Although a large part of the New Testament is taken up with the letters of St Paul, it is quite possible that there were others which have been lost. It is highly likely that Paul himself was not conscious of the fact that he was writing scripture that would be read with reverence in the Church nearly 2,000 years after his death. After all he, in common with most other Christians of the first generation, were expecting the early return of the Lord. What is certain is that Paul’s letters would have been passed on from one church to another, perhaps mainly among those founded by Paul, after they had served their original purpose within the church to which each was addressed.
Paul had many reasons for writing to the young churches. One was to correct disorders, whether in belief or in morals, and other aspects of behaviour. The Corinthians were a lively group, and they needed strong leadership. This, it seems, could be provided only by Paul. This morning he takes us, with the Corinthians, back to the first principles of the Gospel that he had preached to them, that they had received, in which they stand, and by which they were being saved.
As far as we know, the first churches did not have anything equivalent to a creed, such as we have. The creed which we shall use later in this Liturgy came to its present form at the two Councils of Nicaea and of Constantinople in the 4th century. Parts of it may have been based on earlier Baptismal creeds. Certain other parts were added by these Councils as a counter balance to particular heresies prevalent at the time.
However, in this morning’s reading from the Apostle we read something that sounds very much like a creed. As a lead-in, Paul declares, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…” Note that last phrase “… what I also received …”. Paul is just about to rehearse to the Corinthians what he had also received, which was what they had also received when they believed. Belief is reception of certain facts as the truth. This was how Paul had become a Christian, and this was how the Corinthians had set out on the same path.
Just to make things absolutely clear Paul reminds them of what they had received, maybe in the actual words that they had used at the baptismal liturgy itself.
“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; he was buried; he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” He died; he was buried, and he was raised on the third day. His death and his resurrection had been foretold in the scriptures. That was important. The events were all a part of God’s plan which had been foretold by the prophets of old.
What seemed at the time to have been a tragedy was not a tragedy at all. This was not a case of Satan getting the upper hand in order to frustrate the purposes of God. This was God’s way, and there was no other. Just as important was the fact that the Corinthians had themselves entered into this experience with Christ himself. Each of them had been through the symbolical death of baptism. Each of them had died and was buried in the waters of baptism. Each of them had been raised to the new life as they had come out of the water. Did I say each of them? Let me correct myself. Each of us has died, been buried, and raised from the dead into the newness of life offered by God himself in his son, Jesus Christ.
Paul then goes on to state the evidence for the Resurrection by listing witnesses. “He appeared to Cephas, that is Peter, then to the Twelve, then to more than five hundred brethren at once, 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. I am the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God, but I am what I am, and his grace towards me was not in vain.”
Bear in mind that this letter was written before the four Gospels. Each of them record resurrection appearances, some of them unique. This was Paul’s take. Perhaps if he had written a Gospel he would have filled out some of the details, but that is not his purpose now. There are two in this list that do not appear elsewhere – the appearance to James, the brother of the Lord, and the first leader of the Church in Jerusalem, and the appearance to more than five hundred brethren at once. In those days there were still people who could give their own testimony to the resurrection.
Notice also that some of the five hundred had “fallen asleep”. As Orthodox we do not, or ought not to, speak of dying, except in the sense that each of us died in our baptism. People today use all kinds of get-outs to avoid saying that someone has died. The reason for that is that people have a fear of death, even of mentioning death.
We Orthodox say that someone has “reposed” – not because we cannot face the fear of death, but because this is the truth. We shall repose, as Paul says that some of the five hundred that he mentioned earlier had reposed.
The final great point that Paul makes in this reading this morning is that “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain ….. I worked harder than they (the other apostles) though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me…”
It is this grace that overcomes everything, a grace that sometimes we do not, or cannot, even seek. We cannot seek it because it is far more than we can ever comprehend. It is more than finite minds are able to comprehend let alone to seek.
Augustine of Hippo was a great theologian of grace, writing of his own experience in his “Confessions”. He writes: “How late I came to love you, O beauty so ancient and so fresh, how late I came to love you! You were within me while I had gone outside to seek you. Unlovely myself, I rushed towards all those lovely things you had made. And always you were with me, and I was not with you. All these beauties kept me far from you – although they would not have existed at all unless they had their being in you. You called, you cried, you shattered my deafness. You sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness. You shed your fragrance, and I drew in my breath, and I pant for you. I tasted and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and now I burn with longing for your peace”.