Christ Church Cathedral
1 April 2018
Our second reading for this liturgy is from Paul’s first letter to the troublesome Christian community at Corinth.
They were a tough parish for Paul to serve as their pastor, but we can be grateful for that since their issues repeatedly drove to Paul to put in writing information that he had previously told them orally, but which otherwise we may never have known about.
That is certainly the case with the list of resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 1 to 11.
Paul is probably writing this letter in the year 53/54 CE.
That makes this letter one of the earliest Christian documents to survive, and it is within 25 years of Easter. I hope that little fact gives you goose bumps.
The information Paul is repeating in the letter was previously given to the Corinthians, according to Paul, as part of his oral instruction when they were first converted. This was material from their Baptism preparation program!
Since Paul explicitly says that he passed on to them what others had passed on to him, we can assume that this list of Easter appearances goes back even earlier: most likely to the vibrant Christian community in the strategic city of Antioch, where Paul had strong pastoral connections.
We cannot be sure of the dates, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that Paul learned this information at Antioch about 10 years before his letter to the Corinthians.
So now we can date the list to 15 years after Easter, and probably a few years earlier.
That makes this list one of the oldest Christian documents that we have. More goose bumps!
This list mattered to the first generation of Christians because only those on the list were considered to have authority as leaders.
That, by the way, is Paul’s problem: he was not on the list!
Notice how he deals with that awkward problem.
Paul does not argue about the list. He repeats it, exactly as he had received it from the tradition before him, and then he adds his own name like a kind of postscript:
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. (1 Cor 15:8–11 NRSV)
The list of appearances
he appeared to Cephas,
then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time,
most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Most of the appearances in that list are not known to us, while it seems that most of the appearances in the Gospels are not included in the list that Paul inherited from Antioch.
When we put the two sets of traditions together, three names stand out:
Let’s take each of them in turn, even if very briefly.
This one is very easy, since we have no description of the appearance to Peter by the risen Jesus. It is mentioned in Luke 24, but not described. We have no idea what it involved, although there is a later tradition of Jesus speaking with Peter by the Sea of Galilee and restoring him to his leadership role after his triple denial of Jesus.
All of the Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was present at the crucifixion and was one of the women who went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning to anoint Jesus for burial. In fact, Mary is the only women mentioned in all 4 Gospels, and she is always listed first.
The Gospel of John preserved a beautiful story of an encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen but unrecognised Jesus in the garden close by his tomb. According to the Gospels, Mary is the first person to whom Jesus appears after his resurrection.
She is sometimes called the ‘apostle to the apostles’ because of her role as the first witness to the resurrection.
But the list that Paul got from Antioch fails to mention Mary Magdalene.
She has been cut from the list by the male gatekeepers. And this within the first 10-15 years! How quickly we abandoned the way of Jesus.
Happily, we can now restore her to her proper place as the first witness to the resurrection.
With Paul we are on firmer ground, but his encounter with the risen Lord was not in Jerusalem and had nothing to do with an empty tomb.
In an even earlier letter than 1 Corinthians, Paul describes very briefly his encounter with the risen Jesus:
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. … But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. (Galatians 1:11–12, 15–17 NRSV)
Paul refers to—but does not describe—a moment when God revealed the reality of the risen Christ to him, and he claims that as being the same kind of experience as the apostles, and this something that gave him the same authority as them.
The Easter transformation
If these are the earliest witnesses to the resurrection, what is it that they proclaim?
Here we really are reliant on Mary Magdalene and Paul, since we have no description of the appearance that Jesus is said to have made to Peter: nor to “the twelve”, nor to the “more than 500”, nor to James the brother of Jesus, nor to “all the apostles”.
As an aside, let me just observe that if I were seeking to create a fake story about the resurrection I would be sure to have a better set of eyewitnesses. The fact that our chain of witnesses is so flimsy may actually be something that counts in favour of the historicity of this tradition.
Despite the gaps and inconsistences in their stories our witnesses agree on a simple, yet amazing discovery: Jesus is alive.
Neither Mary Magdalene or Paul of Tarsus expected to discover that.
Mary had come to the tomb of Jesus to finish the burial preparations for her beloved prophet. She is so immersed in her grief, and so disinclined to discover a living Jesus, that she does not even recognise him when she encounters him in the garden.
Paul, on the other hand, knows all about the rumours of Jesus having been raised to life and is determined to stamp out this nonsense, and arrest anyone who believes it. By his own account in 1 Corinthians 15 and Galatians 1, Paul was trying to eradicate this nonsense from the face of the earth.
Even now, some 2,000 years later, we are still coming to terms with the implications of the amazing truth they each discovered, and which lies at the heart of our Easter celebrations.
That is our essential work as people of faith: making sense of Easter, and working it out in our own everyday lives.
Death was not the end of Jesus.
God raised Jesus up and took him deep into God’s own life.
And that same transformation is available to us, right now, even before we die.
I cannot prove that to anyone, but this is what we celebrate today, and that is the message of the church across the millennia—and here in Grafton right now.
Christ is risen. Alleluia!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Thanks Greg for your perceptive commentary.