A sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
God is not God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is talking to some Sadducees about the resurrection. And that conversation isn’t happening in a vacuum. In the Gospel of Luke, this discussion happens after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple and the casting out of the money changers. Then, Jesus teaches in the temple, and this conversation is one of them.
But the tension in the story is this: We are coming up on Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. So when the Sadducees, who were the temple aristocrats, come up to Jesus with their questions, they aren’t doing it in good faith. They’re trying to catch Jesus out, embarrass him, or put him in legal or political danger.
Jesus, like the Pharisees, was known to teach the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees, however, did not believe in the resurrection or any of the other of the Pharisees’ teachings. For them, the only scripture was the five books we call the Pentateuch, the Jewish Torah. Their primary concern was with the worship of the temple in Jerusalem. So when they ask about a childless woman with seven husbands in the resurrection, they are simply giving the believers in the resurrection a bad time. There is a law in Deuteronomy commanding a brother to marry his brother’s widow and giving a procedure for him to refuse to marry her. It’s not clear, even in Jesus’ time, how often these marriages to a brother’s widow really took place, and the idea of it happening seven times for one woman was totally absurd in the realities of the first century. However, the law was there in scripture and it gave occasion to present a conundrum to Jesus, to make him explain something about this resurrection—what happens after we die?
The resurrection in Judaism, and for Jesus and Paul or the rest of scripture, was never about the disembodied soul. It was about the resurrection of the body. The Sadducees questions assume that the world of the resurrection would be a continuation of life as they knew it, with its relationships still in the same way that they were on earth. Their view of life and of God was very concrete and literal—like most people of their time, and most people nowadays, to tell the truth. The problem with being so concrete and literal is that it locks in lots of assumptions that are based on our very narrow experience—truly just the things that have happened to us in our lifetimes and a few things we might have been taught or read—or maybe seen on the Internet.
I cannot remember any time when I was growing up when we didn’t have a TV. For me, television was always there, even though TV broadcasting only began a few years before I was born. My mother grew up on a farm that didn’t
have electricity until she was ten years old. Of course, that meant that there was no electric pump to bring water up out of the well, so no running water. For rural people of her parents’ generation, that was just how normal life was. It wasn’t remarkable and they couldn’t really imagine another way that life might be. I can’t really imagine everyday life without electricity, even though I know the historical facts. If we have a power blackout, normal life stops and we struggle until the lights come back on. Living every day like that? Inconceivable. Of course, things have changed even more since I was a kid. I can remember what it was like before computers and cell phones and other electronics, but now I’m so used to them, I have to work at remembering.
There are lots of things that have existed or that will exist that are perfectly true, but that we cannot imagine or understand. So these guys are asking Jesus smart-alecky questions about what life is like on the other side of that horizon which is death. Their interest is in all the details and their demand is that it fit together with what they have experienced, and understand, and can imagine. We know those guys couldn’t imagine electricity, how could they really imagine the resurrection? We know that God raised Jesus from the dead. But it is not within our imagination or ordinary experience. Jesus tells the Sadducees: “In this age people marry and are given in marriage…but in that age and in the resurrection from the dead they neither marry nor are given in marriage…they cannot die any more…they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees isn’t a detailed description of the afterlife. What Jesus is describing is how our imagination falls short, how our ways of thought and expression put inappropriate limits on the truth of God. Jesus doesn’t say that in the resurrection people become angels. What he says is that they are like angels in that they can’t die any more. He does say that in the resurrection we are children of God—our source is God, we are cared for and valued by God as god’s own. But do we really know or can we really imagine how that will be? Not in any detail except that we will be dwelling in God’s love. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be details and complexity, but anything we can say about it is a metaphor not the concrete thing in itself. The more I work with older people, and people who are closer to their own death, and the closer I get to my own death, the more I see that those people are comfortable with that. We cannot see over the horizon of death, but that’s okay, because God can be trusted, how it will be, will be God’s love.
When Jesus ends his answer, he describes what God said to Moses out of the burning bush. “He speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” God—not of the dead, but of the living… we are able to have faith in God and we are able to imagine and understand, so that we can live. The real importance of us understanding and talking about the resurrection of the dead is in how it affects our living. We live in hope because death is defeated, death is not the end, in Christ we are living. God is God of the living, not of the dead. But in that hope, we do not know, nor can we fully imagine what God has in store for us.
We don’t even know the shape that the church will take. I mean that for the church as a whole and for this congregation in this place. In our imagination, we fill in the future from what we have known from the past. But the future is not the past and what God has in store is at least as different as the world of 2019 is from my mother’s world on that farm in eastern Oregon in the 1930s. It is safe to let go of things we want to cling to, for God is the God of the living, and in that age those who live in God’s hope are like the angels and the children of God who cannot die any more.
I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me;
incline your ear to me and hear my words.
Show me your marvelous loving-kindness,
O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand
from those who rise up against them.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me under the shadow of your wings,
From the wicked who assault me,
from my deadly enemies who surround me.