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s172e98 Somerton Park Epiphany 5

"I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures ..." 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.

There are, firstly, two things I would point out from this passage. The first is that Paul is not exhorting his readers to believe something they hadn't themselves experienced, and secondly, and related to the first point, that the risen Jesus had appeared, not just to himself, but to quite a number of different people.

Paul is probably quoting a very primitive statement of belief when he says: "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures". He says: I hand on to you ... what I in turn ... received. He is not the originator of the tradition. The tradition is not just that Jesus was raised - indeed the fact of Jesus' resurrection is perhaps the least important part of the proclamation. The proclamation is that Jesus died, was buried ... and was raised. The person who has been experienced by the people he lists "recently" - is the same one who said and did a number of things in and around Jerusalem and in the end was killed by the religious people for his efforts. The part of the proclamation the readers hadn't experienced was not the resurrection, but the death and burial of Jesus. They were residents of Corinth. Even if they had been amongst the crowds, the "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs" (Acts 2:9-11) who witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at the first Pentecost - they still didn't necessarily witness the death and resurrection of Jesus, some 50 days beforehand. Even if they had, they were not in a position to put the two events together - for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit came after Jesus was ascended. The Pentecost experience was physically different from the resurrection appearances.

So the whole point of the writing of the gospel stories - by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - was not to convince people that Jesus had been raised from the dead or that the Holy Spirit had been poured out. The point of writing the gospel stories was to say that the risen Jesus - the same one whom their readers had experienced - had said and did certain things. It was precisely what Jesus had said and done before his death that was likely to be forgotten. It was hardly likely that the fact that he was raised was likely to be forgotten - and not just because "the Bible tells me so" - but because each and everyone had some experience of the risen Jesus.

So St Paul affirms that Jesus appeared to all these people, not just to himself. Indeed Paul also affirms that the risen Jesus had appeared to each of the members of the Church at Corinth, fractious lot that they were. In the very first chapter of his letter he addresses them all: "To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus." (1 Cor 1:2-4.) Whatever sanctification might mean, whatever St Paul perceives as the grace of God given to them, it obviously has already happened. Each of them can affirm some personal knowledge of the risen Jesus. Perhaps their experience was a life shattering one, perhaps just an inner conviction of rightness and goodness - whatever, it mattered not to St Paul, and it matters not now. What matters is what one does with it - either to reach out in love to others who are different - or to build walls between people.

Indeed if one reads through St Paul's letter to the Corinthians, they gave him an awful lot of excuse to question whether they had really experienced the risen Jesus. The Church there was racked by divisions, factions, immorality and law suits. Some even questioned the resurrection of the dead. (15.12) Shades of what people accuse Bishop John Spong of questioning. No - all were already "sanctified in Christ Jesus", given "the grace of God ... in Christ Jesus".

If it were the Churches' first task to convince people that Jesus had been raised from the dead, it is curious that St Paul leaves it to his second-to-last chapter to raise the issue. Rather more important is the down to earth, every day issues. The very ordinary in-fighting which speak volumes about our relationships one with another and by extension of what we perceive our relationship with God to be based upon, is paramount in St Paul's mind.

St Paul speaks of all these different people experiencing the risen Jesus. Obviously their experiences were different. For Cephas, James and himself - it was to them a personal experience, to the twelve and the 500 it was corporate. In reality there are a multitude of different ways that the risen Jesus comes to people, as many as there are different people.

Therefore the Church is not in the business of making sure that the particular "conversion" experience a person has experienced is "up to scratch". It has to be said loudly and clearly that every experience of God is in God's good hands, and not our own. Nobody can manufacture a conversion experience for themselves, let alone for any other person. I should know, I've tried often enough. So questions like: "Are you sure you are saved?" are totally inappropriate.

And I want to list some of the ways we can experience the risen Jesus.

We can experience the risen Jesus through a realisation of duty or gratitude or wonder or peace or joy. It is the risen Jesus who inspires in us these things. We don't have to "see" Jesus, as it seems the first apostles "saw" Jesus. Indeed St Paul himself only heard Jesus. Others might experience a vacuum in their lives and some filling. Another will find Jesus in the fellowship of others, another in the silence of the inner room. As I mentioned last week, it was (I think) the monk, Harry Williams who said we find God in ourselves or not at all. Each of these is equally valid, for had Jesus not been raised, had evil triumphed on the Cross, none of these options would now be available to God.

I want to address the general feeling of inadequacy we all have of our own personal experience of the risen Jesus. I suspect the problem God has with us feeling the certainty of salvation is threefold.

The first problem is that if we are certain, we tend to say of others that they must travel the precise path that we ourselves have come to find the same certainty of faith. That is simply not true. God has a path mapped for each and every one of us, and none are the same.

The second is, in a sense related, it is not the experience that is important, but what we do with it. The lifestyle of the members of the Corinthian congregation made St Paul despair. He didn't question their conversion experience, but he did question their use of that experience. "Who sees anything different in you?" (1 Cor 4:7) he exclaims!

Thirdly, in fact, of course, the opposite of faith is not unbelief but certainty!

So the task of the Church becomes rather easier than trying to convince people of the resurrection. The number of people who can point to something in their lives of a "spiritual" nature is quite remarkable - well over 95%. As we link these experiences with the risen Christ, to say, as the first evangelists did, this risen Jesus said and did these things - we both affirm and direct people.

When we find ourselves saying things like "my version of the faith is right", perhaps we could look to the other who seems to challenge our perception not with eyes to see how they are wrong, but with eyes to search out the truth they are trying, perhaps halting to express. For none of us is able to perfectly express the whole gospel of God. I've spent the better part of my life trying to approach that, as is my professional duty. Even after preaching week by week for nigh on twenty years I am still conscious of how partial is my knowledge and how inadequately I express the truths of the grace of God. Are other people just there to live up to our expectations? How will we learn more if others only say the same things as we do and in precisely the same way? Are we so sure of our own version of the faith that others have nothing what so ever to contribute to it? Surely not!

And of course seeing Jesus in others is the most powerful witness to the resurrection anyway! If we travel this path, it is remarkable in how many people we will find the risen Jesus, and with eyes to see we will both affirm our own faith and theirs.


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