So We Preach, and So You Believe

V. Rev. Fr. Nicholas Apostola
Pastor, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church
Guest Blogger

This is the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost and we continue reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, specifically 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. We should remember that the Corinthian community was composed of many volatile elements. While some were Jewish converts, others had been pagan and only recently acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures. All were heavily influenced by the wide variety of philosophical and religious beliefs current in cosmopolitan Corinth. In this letter St. Paul is attempting to correct their thinking; to bring them back to the principles of faith that he had originally taught them.

In verse 12 and what follows, St. Paul tells us that some of the Corinthians had begun to question the belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ, and their own at the time of the second coming. Others believed that the “resurrection” had already occurred, that is, Christ, having risen from the dead, inaugurated the new world; they were living the “resurrected” existence in the here and now. This is the background for what he writes in today’s lesson.

St. Paul reminds the Corinthians of the gospel that he preached to them, and that they accepted to live by. He said that in believing in Christ’s gift of salvation, they should “hold it fast–unless [they] believed in vain.” (v. 1-2) He reiterates for them the very center of our Christian faith: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” (v. 3-4) In these two verses St. Paul makes four very important points.

The first is that Christ died. To say that he died means that he was born, was human, and was susceptible to all of the frailties of our condition.

The second is that he died and was buried. This means that there was no illusion about his death. This was not the figment of someone’s imagination, or simply a story told. To be buried means that everyone who saw it believed he was dead.

The third is that this all occurred according to the scriptures, meaning the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Prophecies, and the other writings. Most of these were well known among Jewish religious scholars. The Lord himself quoted some. Others are given to us by St. Paul and the other New Testament authors.

The fourth, and most important, is that he rose from the dead on the third day. St. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (v. 14) Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the cornerstone of our faith.

He again reminds the Corinthians of the witnesses to Christ’s rising. “He appeared to Cephas [i.e., Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (v. 5-8)

St. Paul references many people, most of whom were still alive at his writing. These are concrete witnesses to both the Lord’s death on the Cross, and his resurrection afterward. St. Paul, who did not witness him dead, nonetheless did experience the Lord on the road to Damascus. These eyewitnesses are the ones on whom our faith is grounded. When he says: “I delivered to you . . . what I also received,” he wants to remind them that he did not invent the story, nor was he the only witness. Many saw and many believed.

We should take note that St. Paul does not mention Mary Magdalene, the other Myrrh-bearing women, and especially his own Mother as witnesses, even though Tradition and Scripture has it that he appeared first to his Mother, then to the other women, and then to the other disciples gathered in the upper room. The reason for St. Paul’s omission is simple. He is speaking as a Jew to other Jews. In those days (however we might think of it today) by Jewish Law only the witness of men was valid; women’s witness had no authority; hence the omission. St. Paul’s intension is to bolster his argument with what others would consider to be authentic verification. He wanted to give credence to the most important things, the facts themselves and those who could verify them.

In the list of “witnesses” he mentions himself as the last of all: “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (v. 9) He doesn’t want to aggrandize himself. He simply states the facts. “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.” (v. 10)

Here is St. Paul’s central point: “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” (v. 11) In one sense it does not matter who tells you the “good news;” the preacher is irrelevant. It is the truth of the message that matters. You verify the truth of the story from your own experience of God’s truth in the witness itself. God opens your heart to hear the “Good News” What St. Paul means is that it is the authenticity of the witness that matters, not necessarily the standing of the person. When someone testifies to us of their experience of God, we believe because we sense in their witness a reality that goes beyond that particular person. If we do not find God in what they say, for example if we sense they are preaching themselves, not Jesus, then we walk away unconvinced.

St. Paul asks the Corinthians and us as well to encounter and know the Risen Christ for ourselves: to know Him and in this way to believe for ourselves.

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