Themes: Poverty/Riches; blessings/curses; discipleship.Sentence: Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.
God of transformation,
you heal our troubled spirit;
turn our hearts to follow your way of humility
that we may find the blessing of new life;
through Jesus our Messiah,
who is alive with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
There is much in this passage which is in common with Psalm 1 but there is also a strong connection to the opening beatitudes of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 (see below).
We should read this psalm bearing in mind it is number 1 by design and not by accident. As an introduction to the Psalms, what does it tell us?
That there are two ways to live (1), that one of those ways is "delight ... in the law of the Lord" (2) that the other way is "not so" (4), and that there is a coming judgement which will be fatal for the "wicked" (5-6).
Many psalms through the next 149 psalms will be similarly concerned, whether pointing out that there are two ways to live, or appealing to the Lord for help lest the wicked over power them (see, e.g., Psalm 3), or giving thanks to the Lord for such deliverance (e.g. Psalm 9).
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Last Sunday we heard Paul's "list" of evidence - a list of witnesses who had (but now are dead) or could (because still alive) give testimony that they had seen the risen Lord. The first eleven verses of this chapter have become a critical corporate testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. Our passage today gives us a sense of why Paul is devoting this part of 1 Corinthians to the "resurrection of the dead" (12) and to the resurrection of Jesus: some Corinthians have been denying the resurrection of any dead person (12).
Paul's argument goes like this:
- some of you are denying the resurrection of the dead
- but Jesus rose from the dead (as I have just demonstrated)
- so either you are right (and, in fact, Jesus didn't rise from the dead)
- or I am right and you are wrong (because if one man has risen from the dead then potentially more can be raised from the dead, and in that way Christ is "the first fruits of those who have died" (20).)
Along the way Paul makes a point, a non-negotiable presupposition to the gospel:
"and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" (14); and
"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (17).
That is: if God did not raise Jesus from the dead then the death he died was of no eternal importance in respect of reconciling us to God. Jesus was just an exciting rabbi who inspired a number of people but now he is a dead rabbi and that is the end of the matter.
Sometimes Christians today talk as though the resurrection of Jesus was an "optional extra" - nice of God to have done that for Jesus but not that important because what was important was that Jesus died for us. Paul says, "That ain't so." The work of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself was a work which involved both the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The passage ends with Paul's conviction, not only that "in fact Christ has been raised from the dead" but also that his being raised from the dead is "the first fruits of those who have died" (20).
We have moved from Luke's story of the disciples being called by Jesus to Jesus teaching "his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon."
The content of this teaching is close to but not exactly the same as Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount". Luke specifies the location as "a level place" and thus distinguishes his version, often called the "Sermon on the Plain," from Matthew's. But for both evangelists, this block of teaching is the first major teaching Jesus gives following his baptism. We may assume that both evangelists are tapping into foundational teaching of Jesus, which has been carefully handed on from one disciple to another, and from one generation to another. (Likely Matthew and Luke composed their gospels at least one generation on from the generation which heard Jesus directly.)
Nevertheless, as the teaching was handed on (and translated from the Aramaic of Jesus into the Greek of the first Christians), some changes occurred. Most of Matthew's Gospel's (longer) sermon is found in Luke's Gospel but much of the material is relocated in different places in the unfolding story of Jesus (so Luke's version is shorter than Matthew's). And Luke may have collated some teaching of Jesus, unknown to Matthew, into material which is common to Matthew's Gospel (e.g. the "woes" in Luke 6:24-26, which are unknown to Matthew, or Mark or John).
As the disciples and the crowd gather, Luke tells us they "had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases" (18). Luke tells us the former took place (18b-19) before telling us what they heard (20-26 and beyond).
Note, in verse 20, that although the disciples and the great crowd are listening, Jesus addresses his sermon to "his disciples." This is kingdom teaching, setting out the style of life for followers of Jesus - a style of life that on some matters is more demanding than the teaching (or Law) of Moses and on some matters is less demanding (eventually Jesus' followers will realise they no longer need to make sacrifices of animals and plant-based foods).
(An alternative possibility is that the teaching in the sermon is for the crowd as well as the disciples but the disciples are addressed because they will have responsibility for handing on this kingdom teaching.)
Thereafter we have four blessings and four woes (20b-26), with the latter a counterpoint to the former. Luke has a stronger material emphasis than Matthew (so the first blessing, on "you who are poor" corresponds to Matthew's "you who are spiritually poor", Matthew 5:3).
The combination of blessings and woes amounts to a theology of reversal: the poor will become rich and the rich will become poor, a theology we have already seen in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55, noting verse 53 especially).
What might this mean for us as disciples of Jesus?
No one wants a sermon on the material prosperity of Western Christians. But perhaps we should want such a sermon!
Is a significant danger to watch out for, which is named in verse 26? There is a strong tendency in our churches, as well as among ourselves as individuals, for approval: we hope the local community likes what we are doing; will the newspaper give us a good write up; does out application look good enough for some community funding?
Of course we can be spoken well of when we are faithful to Christ and his word. But it is always worth checking out whether we are being spoken well of as Christians or simply as likeable people.
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