by Stephanie Berkas, Seminary Intern
“How do my beliefs about life after death reflect my hopes and priorities rather than God’s?”
As I pondered and wrestled with the texts that were presented to us this morning, I felt as though these passages form scripture were revealing layer after layer of complexity, and confusion, and challenge. We find themes of life and death, or suffering and hope, and law and gospel, and of marriage and faith and resurrection.
As I tried to narrow these texts into a framework for a sermon, and tried my best to focus my attention and study on any one of these themes, I not only found the task difficult, but I found the topics difficult. Do I highlight Job’s surprising and unshakeable hope amidst profound suffering? Am I to focus on the doctrinal differences that Jesus is facing in his day? Or the inevitability of his Jesus’ own death, looming on the horizon in our gospel passage, and his patience in teaching about the resurrection and what is to come? Do I talk about what is to come – our eschatological beliefs? Do I sugarcoat or present Jesus’ words about resurrection in a way that does nothing but comfort? Or do I face that a little more head on?
I could preach a nice sermon and pretended like I’ve preached a thousand, but I promise you that as I seek to find my own pastoral voice from the pulpit, I’ll carry this responsibility with humility and honestly, as I wrestle with challenging texts and countercultural, counterintuitive messages from the One who moves among us still. And I trust that the Spirit is indeed moving among us, with messages to impart within, in between, and in the absence of my words.
We are one more week into the month of November, and also one more week into the church season of Pentecost, or what is sometimes known as Ordinary Time. And I think “Ordinary Time” is a fitting title for what we find in scripture throughout this month. Last week, and this week, and in the Sundays ahead of us, we read scripture that reveals ordinary people, with ordinary questions, like you and me. And specifically, with a whole lot of questions about death and resurrection, and what happens after we die.
In this sort of strange passage from Luke, the framework is a debate between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, concerning these beliefs in resurrection. Setting the scene, we find Jesus having arrived in Jerusalem, the very place where he will be killed in just a few short chapters. He’s almost exclusively found in the Temple during this time, teaching in his final days; an act that will eventually stir up enough attention and controversy, that he will be crucified by the Roman authorities for his radical and subversive message of hope.
The conversation isn’t very much of a conversation at all, but an interaction that falls within a long litany of questions and riddles, seeking to humiliate and prove Jesus wrong. You see, the Sadducees and the Pharisees disagreed on the topic of resurrection, rather fervently by the time this conversation takes place. The Sadducees were known to be the wealthiest, most educated priestly class, and were strict adherents to what was written in the Torah. They didn’t believe in resurrection, claiming that there was no doctrine of resurrection explicitly written in the five books of Moses that they accepted as authoritative.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, did believe in resurrection, and adhered to both written and oral Torah. They wanted Torah to keep up with streams of interpretation that were handed down, emerging in prophetic literature and the Psalms. Jesus was nurtured in Pharisaic tradition, and adopted their apocalyptic beliefs, including a belief in resurrection.
The Sadducees are hoping to stump Jesus – a fairly common endeavor throughout the gospels. They’re asking him about a doctrine that already have their opinions about, and are not seeking genuine dialogue or conversation, but hoping to discredit Jesus in a public space. And, with little surprise, we can guess what awaits them. We hear the Sadducees’ focus on the written Torah revealed when they open the conversation by citing Moses: “Teacher, Moses wrote for us…” They then continue by citing teachings that are attributed to Moses, concerning marriage. According to this commandment, a brother-in-law was to preserve his brother’s name by marrying his widow if the brother had died childless. By creating a fictional story in which a woman – unnamed and dismissed by the storytellers – is passed between seven brothers, they question Jesus about who her spouse will be in heaven, knowing that he cannot find an explicit answer in the Torah.
