'Desert Island Discs' is a very popular radio programme and began back in 1942. No longer introduced by Roy Plomley but by Kirsty Young. No longer a wind-up gramophone but a solar-powered CD player. Though many of us will remember the now rather quaintly sounding words 'you will be supplied with an inexhaustible supply of gramophone needles'. Those were the days! The formula of the programme is simple. A choice of eight discs, a luxury item and three books, one chosen by the castaway, and the other two being the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare.
But imagine for a moment that you are the castaway. On landing you find that your solar-powered CD player was intact but your Bible was damaged. The covers were lost and most of the pages were destroyed. I wonder what irreducible minimum you would need to know something about the Christian faith? Would it be Chronicles or Revelation? Would it be Leviticus or Jude? For me one page of the Bible would be sufficient - 1 Corinthians 15. That chapter highlights the essence of biblical faith. That Christ died for our sins and rose again.
The death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus are at the heart of our individual faith and of our corporate testimony as believers. One of the Reformers spoke of the resurrection as ‘the very lock and key of all our Christian religion and faith’ (Homily on the Resurrection). And so it is. Unlock this truth and all the rest falls into place. How important it is for us to understand the significance of the empty cross and the empty tomb.
Over the years I've preached many times on 1 Cor. 15 but it struck me recently that verses 1-11 highlight the fourfold cord of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Of course scripture is always supreme. Always scripture shapes tradition and reason and experience. Always scripture defines what we believe and how we express our faith. Always Word and Spirit combine to illuminate our hearts and minds. To inform us. To challenge us. To convict us. To mould us, and to make us more and more like Jesus. At the same time our faith is reasonable, deeply rooted in Christ and worked out in our experience. We look at these four elements – SCRIPTURE, TRADITION, REASON and EXPERIENCE.
We begin with the Word of God in 1 Cor. 15: 3-4. Here we have the words of a simple creed. From the scriptures we affirm that - Christ has died - Christ is risen. That was the substance of the apostolic preaching. That Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he rose again. We remember these things as we celebrate Good Friday and Easter Day. The sequence of the journey is from suffering to glory. From sadness at the death of Jesus, to the joy of his resurrection. And remember that each Sunday should be for us a day of resurrection! And our walk with Christ includes both sorry and joy.
Paul wanted to remind the Corinthians (and us too) of the central core of the apostolic preaching. Here is the heart of the Christian faith. That the Lord Jesus died and rose again. That he took upon himself our sin and guilt and shame. As one of the Reformers put it, the consequence of the resurrection is that 'death [is] swallowed up by Christ's victory, [and] hell is spoiled for ever' (Homily on the Resurrection). In other words, sin and death and hell have been conquered by the cross and their conquest confirmed by the resurrection. Consider then that without the cross there would be no resurrection. No death. No forgiveness. No hope. Unless Christ had died for us we remain dead in our sins. But since he is risen. We too are risen. Christ has died (we have died) Christ is risen (we are risen).
When Paul spoke of the scriptures (verses 3, 4) he was referring to the written OT. At that time the NT was mostly unwritten. At that time it is likely that only Galatians and Thessalonians had been composed. At that time the Christian message was mostly audible rather than written down. The message was heard rather than read. Words spoken by a preacher rather than words written by a scribe. And it would be another 1500 years before printed Bibles were mass produced.
Our Bibles are made up of what we call the OT and the NT. The one anticipates the other. The one is rooted and grounded in the other. The one points us forward to the other. The OT and the NT complement each other. And since the message is one, both proclaim all that we need to know about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. When Paul spoke of the death and resurrection of Jesus 'according to the scriptures' then we may draw on both the OT and the NT.
One of the Reformers spoke of
“the holy scriptures [as] God's treasure-house, wherein are found all things needful for us to see, to hear, to learn, and to believe, [all that is] necessary for the attaining of eternal life” (Homily on those who take offence at Holy Scripture).
For this to happen we need to read the scriptures, and to hear and to heed the precious truth it contains, that is the very Word of God. In the OT there are a number of clear references to the death of Christ. Two key texts would be Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. There are some hints too concerning the resurrection e.g. Hosea 6:2, Jonah 1:17. The point is that Christ's death and Christ's resurrection are in fulfilment of scripture. In the NT there are frequent references to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Some key verses would be the predictions of the passion in the gospels; and the Bible study Jesus gave on the Emmaus Road
"beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27).
And after the resurrection, when Jesus taught the disciples in the Upper Room,
“…Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms' (for the Jews that was the three parts of the OT). Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day'” (Luke. 24:44-46).
