Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
You’ll remember if you’ve been here the past few weeks that we’ve been walking our way through the last few chapters in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. This church, which Paul helped establish, has erupted into conflict and turmoil for a variety of reasons. Sexual morality, spiritual gifts. Classism. By the time we get to today’s chapter, we find out that this ain’t all. There are members of the community who flat out deny the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus being the idea that Jesus was executed, but then three days later was raised by God from death. We’re not sure in which way they’re denying it. Just that they are.
So, in response, Paul then does what any Christian is inclined to do: martial the evidence. Rally the evidence. Gather the proof.
First, he rehearses the same message he preached when he got to Corinth, that “Christ died for our sins,” he says, in accordance with the scriptures. That he was buried, and then raised, again, according to the scriptures. And then he goes through a list of appearances. First Jesus appeared to Peter. Then he appeared again to the 12 disciples. And then, apparently, he appeared to a crowd of five hundred. Then his brother James and then to all of the other apostles. One after the other after the other, after the other.
And then Paul inserts his own Jesus sighting in to the list. “Last of all,” he says. “Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.” If you’re familiar with Paul, you’ll know his story. According to the book of Acts, Paul was traveling to the city of Damascus in Syria. And on that road, he was hit by this flash of light that knocked him off his feet. A voice spoke, and according to Paul, it was the voice of Jesus. This was Paul’s conversion, the moment he became a follower, a disciple of Jesus. Add my name to the list of witnesses.
So, in response to this denial of the resurrection, Paul sort of lines up all of his evidence. There have been so many Jesus sightings after he’s died, he says. That you’d be crazy not to believe it. It’s all proof enough.”
But the interesting thing is, that’s not where Paul leaves it. He doesn’t leave it at the Jesus sightings. He doesn’t leave it at the evidence.
You see, the thing is that Paul’s not much of a reliable witness. Because he’s something of a spiritual ex-con.
“For I am the least of the apostles,” he says. “I am the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Sure, Paul says he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. But he was on his way to Damascus to rifle through the local synagogues for Christians. Paul used to be named Saul. And Saul was a Pharisee, a member of one of the rival Jewish sects. Saul was a Zealot who wanted to help quash the church, approving of the killing of Stephen, one of Jesus’ followers by stoning. He went from house to house, dragging men and women off to prison, shouting all sorts of murderous threats along the way. And he was heading off to Damascus to do some more.
Of course, he’s changed his mind. But think of it like this. Do you give the reformed cat burglar the combo for the safe? Do you put the ex-Nazi in charge of the battalion? Or let the former Taliban general into the war room? He may have done a complete 180, changed every opinion. Should we be nice to him? Yeah. Give him some kudos, sure. But a guy like him just can’t be trusted. Risen Jesus or not, he’s not a reliable witness. And he knows it.
But the thing is that The clue as to why is in what he says next. He says I’m the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called one, etc. etc. etc. But then he says this: “But by the grace of God… by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary,” he says. “I worked harder than any of them [them being the other, better witnesses]. Though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
What’s happening here is that Paul’s not really using the fact that he encountered Jesus on the road as proof of the resurrection. The evidence he uses is the fact that this encounter with the risen Christ flipped transformed everything for him. His evidence for the resurrection is the fact that he’s gone from bloodthirsty zealot, persecutor of innocent people, and murder accomplice to servant of Jesus. To the hardest working Apostle in the business.
Paul sees the resurrection as crucial not just because it’s data. Or evidence. Or just some historical event happened long ago. Paul’s own life is evidence of the resurrection. His encounter on the road in a flash of light made him a completely new person. All by the grace of God. The Biblical scholar Paul Sampley puts it like this: “No previous action of [Paul’s] merits God’s favor […] but God’s grace is sufficient to transform even such a person as Paul who directly opposes God’s purpose.”i Because it happened to someone so lost, so angry and so. And because it happened to him, it can happen to anyone else.
Eyewitness sightings are one thing. But Paul’s most powerful evidence for the resurrection is his own resurrection. The main point of the resurrection isn’t just that it happened. It’s that the resurrection happens.
