Our society is a marketplace of competing ideas. It’s a veritable Baskin Robins of ideologies with 31 flavors of religious expression, political perspective, and social experience. You can go onto the internet and find websites dedicated to any and every viewpoint your mind can conceive, and quite frankly, probably quite a few that your mind can’t and shouldn’t conceive of either. In this marketplace of competing ideas, with such diverse perspectives and opinions, sometimes it can seem as if every possible perspective and opinion is considered by others to somehow be of equal validity. But you know what they say about opinions, they are like arm pits, everyone has them and most of them just stink.
So how do we deal with this competition for validity? After all, while there may be a coterie of people who subscribe to, say, a belief that the earth is flat and that us round earthers have been suckered in by a government conspiracy to hide the truth from us, not every alternate perspective or opinion is so readily absurd. When we look at our own faith, our own set of beliefs about the world around us, the Creator who is the source of this thing we call life, and our Savior who came and accomplished the work that would allow us to be reunited with Him, how do we know we are not just following the perspective of others and caught up in a fanciful web of opinion rather than a bedrock of truth?
This is the question St. Paul answers for us in our epistle lesson today. In this portion of his epistle to the Corinthians He writes to remind the church of two things. He reminds us first that the message He preached is indispensable, that it is of the utmost importance and permeates every fiber of our lives. He reminds us that the Gospel truth is not disposable or of no consequence, but that it is indispensable and part of the very core of our being. He also reinforces for the church that this Gospel truth, this foundational element of our existence, is also defensible. It is not a random collection of thoughts thrown together by disparate people and subject to the whims of fickle humanity’s opinions, but rather that it is a stalwart truth and an unshakeable reality.
He begins this passage by identifying that what He preached in his ministry is indispensable. He writes,
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
St. Paul is reminding the church that the gospel we have received is the gospel in which we stand and is the gospel through in which we are being saved. Paul did not preach out of a sense of academic curiosity; he was not simply peddling some innocuous set of precepts and dogmas that were of no consequence. Rather, he preached something which, once received, becomes the foundation upon which the church stands and is the truth through which we will ultimately see our salvation accomplished.
In other words, our faith and our pursuit of knowledge and unity with our Holy God is not a hobby. We are not philosophical philanderers seeking doctrinal discourse for the sake of amusement. No. We as Christians, as the church, are those who have heard and received a life changing reality, a reality that permeates us to the core, that sets its roots in deep, and moors us to the ground of this divine reality in which we live, and breath, and have our being. It is a life changing reality that transcends this mortal life and will see us through into immortality as well.
It is not, as Carl Marx put it, an, “opiate for the masses;” it is not a recreational drug that gets us high off of endorphins to shelter us from the harsh realities of life. Rather it is the very essence of life itself that shows us our lives have meaning and purpose, that reveals to us how we fit into the great tapestry of divine creation, that confirms in us our position in eternity itself. It is an indispensable reality, for it is the essence of reality itself. That there is a creator, that we were created in that creator’s image to be in union with Him, that we abandoned that position of unity in a failed attempt to somehow see divinity in ourselves apart from God, and that God has searched for us, has sought after us, and has entered humanity itself to bring us back into that unity that was lost so long ago. This is an indispensable reality and truth that, when we receive it and let it permeate us, becomes more steadfast and solid than the ground under our feet and gives us immeasurable encouragement and confidence in the hope we have for the future.
Something so grand, though, so wonderful–something so comforting and encouraging–why should I hold to this as an indispensable truth when there are so many competing ideologies and conflicting religious expressions? What makes this indispensable truth more viable than the thousands of other so-called indispensable truths that flitter about the collective consciousness of humanity?
St. Paul answers this for us as well. He was not only reminding the church that the truth of the Gospel is indispensable, He reminds the church that the truth of the Gospel is also defensible. He writes,
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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers 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. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy 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 was not 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 preach and so you believed.
Remember, we live in a gaggle of humanity that is good at developing creative perspectives and alternate opinions, and it was not so different in St. Paul’s day either. There were myriad political, religious, and societal perspectives all vying for people’s attention and acceptance. So St. Paul, having reminded the church that the gospel he preached to them is indispensable, proceeds to explain that the gospel he preached is not something he conjured from his own imagination. It was not a set of beliefs that he developed on his own in a bid to make some money or exert control over others. Rather, it was a truth that he received, not a truth that he conceived.
