I confess that the words caught me off guard Easter Sunday morning. They shouldn’t have. Scholars argue that the passage read is an early creedal statement of the newborn Christian movement. I had gone to Sunday worship in Boston at a non-United Methodist Church (Park Street Congregational Church) not as bishop but as Poppa, accompanying (with Jolynn) our son Nathan, daughter-in-law Abigail and most importantly our grandson Simon (21 months old). It was a relief not be thinking of issues of same-gender marriage or ordination. Nowadays these questions threaten the very foundation of The United Methodist Church. My joy was that Easter morning did not revolve around some larger church dispute but focused on being Dad and Poppa (i.e. grandfather to Simon). Still I must confess, those larger issues were not far from my mind. We have been told to expect a ruling on the whether the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto from the Western Jurisdiction by the Judicial Council next week. Anxiety is rising across the church and especially among the clergy. The future of The United Methodist Church and possible schism hang in the balance. I have consistently called for prayer and patience as we invite the Holy Spirit to work through the Commission on a Way Forward to guide us on how we can stay together and faithful with sharply different convictions on important issues surrounding human sexuality and its appropriate expression. I quoted a friend and professor at Claremont School of Theology in an earlier blog in a way that bears repeating, especially in light of the Easter scripture read last Sunday morning: Professor Jack Jackson wrote perceptively that “human sexuality has become status confessionis for many people at opposite poles on the issue. … We can say we agree on so many other aspects of the Christian life, but the reality is the issue of human sexuality is one of, if not the, key ecclesial issues of our time. It is an issue that is both shaping and taking priority over every other conversation.” The lay liturgist at Park Street Congregational Church in Boston read these words:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. . . . And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (I Corinthians 15:1-8, 14,19 NIV)Sitting in the historic Park Street sanctuary (immediately adjacent to the Boston Commons with the historic Granary Burial Grounds on the other side of the church, Park Street is where William Lloyd Garrison gave an historic speech igniting the anti-slavery movement) struggling with my own thoughts about the future of The United Methodist Church, the words of verse three hit me again as if with crashing cymbals right next to my ears. “I passed on to you as of first importance.” Thank you Lord! I needed to hear again that while our divisions and theological disagreements are important - so important they may merit deep change in our relationships and connection - they are not of first importance. The resurrection of Christ is, alone, of “first importance!” In commenting on this passage Professor Stephen Seamands reminds us, “Lordship and divinity, like two columns of a magnificent arch, are therefore inseparable and dependent on each other. And the keystone of the arch is the resurrection of Christ. Take that away and both columns – in fact the entire structure – tumbles down. Notice how Paul brings all three together at the beginning of his letter to the Romans. The gospel he has been commissioned to preach, he says, is about God’s Son, Jesus, who was “shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:4). (From Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 112). Pungently C. S. Lewis explains:
There is not in Scripture the faintest suggestion that the Resurrection was new evidence for something that had in fact been always happening. The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe…. He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened. (C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), pp. 236-237)In all that may come, the resurrection of Christ is of first importance! Such is the glory of Easter!