In today’s second reading (1 Cor 15:1-11), Paul reminds the Corinthians of “the gospel I preached to you.” For many of us, “gospel” is almost always a reference to the four Gospels, yet the original meaning of ‘gospel” was the message itself. The English word “gospel” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “good news.” When Paul speaks of the “gospel,” he means the heart of the message of what Christ has done and is doing. Paul preached the “good news” and believes that the good news is so powerful that if we hold onto it, we will “stand firm.”
The description of Jesus’ appearances found in this passage is the earliest account of what took place after the Resurrection. The First Letter to the Corinthians was written between 55 to 57, at least thirteen years before the earliest Gospel, Mark, was written around 70.
Since rising from the dead is so contrary to human experience, people may be slow to believe it, even on the basis of the experiences of others. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the apostles gave signs, that is, miracles, which supported their claims. However, Thomas proposes that the greatest miracle was brought about by the effect of their preaching:
…the greatest of all miracles, that by a certain few an infinite multitude of men were converted to the faith, rich men by poor men preaching poverty; by men of one language preaching things that surpass reason, wise men and philosophers have been converted: ‘Their voice goes out through all the earth’ (Ps 19:4)… the apostles by dying brought others to the faith…
Paul affirms that the message of Jesus’ death and Resurrection gives us strength. How does what happened to Jesus affect us? First of all, in a powerful way, the Resurrection demonstrates that God has power even over death. Our lives and our deaths are in God’s hands. Furthermore, Jesus’ death was an offering of Himself to the Father on our behalf. Jesus cleanses us of our sins: “Justified by faith, we have access to that grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:1).
Paul asserts: “Through it, you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you” (1 Cor. 15:2). We are being saved by holding onto our faith in Jesus’ death and Resurrection. As Thomas says, “our faith is the certitude of hope… in the future in the truth of the reality.” He recalls the words of the Letter of James, “Receive with meekness the implanted word which can save your souls” (Jas 1:21). The Gospel of John declared in a similar way, “But these things are written that you may believe and that believing you may have life” (Jn. 20:31).
But the simple faith itself does not save us, Thomas reminds us that we are saved “if good works are added to faith, because “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26). The end of faith is the vision of God, to which we will come if we hold the message of Jesus’ death and Resurrection fast.
Thomas understands Paul to mean, “You should hold fast to that, i.e., keep in your memory what I delivered to you as of first importance, and still deliver.” Clearly, holding fast to belief in Jesus’ death and Resurrection were not intended only for the first generation of Christians. Do we “hold fast” to the message that Jesus has died and is risen? According to Paul, this belief is a key element in our being saved.
Paul makes it clear that his authority in making such assertions is not himself or his personal opinion, “For I received from the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 11:23): “I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received” (1Cor 15:3)
What did Paul receive and hand on? Thomas answers: “The things he received and delivered are four, namely, the death, burial, resurrection and appearance of Christ.” Jesus’ death is related o our sins. Paul says “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3). Isaiah foretold this death, related to human guilt: “He was stricken for the transgressions of my people” (Is 53:8). The First Letter of Peter also relates Jesus’ death to our sins: “Christ died once and for all for our sins, the just for the unjust” (1 Pt 3:18).
Thomas points out that Jesus’ death wasn’t by chance or only due to the violence of others but intended by God. Isaiah predicted, “Like a lamb he was led away to the slaughter” (Is 53:7). In a similar way, Jeremiah asserted: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer 11:19). Although there were human agents who killed Him, Jesus approached His death freely: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests” (Matt 20:18).
Why does Paul include the fact that Jesus was buried. Biblical scholars explain that Paul refers to the burial as an indication that Jesus was really dead. Thomas likewise observes that the mention of the burial was, “to show the truth of Christ’s death. For the evident sign of one’s death is burial, secondly, to show the truth of the resurrection... to induce them to believe in the resurrection, and this seems more difficult, that a buried person should arise…”
Since Paul includes the burial with the death and Resurrection, Thomas wonders whether the burial should also be considered an article of faith. He reasons: “It is not a special article of faith but is included in the article of the passion and death of Christ.” Thomas explains, “Faith is concerned with things that are above reason. Hence, an article of faith begins where reason falls short.” The conception of the Son of God by a virgin are examples of articles of faith offered by Thomas.
Jesus’ appearances to some of His disciples verified that He was risen. Paul names some of those to whom Jesus appeared. Thomas explains, “…the appearances of Christ were not made to all in common, but to certain special persons: ‘God raised him up on the third day and make him manifest not to all the people’ (Ac 11:40). The reason for this was to preserve order in the Church in that through certain special persons belief in the resurrection should reach others.”
Paul includes himself among those to whom the risen Christ appeared, even though the appearance was not immediately after the Resurrection but three years later.
Paul says that he was “the least of the apostles because I persecuted the Church of God” (1 Cor 15:9). Thomas thinks of the words of Sirach: “The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself so you will find favor with God” (Sir 3:18). Paul affirms his reliance on God, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor 3:5).
Paul considers that he is “not fit to be called an apostle” (1 Cor 15:9). In the Letter to the Galatians, he confesses, “I persecuted the church of God violently” (Gal 1:13). The First Letter to Timothy likewise admits “I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him” (1 Tim 1:13).
However, Paul acknowledges that he has been changed by grace: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me has not been ineffective” (1 Cor 15:10). The Letter to the Ephesians attributes to God what Paul has become: “Of this gospel I was made a minister” (Eph 3:7).
Paul cooperated with this grace, “Lest somehow I should be running in vain” (Gal 2:2). In the Letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledges, “… by the power of the Holy Spirit from Jerusalem to Illyricum [part of the Balkan region] I have fully preached the Gospel of Christ” (Rom 15:19).
Paul recognizes that he has labored more than the other apostles. Paul knows that he had experienced greater difficulties than others: “With far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings” 2 Cor (11:23).
Yet, as Thomas points out, Paul realizes “this was not from himself alone but from the instinct and help of the Holy Spirit” Paul credits God’s grace: “… not I, however, but the grace of God that is within me” (1 Cor 15:10).
Thomas recalls the words of Isaiah, “You have wrought for us all our works” (Is 26:12). Paul himself encourages the Philippians to have the same confidence in God’s power: “God is at work in you both to will and to work” (Phil 2:13). Thomas explains that God not only gives us grace but He enables us to use the graces well, “God not only infuses but He also moves us to use the graces infused well, and this is called cooperating grace.”
Pau acknowledges that he is not the only preacher of Christ, “Whether it be I or they, so we preached and so you believed” (1 Cor 15:11). The consistency of belief in the early church was an argument for its truth. We take for granted that the parts of the New Testament are in overall agreement with each other, forgetting that they had different authors, arising from different churches and locations, and were written over a period of years. Paul affirmed, “We have the same spirit of faith” (2 Cor 4:13).
Thomas points out: “… the efficacy of preaching comes to the apostles from one source, i.e., from the grace of God. As if to say: whether I preach or they, i.e., the apostles, as we preach, we have done this by the help and strength of God’s grace; and so even you have believed, namely, inspired by the Holy Spirit and grace of God without which we can do nothing: ‘Without me you can do nothing’” (Jn. 15:5).
Paul’s reflections upon himself illustrate his message. The power of God raised Jesus from the dead. The power of God, grace, transformed Paul from being a violent persecutor to a firm believer in Jesus and preacher: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me has not been ineffective” (1 Cor 15:10). In a similar way, God can act in our lives no matter what our mistakes have been in the past if we hold fast to the power of Jesus’ death and Resurrection.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas’ Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians are taken from the website: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/