We talked last week about how the mysterious and wild God of All Things did the unthinkable, the unimaginable. God became truly human. Yet, as you well know, that is not how the story ends. A few decades later, the God of Mystery and Wonder, went further, and did something that was yet more shocking. It had been etched in prophecy and spoken of by sages, yet still, when it happened it was utterly unexpected. The Lord of All, died an agonizing and humiliating death, and rose victorious over sin and death. When God came to earth God did not come with trumpet sound, as a regal king, adorned with wealth and power, but as an infant, laid in a manger. When that infant grew to be a man and won the ultimate victory over evil, he did not do so by marching with sword drawn, banner flagged, and conquering the world, but by dying the death of a slave and rising again. This is the good news, this is the Gospel: Jesus, the Christ, the LORD of all creation, has died for our sins and risen victorious of death and darkness.
We within The Church often have a tendency to flatten out the Gospel. That is to say we identify one aspect of what the Gospel brings about, such as redemption from sin or the ultimate undoing of all that sin has wrought, and treat that as if it is the Gospel itself. Yet, notice both what Paul identifies as the Gospel and what Paul does not.
Now I would 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—unless you have come to believe in vain.
For 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, 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 one untimely born, he appeared also to me. – 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 NRSV
Notice that Paul does not identify the Gospel as redemption from sin or the undoing of the damage that sin has caused, or anything else that that the work of Christ brings about; instead he identifies the Gospel as the work of Christ itself. Paul will go on to explore what the work of Christ brings about, but he names the work itself as the Gospel. Those things which we are often tempted to reduce the Gospel to – like salvation by grace through faith, or God wiping away every tear and bringing about the end of all injustice and violence – are all taught in scripture. These are all things that the Gospel will bring about, but they are not the Gospel itself. They are the fruit. The Gospel is the tree. The Gospel is that Jesus, the Christ, the LORD of all creation, has died for our sins and risen victorious of death and darkness.
Although the Gospel is not that which the work of Christ brings about, but the work itself, the questions of what it does bring about and what it means for our lives still. Much like our prior discussion of The Incarnation, time and space forbid us from extrapolating all that it means for our lives. This short sermon and my frail words are powerless to convey the depth and breadth of what the Gospel means for our lives. Every sermon ever preached, every book ever written, could not possibly contain all that the work of Christ means for us. Yet, while we cannot explore everything, we can zoom in on what Paul explores in 1 Corinthians 15:20-26.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. – 1 Corinthians 15:20-26 NRSV
Christ bore our sin and shame upon his back, died for our sins, and rose victorious over sin and death. When I read this passage from 1 Corinthians, I cannot help but think of a scene in John Milton’s classic, Paradise Lost, where Milton alludes to these verses. Paradise Lost is a grand retelling of the story of the fall of humanity, an epic poem in the tradition of The Iliad and the Odyssey, full of rich imagery and some of the most beautiful classical poetry in the English language. There comes a moment in the story, where The Father sees Lucifer going toward the garden, and knows what will happen to humanity. The Father then turns to the heavenly host and asks if any of them would be willing to save humanity, and all of heaven falls silent. Then the Son breaks the silence and says…
Behold me then, me for him, life for life
I offer, on me let thine anger fall;
Account me man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly die
Well pleas’d, on me let Death wreck all his rage;
Under his gloomy power I shall not long
Lie vanquisht; (Paradise Lost, Book 3, Lines 235-243a)
The image Milton paints is one of Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice for the sins of humankind, and preparing to receive blows from above and blows from below. That is what happened. Christ was both the atoning sacrifice for sin, who bore our sin and shame upon his back, and the victim of a horrible murder. Yet, what’s more, The Son continues…
But I shall rise Victorious, and subdue
My Vanquisher, spoiled of his vaunted spoil;
Death his deaths wound shall then receive, and stoop
Inglorious, of his mortal sting disarm’d.
I through the ample Air in Triumph high
Shall lead Hell Captive maugre Hell, and show
The powers of darkness bound. Thou at the sight
Pleas’d, out of Heaven shalt look down and smile,
While by thee rais’d I ruin all my Foes,
Death last and with his Carcass glut the Grave: (Paradise Lost, Book III, lines 250-259)
The image Milton paints here, is of Jesus rising from the dead, taking down Lucifer and all those other punks, and then after he is done with that frail lot, going after death itself, killing the grim reaper and tossing the grim reaper’s corpse in the grave so that the grave can hold nothing more. This is obviously poetic and full of imagery and symbolism, but it is imagery and symbolism that describes exactly what Christ did when He rose from the dead. Christ has borne or shame and risen victorious over evil.
The Gospel means that we need bear our shame, for Christ has borne it on the cross. There is a stereotype that surrounds Christianity, that it is a religion of shame. If I may be blunt for a moment: if you believe that Christianity is a religion of shame, you do not understand the cross. Christ has borne or shame upon his back, and in Him, it is gone. Morality is important, but grace is greater than all our sin. We do good works, not because they earn us a place in the kingdom (they don’t), but because they are the fruit of a heart that has been changed by the justifying grace of God. It is the grace of God alone which saves, and because of God’s grace, we need not fear sin nor death.
The Gospel means that neither evil nor death has the final say. We need not fear death, for death has lost its sting. There will come a day, when we look upon all the enemies that once seemed so invincible, including that last enemy that we thought had defeated us, and see them lying in the dust. There will come a day when death and disease, violence, injustice, and sin, are distant memories of something we once knew long ago, in the time before time.
Whatever you face, whatever lies ahead, remember who you are and, above all, whose you are. Remember that your Lord and Savior has journeyed before you into death, and rose victorious over death and darkness. Rejoice, sing out, rejoice and sing with all your heart. For Christ has overcome the world
Pastor Joshua Demi