Jesus doesn’t respond to the test – it’s not an open, honest question. It’s a test of doctrine. As is so often the case, he side-steps and his answer reminds them that we needn’t be doctrine police with one another. He doesn’t buy into the Sadducees’ logic puzzle about who this woman belongs to in the resurrection, but he also doesn’t take the easy way out or respond in a way that is over sentimental. He responds with patience, using the moment to teach about the love and mercy of God.
Jesus replies to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where 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.”
Last Sunday we remembered the saints – all of them – as we gathered together in worship. We brought pictures, we lit candles, and we remembered how it is that we remain related to those who came before us, and to those who will come after. We’re spending this whole month thinking about death, and life after death.
So we hear a few things from Jesus in this response. One, we hear him, clearly making a distinction between “this age” and “the coming age”; the ways of God in the coming age are different from the ways of humanity, as we understand them now. The coming age isn’t limited by what we know or how we live; we can expect a radically different, wholly transformed life in the resurrection… even if that doesn’t feel very comforting. The truth of the matter is, whether we like it or are ready for it, God’s love has broken into our lives and into humanity, to reveal a love for the world that is unlike anything that we know now. And sometimes that promise of hope entices anxiety, because this promise is for something that is so totally unknown.
Then, we hear Jesus sort of oddly dismiss marriage. I think that this is not because Jesus doesn’t love and ordain marriage, but because he’s trying, again, to distinguish our ways from God’s ways. Even our relationships will be different in the resurrection to come.
Jesus is saying something difficult here – our relationships in the resurrection will be unlike anything we know now. That’s not very comforting. However, a lot of my imaginings about life after death are about what I want. A part of me likes the platitudes that we’re given when we’re being comforted around the death of a loved one. They’re in a better place. You’ll meet again someday. God has another angel. I think Jesus challenges that here. “I’m the God of the living, not the dead.” There is both law and gospel in that – yes, there is a word of hope. But also, if our faith orients itself toward just getting through so that we can have a good second life, well, honestly, we don’t know much about what that life will be.
And many of us know the sting of death in a way that is all too real, all too raw, for us today. As we gather together, the sadness with which we lit our candles of remembrance is deeply painful and continues to cloud our lives. All the gracious and well-meaning platitudes that people give us with in an attempt to make us feel better when we’re suffering an incredible loss, are in fact just platitudes; just clichés. And while it’s challenging to hear from Jesus that our relationships might be different than we expect or want in the resurrection, if Jesus is just offering platitudes, how is that different from what the world has to offer us? Jesus, instead, acknowledges the real pain and suffering of death. This conversation that Jesus has is merely a few short chapters away from his own death; the passion narrative. Jesus isn’t talking about death in a disembodied way, he’s thinking about his own death, as well.
When Jesus tells the Sadducees that “God is not God of the dead, but of the living,” it doesn’t mean that he is indifferent to death or to those who have died. For there are no God forsaken places, no God forgotten people. Rather, it’s quite the opposite – in relation to God, death is the enemy and the resurrection promises to overcome death. His challenge to the Sadducees is to see life in the resurrection as wholly different from that which we know. Even marriage and relationship will be different than how we understand it now. Life in the resurrection is not just a continuation of our mortal lives after our deaths.
An important point that Jesus is making to the Sadducees, is that death is the end of many things as we understand them, but it is not the end of everything. God does not end in death. While we are not eternal, God’s love and mercy hold us eternally.
And his words at the end of this conversation, “to God… all are alive,” brings us back to the candles that we lit last week, to the relationships and the communion of saints that surround us in space and time, and remind us that those who lived before us and who are now no longer among us are indeed “living” to God. God loves them. God has not forgotten them. And because of that connection to God, they are also not dead to us. As with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, are still today, together with us all, the complete people of God.
And so, we look around us in these days of November, mindful of those who are no longer with us, but eternally connected to them, through our relationship with God. And this future resurrection, this truth that we have been promised, has already broken into our world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And with this promise of resurrection, we lean into the future with hope, recognizing God’s presence – and abundance – in our lives already. Amen.