Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

In recent years, a lot of noise has been made about the Gnostic versions of the gospel; from the Gospel according to Mary, to those of Peter, Philip, Thomas, and most recently even the gospel according to Judas.

February 7, 2010

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

In recent years, a lot of noise has been made about the Gnostic versions of the gospel; from the Gospel according to Mary, to those of Peter, Philip, Thomas, and most recently even the gospel according to Judas.

These “other” gospels, unearthed (or un-sanded) largely near Nag Hammadi, Egypt (or in the case of the Gospel of Judas most recently in a New York safe deposit box), are big business these days, and have been for some time.1 

One thing that, to my knowledge, has not been dug up is a narrative gospel according to Paul. Why? Because, of course, the Gospel According to Paul is already in the Bible. While the Apostle Paul does not get his version of the Good News under the traditional Gospel title “according to” (kata in Greek), it may be helpful to remember that Paul’s presentation of the gospel predates the four biblical Gospels (not to mention the other gospels that followed well after, and which Paul would surely have judged as being “no gospel”–copyright Galatians 1), and though it does not match the gospel form or genre, it is most certainly “gospel” that he preaches and presents in his letters.

In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, there are three elements worthy of note and perhaps some attention from the pulpit as well. First, is this “Gospel According to Paul,” which is both the good news in a nutshell, and a creedal formula of sorts. Second is Paul’s claim that the gospel he proclaims falls out in a particular way–i.e. in accordance with the scriptures. And third is Paul’s self-designation as “least of the apostles.”

1. The Gospel According to Paul

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is, at its core, the proclamation of the gospel. In all of Paul’s writing this is, for my money, the most complete, concise expression of the Good News. And this is it:

I. Christ died for our sins (3)
II. was buried (4)
III. was raised on the third day (4)
IV. and that he appeared to his disciples (5)

With the exception of the appearance to his disciples, this gospel shorthand hits the same basic highpoints of the life, death, and life of Jesus that is professed in the great creeds of the Christian tradition. From time to time, readers of Paul’s credo make note (and sometimes even a big deal) of differences in his account when compared to the Gospel versions. Chief among these differences is the fact that Paul makes no mention of the empty tomb. It is, of course, entirely possible that there is something important going on in this. But to me it’s a little bit like Groucho Marx’s famous trick question, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” Perhaps for Paul, mention of the empty tomb is unnecessary, considering his risen-ness.

Paul’s gospel shorthand here in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 resonates with other creedal elements in Paul. Compare Romans 1:1-4, “the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord;” 2 Timothy 2:8, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel;” and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Notice also that what Paul characterizes here as “of first importance,” is something that was first given to Paul and in turn handed on. Paul uses this kind of language in just one other place, in 1 Corinthians 11:23 quoted above. In both cases Paul is handing on (read: proclaiming the message of) the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 11:23ff the gospel is presented in terms of the Lord’s Supper, ritual recitation which re-presents the life death and new life of Jesus; in 1 Corinthians 15 the message itself is reiterated (“Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters”), re-proclaimed, and re-confessed by Paul. This is my body that is for you. Christ died for our sins. This is of first importance. And this is the Gospel according to Paul.

2. “According to the Scriptures” (kata tas graphas)

Twice in these few verses of Paul’s version of the gospel, the details which he presents as of first importance are “in accordance with the scriptures.” Variations on this particular phrase occur in several places in the New Testament–several times in Paul’s letters, and a couple of times in Acts. Acts portrays Paul’s missionary work in Thessalonica, his proclamation and his evangelical persuading, as “from the scriptures” (apo tōn graphōn; Acts 17:1-4). Paul introduces himself to the Romans as “an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures” (en graphais hagiais; Romans 1:1-3). And in 2 Corinthians 4:13 Paul speaks of faith and the resurrection of the dead as “in accordance with the scriptures” (kata to gegrammenon). In all of these instances, by stating that his gospel is “in accordance with the scriptures,” Paul makes a claim on the authority, centrality, and (again) the “first importance” of what is being proclaimed.

Paul may not have intentionally been writing material that would come to be regarded as scripture, but he certainly was writing and preaching in a manner in keeping with–flowing between the same banks as–the traditional stream of the Old Testament. Paul’s proclamation of the gospel is, in this sense, very much scriptural, very much gospel. The preacher may do very well, and certainly no worse, than to follow Paul’s lead in preaching the formula that he presents here in this scripture.

3. Least of the Apostles

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 ends with three verses of Paul’s self-reflection on his calling and role as apostle. Having rehearsed his unique confessional detail–Jesus appearing first to Peter and the twelve, then to another five hundred believers, then to James and the apostles–Paul gets to himself: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

When I first read this passage I was tempted to highlight the connection that might be made to we who are preachers; we who, in many and various ways, persecute the church by our preaching. My temptation was (and in some ways still is) to stress the need to preach the confessional, creedal form of the Gospel according to Paul that we find here in 1 Corinthians 15–forget the cute stories, the themes or issues that we value week to week, the stewardship needs, the social subject of the moment, etc. But there is another element in these last verses that strikes me as more important.

Paul calls himself the least of the apostles. This ought to beg the question of us. If Paul considers himself “least,” what connection do we make not only to our own work as apostles–those sent to remind this world of the good news–but to the lives of our parishioners as well? In what ways are we who are least, the most effective and most important agent of God’s gospel? How might God use the least of us, be we preacher, pew-sitter, pencil-pusher or planter, to proclaim this good news? This, it seems to me, is a potential life-changing way into (and out of) this text, and a question more than worthy of our attention from the pulpit.

Whether then it is we or they (and may God make it both), so let us proclaim, that the world might come to believe; that Christ Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised again.

1June 2009 saw the publication of a comprehensive collection, The Gnostic Bible: Gnostic Texts of Mystical Wisdom from the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, if you are interested in that kind of thing.