Perhaps you’ve had the experience: you’re talking to your parents, and they tell you a story you’ve never heard about something that happened in your family’s past. It could be about themselves, or your grandparents, or some long-lost relative. And as they spin the tale, it’s as if a window opens; the story draws you in, and you begin to see your family, or even yourself, in a new light.
What would it mean to find yourself drawn into the story of Jesus, indeed, to be one of the characters written into the drama?
As we saw in the previous post, Paul had to deal with yet one more troublesome issue in Corinth: the fact that some of the believers there denied the hope of resurrection. He began by pointing back to their early experience of the gospel, the message they had already heard and received and to which they needed to cling, lest their faith be for nothing.
Paul now reminds them of the content of that message, in part by appealing to what appears to be an early creed:
I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve, and then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once—most of them are still alive to this day, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. (1 Cor 15:3-8, CEB)
Paul’s point seems to be twofold: Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and there were many witnesses, including, of course, Peter and the rest of Jesus’ inner circle. There is no historical record of an appearance to 500 people simultaneously, but the Corinthians probably knew the story; Paul adds the point that many of the witnesses were still alive, as if to say, “Check it out for yourself, if you need to.” He mentions an appearance to James, the unbelieving brother of Jesus who became a leader of the Jerusalem church (how I would love to know what was said in that conversation!), and to a number of other apostles beyond the Twelve.
But then Paul takes a slight detour, as if humbly amazed to be written into the post-resurrection story. No doubt he was thinking of his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, though the story in Acts 9:1-9 doesn’t describe an actual physical appearance.
“Last of all he appeared to me,” Paul says, almost as if Jesus slipped him into his itinerary as an afterthought. Paul describes himself as one “born at the wrong time”: the underlying word can describe a miscarriage or abortion. As self-descriptions go, it’s hardly complimentary.
But Paul’s encounter with Jesus had turned his entire understanding of himself upside-down. And as we’ll see in the next post, his utter reliance on the grace of God made him both humble and bold at the same time.