In 1 Cor. 15 Paul grounds his preaching and his teaching in scripture. And for us too, what we believe and what we say must be thoroughly rooted and grounded in the Word of God. Could I then encourage you to read and re-read the resurrection narratives in the NT – starting with say Luke 24 and John 20.
In reminding the Corinthians of the gospel, Paul made it clear that he passed onto them what he had received (15:3). Now already in 1 Cor. 11 he had spoken about this. In verse 2,
“I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings [or traditions] just as I passed them onto you”.
And in verse 23,
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed onto you…”
and then he gives the earliest account of the institution of the Lord's Supper in the NT. And in chapter 15 verse 3,
“For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance”.
First, because it is foundational. First, because of its significance. So do you see what Paul is saying? He received from the Lord (either directly or indirectly through his fellow apostles) and then passed these things onto the Corinthians. He acted as an intermediary. He was a link in the chain. He didn't keep the traditions to himself but passed them onto other people. The message may have come from the Lord, but it was delivered by the apostle Paul.
In the Jewish Passover celebration, the youngest child asks the question, 'What do these things mean?' and then the explanation is given. The tradition is passed on from father to son. And just as Paul shared what he knew with other people, so we too are challenged to pass on what we know and what we believe. We each have the responsibility of sharing our faith and of handing it onto the next generation.
Now tradition is not something to dismiss or to regard with suspicion. Something that is unacceptable. Something to shy away from. Why? Because we find tradition referred to in scripture. But there is a word of warning. Tradition must always be subject to scripture and not made out to be equal with scripture. Tradition is valuable if it clarifies or explains Christian truth. But not if it obscures, or distorts, or corrupts. The creeds are traditional statements of the Christian tradition. The creeds are not the actual words of scripture but they affirm biblical truth. The creeds echo what scripture says.
I said that verses 3-4 sounds like a simple creed. It certainly declares what we believe, and what is central to our profession of faith. From the scriptures we affirm that - Christ has died - Christ is risen. These two statements are at the heart of the ancient creeds. And in addition they speak of Jesus' birth and ascension and return. And since the Christian faith is Trinitarian we affirm in the words of the creed our belief in the triune God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is what we believe. In these words we give our assent to the Christian tradition.
Of course in a limited amount of time I mustn't oversimplify. Certainly over the centuries some traditions have developed that are unhelpful and are inconsistent with the teaching of scripture. They are added to the divine revelation and then become part of the belief of the church. For example, Mary the mother of Jesus, can be so exalted that she is believed to have been sinless at her birth and immediately translated to heaven at her death. Now scripture does not teach these things. Rather Mary is presented to us as a humble person and the young mother of Jesus; but not as a mediator between ourselves and Jesus Christ.
Such traditions as these are unhelpful since they are not taught in scripture. Remember that scripture must always shape tradition and be subject to tradition and not the other way round. Always we need to check out any teaching that is questionable, and when placed next to scripture is actually in error or heretical.
It should go without saying that the Christian faith is a reasonable faith. It is not irrational. It is not based on myth. It is not made up. But is rooted and grounded in God's Word; and is rooted and grounded in history. It is intellectually credible. It is trustworthy and true. It makes the best sense of the evidence. It speaks to our minds and transforms our thinking. It shapes our consciences and regulates our behaviour.
Some years ago one of the cults had a sign of welcome over the entrance to the commune. It said, 'Leave you mind and shoes at the gate'. Now I know that it's also possible to present a rather over-simplistic version of the Christian faith. I know that sometimes the good news can be presented in such a way that it dulls the senses, and fails to engage with the mind. But such presentations of the Christian faith are unacceptable and we must reject them. There is a story told about a church member who said that
'Whenever I go to church I feel like unscrewing my head and placing it under the seat, because in a religious meeting I never had any use for anything above my [neck]'
How sad, but often how true! When people say to me that they just want to hear the simple gospel, I think I know what they mean. Certainly if its clear and plain and easy to understand. The ABCD of the simple gospel is to Accept, to Believe, to Consider and to Do. But always in that presentation the good news must touch our heads as well as our hearts. To engage with our minds and to challenge our wills. So that we fall down on our knees in humble recognition that Christ is Lord over every part of our lives – our minds included.
Do you remember the words I quoted just now from Luke 24?
“Then [Jesus] opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures” (24:45).
