November 10,2019

Luke 20:27–38

27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him  28and asked him a question, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.  29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.  32Finally the woman also died.  33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."

             34Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but 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.  36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.  37And 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.  38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“I have a problem with what Jesus says about the resurrection,” said my friend and colleague, David Shaffer, who was then the pastor of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Petersburg.  I can’t remember how we pastors got on this topic, but I sure do remember David’s words on it.  Pastor Shaffer was bothered about what Jesus says in the very episode that is our gospel reading for today.  For Jesus indicates that in the resurrection people will not be married or given in marriage; and Pastor Shaffer didn’t, and maybe still doesn’t, like that too much.  In very honest and touching words he went on to describe how much he loves his wife, how devoted he feels towards her, and how wonderful she is for him.  They are still so very much in love.  And then with equally unrehearsed and moving words, he went on to say that he could not imagine a heaven for him that would not include his being married to this precious woman.  We were all touched by this impromptu but very eloquent expression of love for one’s spouse.  …And many of us were also thinking that if our spouses ever discovered that we had not on the spot heartily agreed with Pastor Shaffer, we would be in big trouble!

Well, Pastor Shaffer unwittingly speaks for many us, doesn’t he?  Perhaps many of us married folk cannot imagine a heaven for us that does not include our being married to the one who’s been the love of our life.  And yet there have also been “those moments” in most marriages when the prospect of not being married in heaven suddenly doesn’t seem to be such a bad idea after all…  But nevertheless, for Jesus who has publicly upheld marriage, decried easy divorce, and commanded such faithfulness between spouses, a marriage-less life in the resurrection does seem a strange and surprising thing to hear from Jesus.  What are to make of all this?  Well, several things…Let’s begin with what the Sadducees were hoping to make of this. The Sadducees were hoping to make the whole idea of the resurrection of the dead look ridiculous.  What was important was this life, and what God had commanded for this life. 

This life is what is real, what demands our utmost commitment, and what is our real destiny, by God.  A “next life” or resurrection was for them not only a false hope, but a silly fantasy that would divert us from what God has tangibly wrought and promised for this life.  The Sadducees were hoping that those hanging around Jesus would come to see that the idea of resurrection from the dead is just absurd.  “The resurrection of the dead is just a nice but absurd fantasy designed to placate our mortal fear of death…”  Haven’t we all at one time or another harbored that kind of cynical thought?  The Sadducees speak what’s in the back of many minds today. The finality of death has both a lot of grim evidence and a long history of forgotten corpses on its side.  How could a resurrection from the dead be true? 

For the Sadducees, as for some moderns, eternal life is not a matter of the promise of resurrection, but of the fertility of biology.  Eternal life is about passing on life and your genes and your memory to children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on.  This in fact fits nicely with what God has commanded both about biology (“Be fruitful and multiply.”) and about holy identity (“Teach your children the Word of the Lord, that they may walk in the Way, the Torah, of the Lord.”)  So in order to trap Jesus in the absurdity of what he was saying about the resurrection, the Sadducees concoct a scenario based on what Moses and so Holy Scripture had recorded as God’s Law for the raising up of real life.  You’ve heard of the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Well, this turns out to be The Same Bride for Seven Brothers, each of whom, at the death of one sibling after another, gets his chance to “raise up” children for his brother – but to no avail.  So in the supposed resurrection, is she going to belong to seven husbands?  Just picture how absurd that would be, and what a violation of God’s commandment that a wife be married to only one husband!

But in trying to reveal the absurdity of life as a resurrection from the dead, the Sadducees have in fact revealed their haughty denigration of the life of a woman.  Jesus clearly sees that for the Sadducees that poor woman must always be someone’s property, someone’s chattel.  She has no value beyond the children she can raise up for some man.  And that law of Moses was designed so that she could eventually have a child, preferably a son, who would care for her, so that she would not be a hapless widow who in that age could only resort to begging or prostitution.  But that’s forgotten by the Sadducees who can only see how she should be used for procreation, instead of loved as God’s creation. 

So Jesus promises a resurrection that for her will mean “Free at last, free at last!  Thank God almighty, I’m free at last” from having to be used and tried out as baby machine.  “Whose wife will she be?” – as if her final destiny surely has to mean belonging to some man.  …Free from being someone’s best property or favorite chattel – ree from having to belong to some man – free to belong as a child of God with all the rights, privileges, dignities, and beauties thereto.  What is absurd is not God’s power and promise to raise the dead to live forever as fulfilled children of God; what is absurd is our arrogant presumption in burying, lowering, and debasing one another with our theologies of domination and control. 

“…’Til death us do part.”  Marriage is a social contract ordained by God to secure faithfulness and to nurture deepening love between spouses.  But marriage is always a contract “’til death.” Raised beyond death to die no more, the chosen of God are going to need something beyond marriage.  Belonging to a spouse ‘til death will then need to be superseded by belonging as a child to God forever.  We will all find our eternal and wonderful fulfillment not in belonging to someone as a spouse or to someone as a parent, but in belonging to God as God’s children.  “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.”

Despite our cynical thoughts and festering doubts about the possibility of a resurrection from the dead, Jesus makes a stirring assertion as to its truth.  The resurrection from the dead is not about placating our mortal fears over dying.  The resurrection from the dead, Jesus says, is about trusting the living and loving of God.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are indeed dead to us, the world, and everything in it.  But we, the world, and everything else are not God.  God is beyond it all; God is beyond the limitations and confines of creatureliness; God is God; and God is… living, Jesus says!  We worship a living God!  The chosen of God may be dead to mortals and the world, but they still belong to the God of the living, who is there for them beyond all the dying!  “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

One day we will be dead to one another and the world, but not to this God of living!  And if you belong as a child to the God of the living, then you, friend, are going to be forever alive to this God of life and love for you.  What does it matter what you’re dead to, when you are alive to the God of the living?  This is the wonder of the resurrection from the dead: a God living beyond all the dying has, by our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, chosen you and me as children for the Living. Unnatural?  Of course.  An absence of any evidence?  Well, the only evidence is an absence of his body from his tomb.  Hard to believe?  Since when is the wonder of God supposed to be easy? 

As important and wonderful as marriage can be, a person’s fulfillment lies not in being someone’s spouse or parent, but in being God’s child.  It’s natural to wonder what eternal life might be like; but Jesus focuses us on whose we must be, now and forever – and forever and now. If eternal life is belonging as a child to the Living God of love, who cares what it will be like?  It will be wonderful and amazing and forever.  What we as children of the living God need to care about is that woman and all like her, who are being denigrated and exploited by an arrogant world of injustice and abuse.  That’s what God wants us to care about, and to oppose, and to redeem.  We don’t need to be hypnotized by dreamy pictures of heaven with the love of our life; we need to be busy in real service to the God who loves every life. 

I remember calling Pastor Shaffer to hear what he would say in a sermon on this text, and in hopes he’d send me some of it – which he did not.  But as we talked, our wonder grew – wonder at this God of the living and the loving.  What would it be like, we wondered, to be raised by God to treat everybody as Pastor Shaffer treats his wife – to love everybody with even more of the devotion and gratitude and affection that he feels now for his wonderful wife? And not only what would it be like, but what will it be like, by God – and what is it like even now?

Pastor Chris Price

Nov. 10, 2019

Empowered by Extend, a church software solution from