Sometimes we just need a reminder, even of things that we’ve known for some time. That’s kind of like what the Apostle Paul is doing in this section of his letter to the church in the Corinth. “Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters.” He’s taking a moment to remind them of something that he’s already said to them, something that they have come to know and understand, and yet a reminder is in order.
As one New Testament scholar has put it, “He wants them to understand where they are and who they are in God’s long story,” (Wright). The church in Corinth is in danger of forgetting their roots, that they belong to Israel’s Messiah. And Paul is reminding them because he wants them to learn to live in light of this story of which they have, by grace, become a part. Because if they can remember and understand who they are and where they are in God’s story then so many other things will fall into place for them.
And all these many years later it’s the same thing for us, isn’t it? Some of you may have been baptized many years ago now. Maybe Sunday after Sunday you’ve been coming to church. Perhaps you would consider yourself well acquainted with the Christian story and life and yet it’s easy to forget, isn’t it? It’s easy to go through the motions, it’s easy to stop asking questions, it’s easy to feel very close and yet very far away. You know what they say about familiarity. And so Paul wants to remind you this morning, remind you who you are and what story your life is a part of.
“Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news.” There it is. There’s what Paul wants to remind them of. The good news, the gospel (I’ll use those terms interchangeably). If someone were to ask you, “What’s the gospel?” could you answer with confidence? What is the news and why is it good? Well before he goes on to say just what the gospel is he lays out a few characteristics of the gospel. You’ll see it there in the text before you.
First, the gospel is an announcement. “Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you.” At home in my study I have a copy of The Globe and Mail from Friday, June 14, 2019. The headline on the front page simply says, “CHAMPIONS.” Good news for Toronto Raptors fans. See that’s an announcement, a proclamation, and it’s true regardless of whether or not you like sports or basketball or Toronto. The Toronto Raptors were the 2019 NBA Champions.
The gospel is an announcement. It’s good news not good advice. It’s a proclamation about something that is true even apart from our understanding or knowledge or apprehension of it. The Anglican bishop and scholar NT Wright says that Christianity is “good news about an event which has happened in the world, an event because of which the world can never be the same again. And those who believe it, and live by it, will never be the same again either.” The gospel is an announcement that has changed the world and it can change you as well.
Second, the gospel is a gift. “Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received.” And just a couple of verses later Paul emphasises his point: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.” And again earlier in the same letter Paul puts it this way: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,” (11:23).
So the gospel is handed on and received, and handed on and received, and handed on and received. Paul received the gift of the gospel from the Lord and then he in turn gifted that message to the Church in Corinth and Galatia and Ephesus and they handed on what they had received all the way down the generations to you and I today. The message of the gospel is a gift to the Church from Jesus himself.
There are a number of things we can extrapolate from this. Here’s one: The gospel does not change with the times. The times they are a changin’ but the gospel remains steady and consistent. When it comes right down to it the Church only has one thing to say and whether it’s the first century or the twenty-first century that message is the same.
The gospel is an announcement, the gospel is a gift, and third, the gospel saves. “Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you.”
The gospel is the message of salvation and we are saved by clinging to it, as someone who is drowning is saved by clinging to a floatation device. Here’s another way we can think of it. The gospel is a message that accomplishes what it announces. The gospel announces salvation and we are saved by believing it, trusting it, embracing and being embraced by it. Here’s an example. In the marriage liturgy there comes a moment when the celebrant says, “I declare that they are husband and wife.” And so it is. From that moment on they are husband and wife. The message accomplishes what it announces.
And Paul is saying that the gospel is like that. The gospel accomplishes what it announces. The gospel is an announcement that we have received from the risen and living Jesus Christ, and the source of this message is the life and love of God himself, and this message is filled up and spilling over with the power of God so that whoever (and I mean whoever) believes it is brought, by the Holy Spirit, into a living relationship with God. And the only point in being a Christian at all is if this message continues to be the solid ground on which you stand.
So according to Paul those are three characteristics of the gospel: the gospel is an announcement, a gift, and it has the power to save. But just what is the gospel? And here let me keep it really simply: Jesus lives. That’s it. That’s the gospel, that Jesus not only lived and died but died and lives.
Here’s how Paul puts it. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” here it is, listen, “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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.” Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ was raised.
Christ died, “for our sins,” says Paul. Surely he had in mind the words of the prophet Isaiah writing some 500 years earlier about a figure who would once and for all rescue God’s people: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed,” (53:5). His wounds, your healing. His death, your life. “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,” (53:11).
This presupposes some alienation between God and humans because of human rebellion and sinfulness, for which the just penalty is death. However, to say that Christ died “for our sins” means that our sins are not greater than God’s mercy. It is to say that Christ took a body in order to take our place, to die our death, to overcome death and our alienation from God. Simply put, there is an exchange. One died so that all might live.
Christ was buried. In other words, he really did die. The body that he took became a corpse that was laid in the grave.
Christ was raised. “Oh, and he appeared to Peter and all these other folks most of whom are still alive if you want to check for yourself.” The body that died and was buried came back. It was the same body but it was different, no longer subject to death. And it’s a good thing too because in very next paragraph of Paul’s letter he’ll say that if Christ hasn’t been raised then our faith is in vain and we are to be pitied.
But that’s not the case at all. Christ has died, Christ was raised, and Christ will come again we might add. And that’s tremendously good news for us because it means that we can finally be the people God desires us to be, so long as we stick near to the risen and living Jesus and let him go to work in us.
That’s the message of the gospel, that’s the unchanging gift of the gospel, and that’s the power of the gospel to save: Jesus Christ himself, crucified, risen, and living. Cling to him, build your life on him, and though you die you will live forevermore.