Our minds must be opened up to the Word of God by the Spirit of God to convict us of our sin and of our need of the Saviour. Notice in 1 Cor. 15 that Paul refers to the Corinthians receiving and believing (verses 1-2). He refers to those who had seen the risen Lord Jesus (verse 5ff) and he alludes to his own conversion (verses 9-11). He had been a persecutor, but now he was a preacher and teacher, an evangelist and church-planter. And what also did Paul say? Did you notice in verse 10 his three references to divine grace. It was by the sheer grace of God that Paul's life (including his mind) had been transformed. John Calvin notes that Paul is speaking from his heart, because he knows that this is the truth. All that Paul is, is from God. All that Paul has become, is from God. He had no ground for personal boasting, but simply to testify to the sheer grace and goodness of Almighty God. And for you and me we are no different. We can do nothing without the grace of God poured upon us in all its fullness.
Yes, conversion concerns a subjective response to the Saviour. But it also needs to be objective too in terms of our intellectual response to him. This means that whatever our backgrounds, whatever our education, whatever our status we must be wholly submitted to the Lordship of Christ.
If tradition must be subject to scripture, so too must our reason be subject to scripture. Long ago one of the Reformers said that our
“reason must give place to God's Holy Spirit; [and] you must submit your worldly wisdom and judgment unto his divine wisdom and judgment” (Homily on those who take offence at Holy Scripture).
That still remains true for each one of us today. Submit your heart and your mind to the Lord!
Our experience as Christians is an important part of our testimony. The Lord has opened our eyes and has met us in the person of the Lord Jesus. Now our individual experiences may not be the same (and thank God they are so very different) but the Lord graciously meets us as individuals. He meets us where we are. The waiting father extends his arms of love out to us, and draws us to himself. Though our experiences may vary, we share a common faith that centres on the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. That's why we say the creed together – this is what we believe as individuals and what we believe as members of the Christian church. These are the boundaries of our Christian belief, that Jesus is Lord.
In 1 Cor. 15 where much human experience is recorded where the risen Christ meets individuals and groups of believers. Whether it be individuals like Peter (who denied Jesus three times) or James (our Lord's brother who thought he was mad), or to Paul (the persecutor of the infant church). Are you at heart, I wonder, a Peter or a James or a Paul? Then take heart, Jesus will meet you and accept you and draw you to himself. He invites you to respond to him and to commit your life to him. In 1 Cor. 15 we read of the experience of groups like the eleven apostles, and to over 500 individuals. All of these people had an encounter with the risen Christ. And being a crowd some were closer to the centre than others. But yet they all saw and believed. Their experience became an essential part of their testimony. They could only but speak of the things that they knew and had experienced for themselves. The Lord had risen and he had touched their hearts! Theirs was no second-hand testimony. But a personal and corporate confession of faith. That remains true of our profession of faith. Expressed in word and deed, in speaking and in serving. As individuals and as a Christian fellowship.
May I say something about the belief and experience of someone who lived here in Newcastle in the 1840s. At that time Methodism was divided by the teaching of a former Methodist minister, Joseph Barker. He became a popular writer and speaker, and crowds came out to hear him. But sadly he no longer believed in the Trinity and had become a Unitarian. And the shallowness of his own testimony became all too clear – particularly at funerals. Following the death of a child Barker wanted to express words of comfort to the parents.
“But' he said, 'doubt and unbelief had left me no such word to speak ... I was dumb in the presence of the mourners” (J. T. Barker, The Life of Joseph Barker, London, 1880, 327).
And following the death of a close friend, he had no words of comfort to those who stood by the grave.
“I looked down, with his disconsolate widow and his sorrowing children, into the dark cold vault; but could say nothing of a better life. We sorrowed as those who had no hope” (ibid., 328).
What could Barker say? Nothing. No words of comfort and no hope to the bereaved. No words to speak of the Saviour he once knew. He had fallen from grace. He had lost his first love. Barker had become as helpless and as hopeless as an unbeliever. Certainly without the resurrection and we have no hope as Paul tells us in the rest of 1 Cor. 15.
But what of our own experience and testimony? Is it rooted and grounded in Christ? Is it able to affirm that Christ has died and Christ is risen? That each of us by the grace of God can have peace of mind and warmness of heart, and the assurance of sins forgiven, and of a hope beyond death in and through the Lord Jesus Christ.
We have looked at 1 Cor. 15, and I've spoken about the fourfold cord of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Obviously our faith and understanding is shaped and moulded by the Word of God and illuminated by the Spirit of God. And this belief touches our heads as well as our hearts. And we confess by word and deed that according to the scriptures Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!