Readings: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
Our readings today deal with The Resurrection. This is important stuff. What we believe about what is happening to this world, to our bodies and our souls, will shape how we act. Do we believe that our bodies are something to escape from, that our souls are exiled from God and that we'll be reunited with him when we escape these bags of stinking flesh? Or do we believe that what we see right here is all that there is, and when we die we're gone forever? We do not believe either of these things. Every week we recite one of the creeds and in it we say that we “believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.”
Belief in The Resurrection was central to the Jewish understanding of God. It is the revolutionary hope that God is at work in this physical world we live in and has a plan to bring the dead back to life and turn the world into the kind of place that it is supposed to be. The dead do not rot forever. They believed that the dead would be brought back to life and become immortal. As Christians, we believe that through his death and resurrection, Jesus actually destroyed death and made the hope of the Resurrection possible. Our final hope is not to escape our bodies or escape from earth. Our final hope is God's plan to make earth into heaven. This is why every time we meet we pray for God's kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
First, some background on the question they asked him:
The Sadducees only believed in the first five books of the Old Testament. They thought the idea of The Resurrection of the dead was something that had been invented since then. In one of the Old Testament books that the Sadducees actually believed in there was a law that if some guy's brother died and his wife hadn't had any children, the brother who was still alive was supposed to marry that woman and have a baby with her so that his brother's line didn't die out. It's a weird law and there's lots that could be said about it, but we'll leave that one alone for now. They figured that a woman couldn't be married to two different men, so if the resurrection is real, then this law makes no sense. And if that law makes no sense, then forget about the whole Jewish religion, because no good religious Jew was going to deny the wisdom of Moses' law. The Sadducees thought that Jesus would either have to admit that there was no resurrection of the dead or he would have to say that Moses' laws were dumb. If he said that Moses' laws were dumb, the people would probably have killed him. If he said there was no resurrection, the Sadducees would have won the debate and Jesus would have lost followers clinging to the hope of the Resurrection.
In Matthew's and Mark's version of this story, Jesus replies with “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Then he says, “You know that story with Moses and the burning bush?” That story Jesus is talking about is in one of the books of the Bible that the Sadducees actually claimed to believe in. In that story God identifies himself to Moses by saying, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Those are three different generations of people. Abraham was the father of Isaac who was the father of Jacob. All three of those people were dead at the time the Moses-and-the-burning-bush story happened. By pointing this out, Jesus showed that the first five books of the Old Testament assume that God is involved in people's lives beyond when they die. Jesus proved to them that if the resurrection of the dead is not going to happen then they are not really worshiping the God of the living. They are worshipping a useless god of the dead. Their religion is dead and it will result in death.
What Jesus actually says about marriage and the resurrection at first glance seems a bit discouraging. Why don't we get to stay married? Does Jesus not think marriage has no lasting spiritual significance? No. In Matthew's Gospel he condemned the Pharisees for approving of divorce and said,“What God has joined together let no one separate.” And how is it that we “become like angels” in the Resurrection? Is it that there's no need to reproduce? Marriage is a lot more than that. In Ephesians, Saint Paul says we ought to love our spouses as if they are our own body and goes on to call marriage a “great mystery” that teaches us about Christ's love for the church. Whatever marriage (or the lack thereof) is like in the Resurrection, it's probably not worth worrying about now. I think the main point Jesus is making is that the Sadducees' idea of life and the afterlife is the opposite of what it is actually like. So, let's not spend time fretting about whether or not we'll still have our soul mate in the Resurrection, but be glad that in contrast to the despair of the Sadducees who thought there was no Resurrection, we have the hope of being reunited with all those we love and having those relationships turned into something even more full of life than what they are in the here and now.
The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They made their religion modern, inoffensive, relevant and palatable. They threw out most of the Jewish Scriptures and said they only believed in the first five books of the Old Testament. They thought the rest was too superstitious. So they threw it out and just kept the stuff about morals and traditions. They kept their religion out of their politics. The substance of their religion could be outlined with just a couple Hallmark greeting cards. How modern. They were political insiders. While other Jews resisted the Roman occupation and didn't like some standing foreign army telling them what to do, the Sadducees thought you should just play the politics game and learn how to succeed in a changing global world. It's the first century, you know.
