Let’s End at the Very Beginning

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

We have reached the apex of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians.  Everything that has preceded this chapter has led up to Paul’s sustained meditation about the Resurrection.  In the first section of the letter, Paul encouraged unity within the Christian community by downgrading the significance of human teachers.  In the next section, Paul argued that the Christian community as a whole has a responsibility to discipline those members of the Church who have fallen into sin.  He followed this with reflections about worship, arguing that the Corinthians had been engaging in schismatic behavior and needed to come together as a body.  Every section of Paul’s argument, in other words, has addressed some theological misunderstanding that exists in the Corinthian community.  All of these misunderstandings, however, have been mere shadows of a fundamental theological error that has pervaded the Corinthian community: a denial of the Resurrection.  As far as Paul is concerned, the Corinthians’ failure to live as one body is a symptom of the fact that they have ignored the central and unitive mystery of the Christian faith.

Paul begins his discussion of the Resurrection with a re-proclamation of the gospel.  Though most translations begin this passage with something to the effect of “I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you,” the Greek is closer to “I make known to you, brothers and sisters, the gospel with which I evangelized you.”  Though the difference is subtle, Paul’s specific language makes a very important point: rather than “reminding” the Corinthians of the gospel (i.e., assuming that they remembered it), Paul is “making it known,” as if for the very first time.  Paul is literally re-proclaiming the gospel; the Corinthian error had been so great that it was as though they had forgotten the gospel completely.  The apostle proceeds to assure the Corinthians that it is through this gospel that they are being saved, but only as long as “they hold firmly to the message” that Paul had originally proclaimed.  This introduction concludes with a theme that is present throughout the chapter, a poignant speculation that the Corinthians may have come to believe in vain.

Having introduced his project of re-proclamation, Paul proceeds to re-proclaim, noting that he handed on to the Corinthians what he had also received (note how this recalls the motif of handing on and receiving that we see in 4:7 and 11:23).  Paul then recounts a proto-creed of sorts, a summary of God’s redeeming act in Jesus Christ: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, was buried, and raised again on the third day in accordance to the scriptures.  We might notice that this creedal statement says nothing about Jesus’ teaching or ministry.  Though this may seem odd at first, we might notice that the Nicene Creed, which we recite nearly every Sunday, also says nothing about Jesus’ teaching or ministry.  For Paul and for us as Christians, it is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that are of ultimate importance and that are central to our life together.  Paul continues by recalling that the risen Christ appeared first to Cephas and the twelve, followed by more than five hundred brothers, followed by James “and then to all the apostles.”  Only then did the Lord appear to Paul.  Though most translations render the word Paul uses to describe himself as “untimely born,” it’s really closer to “miscarriage” or “abortion.”  This harsher language seems more appropriate, because Paul is clearly not proud of the role he played in persecuting the Church.  Indeed, he regards himself to be “least” of the apostles because of this persecution.  Nevertheless, God’s grace transformed him and made him an apostle, and God’s grace was not “in vain.”  Rather, Paul became the hardest working man in show business, but only through God’s grace.  Paul alludes to his conversion in order to highlight the fact that God has the power to transform the world; even the Pharisee who persecuted the Church of God has been made a herald of the gospel through God’s power.  In other words, God can do things that are beyond our comprehension as human beings.  Paul uses himself as a profound example of his gospel proclamation and as a reminder of what the Corinthians believed when they first heard the gospel.

“What we call the beginning is often the end.  And to make an end is to make a beginning.  The end is where we start from.” — T.S. Eliot

When I was growing up, my favorite movie was The Sound of Music.  Every day after preschool, I would arrive at home, sit on the rug in front of the television, and call out, “Part Two Mommy!  Part Two!”  My sainted mother would pull down the battered VHS from the shelf, slide the tape into the VCR, and I would spend a contented hour and a half watching Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer running from Nazis, receiving help from nuns, and climbing over the Alps to Switzerland.  For whatever reason, I did not enjoy the first half of the movie nearly as much.  As a preschooler, I was exhausted by Maria’s laborious efforts to teach the Von Trapp children how to sing and found the “will they or won’t they?” nature of Maria and Captain Von Trapp’s relationship to be somewhat tiresome (I was, apparently, well acquainted with the nuances of film criticism at that young age).  Moreover, nearly all of the songs that are introduced in the first half of the movie are reprised in the second half.  Even the silly song that Maria makes up to teach the children to sing (“Do-Re-Mi”) is performed by the family Von Trapp at the festival toward the end of the movie.  The songs ofThe Sound of Musiconly reach their consummation when the family has realized what their circumstances require them to do, namely to stay together as they escape from the tyranny of Nazi Germany.

I don’t mean to draw a direct connection between Rodgers and Hammerstein and Saint Paul, but it is striking to me that Paul saves the subject he is most worried and passionate about for the end of his letter to the Corinthians.  We might expect him to begin with his discussion of the Resurrection: “This is what is wrong with your theology, and this is how it’s impacting your life as a community.”  But Paul is a much cleverer rhetorician than that.  Even as he has enjoined the Corinthians to avoid schism in the community, we have been left with a nagging thought: how are all of these people from different backgrounds going to move beyond their divisions?  What is the source of their unity?  Furthermore, as Paul has encouraged the Corinthians to proclaim Christ’s death (cf. 1:23), we might be left wondering whether there is hope in this gospel that centers on the Lord’s death.  Knowing that these questions have festered throughout letter, Paul finally provides an answer: it is the Resurrection that holds us and will continue to hold us together.  It is the Resurrection that gives us hope.  T.S. Eliot’s reflection on beginnings and endings summarizes Paul’s strategy well; in order truly to understand who we are as a community, we must locate the source of our common life in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As we continue to prepare for Holy Week, let us not forget that while Christ’s death is central to our life as a community, the Resurrection is what gives that death its transcendent and eternal meaning.

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