Now, I believe in the resurrection of Jesus. That Jesus died, and was raised. There are plenty of scholars who make a case.ii There are plenty of books. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, or what exactly happened. For me it’s less textbook citation and more a deep mystery. But I do believe whatever the Easter story’s getting at happened. It wasn’t made up, a mass hallucination. Or a subjective illusion.
But we can be so focussed on rallying our eyewitness testimonies, gathering historical data, and trying to prove it as a fact, that we miss the point. It’s a very modern way of thinking, that something’s only true if it could make it into a history or science textbook. But when we leave the resurrection as a past event, we miss its power. It’s not just that the resurrection happened. It’s that resurrection happens.
I’m reminded of an interview in Christianity Today ran earlier this year.iii A warning first: it was an absolutely heartbreaking story. A woman named Linda Barkman was sentenced with second-degree murder in 1979 after her boyfriend murdered her 2-year-old daughter. She knew he was abusive, and knew he was an addict, and knew he was violent, too. So thanks to a state law, she was held responsible for knowingly endangering her child, and was sentenced to prison for thirty years. This topped off a string of abusive relationships and her own drug abuse. Like Paul, at this terrible moment she was confronted with everything wrong in her life.
I wanted to die, and God said, “No, you’re not allowed to die.” I was so angry at God. I remember screaming out to him, “You say you can make a new creation out of me, so you have to turn me into somebody I can live with. I don’t know what part is good, what part is not. All I know is everybody who has ever loved me or been loved by me is now hurt, and I just don’t know what to do.”
After that, God started showing me that he could use me if I would let him, if I would stop fighting. It took a long time. I began to see Jesus and his love and mercy in the day-by-day things. Not long after I got to prison, I started helping with church services in the psychiatric unit. For 28 of the 30 years I was incarcerated, I was the lay pastor for that prison unit.
Barkmans’s out of prison now. While she have an amazing ministry to prisoners, and a new and loving husband, it’s not like everything is fixed and back to normal. But like Paul, she’s come to know how God’s grace works powerfully even through those who have known tremendous suffering and guilt:
“I struggle,” she continues. “I’m in therapy. I have post-traumatic stress disorder from prison issues. I don’t know if I can believe in redemption for myself. But David was a murderer, and Saul consented to Stephen’s stoning, and Joseph spent a lot of time in prison. God has a special place for prisoners and can use us because of our brokenness…We know that knowing Christ in prison makes us freer than many people walking the streets who don’t know Jesus. So I pray for the strength to know that, every moment that he allows me to minister in prison is an opportunity to love to those that he loves.”
Like Paul, Barkman came to see her own life as part of the resurrection story. That even at the depth of her own pain and despair, her own shame and guilt, that God could take that Good Friday and tear an Easter out of it. Her own resurrection is the clearest evidence for Christ’s resurrection. And an example of its ongoing power. And that’s the real, most powerful proof for resurrection there is. (slide)
Because the same power that knocked Paul off his feet in a blast of light and molded him into a self-giving disciple of Jesus. The same power that’s taken Linda Barkman’s life, shattered by grief and shame, and given life and hope behind bars. It means that same power is promised to each of us. Not just to make us nice. Or good people. But the power of the risen Christ to raise us from the dead. No matter how deep the hole we’ve dug for ourselves, no matter how bottomless the pit is that life has thrown us in to or how wide the chasm is between us and God. Not just some time in the past, not just one day in the future. But here and now.
The resurrection not only happened. Resurrection happens. When we begin to believe that, it’s a source of hope, and courage. We can see our own lives in guilt and shame as places of mercy and forgiveness. We can see dead ends, whether of our own making or the making of others jammed with hidden windows waiting for the sunrise to burst in. And we can see other people, not as helpless write-offs, but as unfinished resurrection stories, just waiting to tell of the incredible goodness of God, and the staggering depths of the love of the risen Christ.
Because the resurrection didn’t just happen. Resurrection happens. May we, like Paul, like Linda Barkman, like countless others, hold firmly to this message, lest we come to believe in vain.
Resurrection happens. And thank God for that.