If it's such an important thing for Jesus to rebuke so harshly and three different authors thought it should be put into their Gospel books, this weird little story might be pretty important. False belief creates bad behavior. The Sadducean denial of the hope of the resurrection turned them into hopeless people who sided with oppressive political systems, blinded them to God's power so that the only thing they had left to trust in was fragile human political power. We all end up worshiping something and if we don't believe in a God big enough to resurrect us and to fix this world we live in we won't have anything worthwhile left to believe in. Like the Sadducees our shallow hope will rest in things that don't last-- things like our ideas of what's good and bad, the power of being powerful religious leaders, or having more control of politics. But those things die too, because they're just made out of people and people die. The Sadducees died out about forty years after they had this little debate with Jesus. Their belief that people weren't meant to be eternal beings resulted in them not doing anything of lasting significance.
So who are the Sadducees now? How do we avoid the life-denying theology that our Savior condemned in
today's Gospel reading? I'm going to discuss two places in which this life-denying idea can be found in our church today. These same resurrection-power-denying ideas are at work in the Protestant Episcopal Church in America, of which we are a part, and we need to identify them, name them, and reject them, so that we can fully embrace the truth: that Jesus was in fact crucified, died, was buried, and has been resurrected, that he will return and that we await the Resurrection of the dead and the Life of the world to come.
This is important stuff. Saint Paul emphatically corrected Resurrection-deniers in 1 Corinthians. He wrote: “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, . . . Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Prominent theologians and bishops have argued that we don't have to actually believe that Jesus rose from the dead. They talk about “believing in resurrection” like all that means is believing everything's going to be OK, every cloud has a silver lining, caterpillars turn into pretty butterflies and the ugly duckling was actually a swan, just be an optimist and things will all turn out fine. The message of the church becomes that life can be like a Disney movie. The places in the church that have this kind of idea of what Christianity is about find it more and more embarrassing to actually talk about Jesus because if he's not divine, if he wasn't resurrected from the dead, and the stories in the Gospels aren't true, then who really cares about Jesus? All they have left is to say that we should be good people, we should recycle and volunteer at soup kitchens. And if Christianity just means being a good person, who really cares about the Bible? It's got lots of embarrassing bits and it has bits about giving away all your money and stories of people being raised from the dead in it, so to be a good hoity-toity politically-connected modern-and-relevant year-2013 wishy-washy liberal Christian it's best to just ignore most of the Bible. That's the first of the two modern kinds of Sadducee.
The words of Jesus apply as much today as then: “You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God!”
To those listening smugly to this indictment, consider the other modern Sadducees. They shop at Christian bookstores, hand out tracts, and will be happy to tell you the one and only way to get to heaven. It will only take a minute. Pray this prayer.
To rephrase the passage I read from 1 Corinthians: If Jesus didn't really raise from the dead, and if we aren't really going to be raised like he was, then what the hell are we doing here?
Heaven is not somewhere else. Our bodies are not bad luggage that needs to be left behind when we move on from earth. If being alive in a physical body is bad and being in heaven is good, then death is good. So why did Jesus come to destroy death? If that's the way it is, let's live the American dream! Let's get rich and die comfortably and treat people like they're disposable because if there is no resurrection then we are in fact disposable. Why not take it a step further and profit off of other people dying? If it's just souls that matter, and not the real people walking around, eating, sleeping, and pooping that matter, why worry about their bodily health? War is good for the economy, right? Let's build more prisons and manufacture more drones.
But if God actually loves the people he created that are made out of bones and guts and muscles and blood then the crucifixion makes a lot more sense. So if the resurrection of Jesus is a real historical fact-- if it actually happened-- and we will in fact be raised like him when he returns then this is some really good news. Pain, suffering, and death are no longer the worst things that can happen to us. That's why the book of Hebrews, in the lectionary reading for All Saints Day which we just celebrated last week says that the martyrs “were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented.” That stuff sounds pretty bad. But it's not as bad as living in a world in which real people don't even matter and the best you can hope for is escape or annihilation.
