd of Hermas), long before the Scriptures were ever committed to writing, and like her Lord Who came into the world, she, too, exists to “’bear witness to the Truth’” (Jn. 18:37). She has borne witness to the Truth, producing martyrs for the Truth in every time and every place, long before the canon of Sacred Scripture was ever formed and finalized approximately 300 years after the Apostles. That which has been delivered to her, handed over, traditioned by the Prophets and the Apostles and, ultimately, by her Lord and Master, she delivers to us who are her children of faith, and she will continue to hand over the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints until Jesus comes again. If the Sacred Scriptures were suddenly confiscated and destroyed, would that impede or hamper her witness to the Faith, the Truth beyond eternity? No. She is “the pillar and ground of the Faith.” That’s what Scripture attests to. The witness of the Prophets and the Apostles are her foundation, Scripture tells us, and Jesus Christ Himself is “the Chief Cornerstone” (Ep. 2:19-22; Rv. 21:9-21). Thus, we confess her to be the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” (Nicene Creed). Fueled by the Holy Spirit Who indwells her, she preserves, perpetuates, and propagates the teachings of her Apostles which are the teachings of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ in her worship, in her prayer, in her iconography, in the faithful exposition of the Word of God by our holy Fathers! “’For I have not spoken on My own authority,’” Jesus tells His Apostles, “’but the Father Who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. . . . Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak’” (Jn. 12:49-50). And so we speak as we have been taught by those who have first received from the Lord. It is this, then, all that Jesus has said, that the Holy Spirit calls to remembrance in the Church, just as our Lord promises (Jn. 14:25, 26). We call this memory of the Church – the work of the Holy Spirit – her living and Holy Tradition of which the Sacred Scriptures, inspired by God (2 Tm. 3:16; 2 Pe. 1:19-21), are an integral part, though not the whole.
I received a compliment once – at least that’s how I took it though I’m not honestly sure how it was intended – from someone who said to me after a sermon, “Hmmm. Nothing new today.” “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received . . . .” It is not novelty we pursue like the Athenians in the Areopagus (Ac. 17:16-34). We do not offer our opinions nor our speculation as the foundation of anyone’s hope. We do not stake our salvation – nor anyone else’s! – on what we think, but only on the Truth and the reality that Jesus Christ crucified, dead, and buried, has, in fact, without hesitation or doubt, been raised from the dead, never to die again. “Death,” beloved, “no longer has dominion over Him” (Rm. 6:9). Because He lives, we, too, shall live (Jn. 14:19)!
If we stand sure footed in this Gospel, St. Paul says, we are being saved. But, we need to hold fast to that which has been delivered unto us in the Church and by the Church: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen . . . .” So the Apostles have preached, so our holy Fathers have preached, and so we believe.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
1 Cr. 15:1-11Mt. 19:16-26