a sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost
The Sadducees wondered what happens to human relationships after we die. But Jesus knew that it was more important to look at our relationship with God.
A little more than twenty years ago, I lost both my father and my baby brother in separate medical incidents. Both of them were young – Dad was 63, David was only 30 – and both of them were married. They were loving and fun and full of life, and they each left a huge hole in the lives of all of us who loved them. Dad was a shop teacher who loved to joke around with the kids he taught. But when it came to grading, he was all business. One day, a boy went to see him and asked, “Mr. Abdelnour, why did you give me an F on that project?”
“Because I couldn’t give you a G,” he replied.
My brother, David, had been married for just a couple of months when he died, leaving behind a young wife and a yet to be born daughter. Even now, years later, I still wonder what it will be like when I see them again.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus talks about what happens to family relationships after we die. He is asked a question by a group of Sadducees who are trying to trip him up with a trick question. Suppose a man and woman were married, and the man died before they had any children. According to Moses, the man’s brother could then marry her, protecting her from a life of poverty and giving her children. But suppose there were seven brothers, and they each married her, and each time the man died before they had children. What would happen then? Whose wife would she be in the resurrection?
Now you need to understand that the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection, but the Pharisees did. So part of the trap they are setting is to see if Jesus sides with the Pharisees or with them on the question of resurrection. Maybe this is why Jesus decides to look beyond their trick question and talk about something much bigger: Is resurrection real, and what does resurrection life look like?
Of course, these questions are still important today. There are dozens of books every year that talk about life after death, books like The Shack and Heaven is For Real, which imagine what our post-resurrection lives look like. Meanwhile the popular magazines frequently ask the same thing: Who was Jesus? Was he really born in a manger in Bethlehem? Did he really rise back to life after he was crucified? Articles like these always seem to have just enough scientific evidence to make it seem plausible that there may possibly be a scientific explanation for what is, in the end, a statement of faith. They are like the Sadducees, asking to choose: Faith or science? Resurrection of no? Which is it?
The Bible is pretty clear about the physical resurrection of Jesus, and the promise that we, too will one day rise from the dead. Our burial liturgy is full of images of it. And all of us have stood here time and again and proclaimed the words in the Creed that say, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting.” All of us who have either lost a loved one, or know someone who has, find comfort in this, the promise that we will see our loved ones all again.
At the same time, there people, including some very notable bishops, priests, and theologians, who have trouble accepting the notion that Jesus was literally and physically raised from the dead. For them, the question is more spiritual; more a matter of resurrection of the soul. Both sides debate the question, just like the Sadducees and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. But, the fact of the matter is that nobody walking on this earth can has ever experienced resurrection; nobody can tell us, “this is how it works.” In the end, it’s not a question of interpreting Biblical rules or a question of scientific theories and proofs. It is a question of faith.
Maybe this is why Jesus decided to avoid the debate all together. He looked beyond the silly question about what might happen to a woman who marries seven brothers and looked instead to our relationship with God. “It doesn’t matter,” he says, “because to God, all of them are alive.”
Resurrection life doesn’t look like the lives we are now living. None of our assumptions apply. It will be completely different from anything we’ve ever experienced – infinitely bigger, infinitely brighter, infinitely more rich and full than anything we have ever seen. No matter how wonderful your life is today, or how sorrowful, resurrection life is greater in every way
Our Lord is God of the living. God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God of Basil, David, and Bill; God of Pat and Carmen, Jim and Tony and all the saints who have died believing in him. They are alive because God is alive, and they are with him now.
This is why for God, who lives outside of time and space, questions of who’s married to whom, or who’s alive and who’s dead, are all pretty meaningless. Human relationships are but dim reflections of our relationship with God. And all of those who have died are alive, because all have returned to God. The questions are irrelevant, because God’s love is infinite and God’s time is eternal.
One of the most beautiful lines in our burial service comes from today’s Old Testament lesson, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has be destroyed, then in my flesh I will see God.” Job says this after he as lost everything – his family, his home, even his own health and body. He says this after everyone around him has abandoned him. He says this because he realizes that no matter how much he has lost, all of it pales in comparison with the infinite love of God.
From this perspective, perhaps resurrection can best be described as “being restored back to God.” Whether our bodies are broken by death, or whether we have simply lost those things which make life worth living, in the end God is who matters, who restores us, who makes us whole.
God is the beginning and the ending of lives, and all that we hold within it.
Thanks be to God.