What follows, then, is Paul’s explanation of why the message he delivered is defensible. He begins with the work of Christ being consistent with divine revelation itself. He says,
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
Jesus’ ministry itself was not accidental or coincidental. He was not just rolling with the punches. Rather, He was functioning consistently with the Triune God’s plan of redemption, sketched through the pages of Holy Scripture, uttered through the oracles of prophets, and fashioned before the foundations of the earth itself. Jesus was not merely a man, being that He was the divine man, God incarnate, and His ministry was not out of step with with the divine will of the Father and the eternal plan of the Trinity.
Jesus did not go about His ministry of reconciliation to heap accolades to himself but rather as a necessary component of God’s eternal plan for humanity to be reconciled to himself. In other words, Jesus’ ministry was not about drawing attention to himself; it was about doing what was necessary to restore the relationship that was tarnished in the garden of Eden so that the unity with the divine for which humanity was created could finally be accomplished once and for all. For Paul, then, to preach this Gospel was to preach of that which was consistent with the message of the prophets and the revelation of Holy Scripture itself. It was not something new that came out of nowhere in the 1st century but was rather a piece of a greater narrative that was reported to us by God himself through His divine revelation to humanity.
Paul’s defense continues with the experience of Christ’s disciples bearing witness to His resurrection and sharing His teaching with the world.
He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time . . . Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all . . . he appeared also to me.
The gospel which Paul preached was not a carefully crafted philosophy that came from the minds of man, but was the testimony and witness of those who walked and talked with the resurrected Lord and validated as the teach of Jesus, the incarnate One, himself.
The message of the New Testament, the message of the apostles, the message of the church itself, the Good News, the Gospel, did not come out of the imagination of humanity but came from the eye witness experience of those who saw Jesus, who witnessed His miracles, who touched the scars in His hands, who placed their fingers in His spear-pierced side, who heard Him teach and saw Him live so we could follow His teaching and emulate His character.
The disciples did not turn a mere human into a martyr around whom they rallied to a cause of their own invention, rather they shared of the life, the compassion and mercy, the forgiveness and acceptance of this Jesus, the incarnate Lord, who conquered sin on the cross and destroyed death when He rose from the dead.
This is profound, for so many of the ideologies and spiritual expressions that people follow in our world can be traced back to human imagination or innovation. L. Ron Hubbard is famously known to have said in an interview, while still going through life as a science fiction author, that if he really wanted to make good money he would cease writing fiction novels and instead come up with a new religion. Some short time later the world was introduced to his brainchild: Scientology.
The Gospel we proclaim is not a clever ruse on humanity. The message of hope and restoration, grace and mercy, righteousness and redemption, that was preached by the apostles and which continues to be preached by the church to this day is not the product of human invention or innovation intended to satisfy the desires of pride and selfishness. Rather, it is the timeless truth of God himself, conceived in the mind of the Triune creator of the heavens and the earth, written down in eternity past, presented to us through the voices of the prophets and the writings of Holy Scripture, accomplished through the work of Christ on the cross and His victory over the grave, and promulgated by those who interacted with Him to bear eye witness testimony of the reality of His resurrection.
For you and me here, this should be a continual reminder of God’s grace and mercy, that the truth of the gospel is not a tool that reinforces vindictiveness, but rather promotes forgiveness. This is something that we see through the calling of St. Paul himself, who was one who persecuted the very church for which he would eventually become a martyr. God’s grace and mercy were enough to transform an enemy into an ambassador; we can therefore conclude that His grace and mercy are enough to extend to us and to everyone else as well.
For the gospel we have received is not of human invention but is of God himself; His grace is not a myth but is the ultimate reality that undergirds every breath we have ever taken and will ever take. Therefore, I pray that we are able to look at our own lives, and when we take inventory of what we have done and accomplished, how we have lived, how we have demonstrated His character and how we have proclaimed His timeless gospel, that we, like Paul, may be able to say: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” Our lives are not an accident and the challenges we have faced, the victories we have accomplished, and the defeats we have suffered are part of who we are, and by God’s grace we are what we are. Every defeat we have suffered has been an opportunity for God to extend His grace, and every victory we can celebrate is a testimony of that grace at work in our lives. May we use the life He has given us through the grace He has freely poured upon us, for His glory and not waste it, not trample it under foot, not take it for granted, but instead, cherish it, abide in it, celebrate it, and let it embolden us to fearlessly proclaim the indispensable and defensible reality of the Gospel. Amen.