Listen: In light of the Resurrection, we can be killed but we can't be stopped. God has given us the free gift of identification with the one who defeated death to obtain the resurrection. We get to share in what Jesus did even though it was he that did it, not us. Death, the ultimate enemy, has been defeated and we get to share in what's on the other side of that.
We're not out to save disembodied souls so they can have pie in the sky when they die. We look to Christ who promises wholeness here on earth when we come back to life. If we're just looking for a ticket to heaven, for some non-physical ghost-like soul to fly away to heaven, then to hell with the world. Why bother feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, befriending the lonely, or seeking the health of those who are sick if these bodies are just earth-suits that we throw away when we use that ticket to heaven? And who cares about pollution or famine if we just get raptured up to heaven when the end of the world comes? God didn't care about this pretty planet he made, did he?
Our religious beliefs and our political beliefs are linked together whether we like it or not. The life-destroying resurrection-power-denying theology of the Sadducees was the root of their life-destroying resurrection-power-denying politics.
Like the Sadducees, Christians in America have experimented with using political systems to try to spread their religious values. The way that looks when you think the earth and the people in it are disposable containers for eternal souls is pretty bad. When Christians are the most vocal supporters of bombing foreign nations we may as well rewrite The Lord's Prayer to say,“May Satan's kingdom come on earth as it is in hell.” How can we support a political agenda of using violence to enforce the law when our Savior took on violence to free us from the burden of the Law? How can Christians give up hope on living people and support the death penalty when our Savior received the death penalty precisely because he was not willing that even one should perish? That is not the politics of those who are filled with the hope of the Resurrection. That's the politics of hopelessness.
There used to be slavery here in America. And lots of Christian slave-owners. And they thought it was more important to convert their slaves to Christianity than to set the slaves free. And lots of people now think it's important to evangelize to Muslims and convert them to Christianity, but support bombing them too. And there are people who think evangelizing by handing out tracts in poor neighborhoods is important but don't do anything about the poverty.
As long as this Sadducean life-denying idea of what heaven and earth are like is the best the church is offering, we won't be people worshiping the God of the living. We will be preachers of death. The hopelessness of a world in which the dead are dead forever, our failures are permanent, and our successes are fleeting will kill us slowly and silently. We will not stand up to injustice. We will be afraid. We will not have hope.
Look around. Look at the streets you walked through on your way to church today. Watch the news. Consider our wars and our prison system. Think about death row. Think about City Hall. This world is sick and not getting better. It looks like we're terminally broken. We are dead in our sin.
But there is good news. God can bring life out of death and he did. On the other side of the crucifixion there is the resurrection. The return of Jesus isn't just some day where he snatches away everybody who prayed that prayer like he's some kind of body-snatcher from outer space. The return of Jesus means he actually returns. He's coming back.
So when we talk about the resurrection, let's not talk about it like the story of Jesus is a story about how everything turns out well if you have a positive attitude. Because it doesn't. Let's not talk about it like it's just a story of human sacrifice that made God less angry so now he'll let those of us who said the right secret passwords in our prayer for salvation get to hang out with him in some faraway heavenly penthouse suite far above the pain and suffering of planet earth. That's not what this is about.
The way to resurrection is the cross. Death has actually been defeated. God actually became one of us, actually died, and actually came back to life in a body that can never die. That is our hope. That's what our sights are set on. We are not here to escape. We are here to be broken by God's grace, to cope with the fact that no matter how hard we try we can't do a thing to deserve it, be entitled to it, or earn it. We are being handed something better than an escape plan or a feel-good message about every cloud having a silver lining. We are being invited to give up. We don't have a message about how to get on God's good side. Our message is that God sided with people incapable of being on God's good side and is letting us share in a whole new way of being alive in which the poor don't stay poor, the sick don't stay sick, and death is transformed into life.
As those Biblical commentators Rage Against The Machine once said in the song, Guerrilla Radio: “All hell can't stop us now.” Amen.
Ben Johnson attends and serves on the Mission Committee at the Free Church of St. John (Kensington), Philadelphia. As part of an effort to support local ministry at the Free Church, the Mission has instituted a lay preaching program, of which Ben is a part.