In Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth, there is a formulation that probably constitutes the first effort to express the Christian faith:
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After 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. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
– Paul (I Corinthians 15:1-8)
Throughout this week, I want to explore these words in some detail.
As you can tell, Paul intends here to recite something that did not originate with him. Instead, it was something that he “received” from others and that he was “passing on” in exactly the same way that he received it. The second paragraph appears to be the teaching that Paul “received.”
There is nothing in the Christian faith that predates this saying (Paul’s writings are themselves the earliest documents in the Christian tradition). It represents Christianity in its most pure, embryonic form. And I believe that it represents the first feeble efforts of human beings to describe an experience that transcended anything they knew or understood.
I believe that the people who are described in this saying had experienced something that Paul would later call “new creation,” a complete re-working of the universe as they knew it (and as we know it) – a sign of what was (and is yet) to come.
Their words were far from adequate – I think they knew that much. They spoke of “death for sins,” of being “raised,” of “appearances,” and of the Jewish scriptures, which were pregnant with promise of God’s new world. All of those concepts were important, even crucial to their interpretation of what had happened. But what they had actually witnessed was beyond words – it was, in fact, the central event in the history of the universe as they knew it.
And the testimony of countless millions of Christians throughout history is this: Unlock the meaning of this event. Understand what it stood for and what it promises of the future. Understand how it is at work today. And your view of the fabric of reality itself will change.
Tomorrow, we will begin by examining what the witnesses to this event had claimed to have experienced.