St. John’s Church
The Sadducees were the ruling group in the Religious Establishment of Jesus’ day. They strictly interpreted the Torah and were resistant to what they saw as outside influences. They held in suspicion the idea of a resurrection of the dead. This is not an idea that you will find explicitly in the teaching of Moses. It is similar to an idea found in some ancient religions that there is life after death. The Egyptians had complicated religious and burial rites associated with life after death. But life after death is not an idea developed in the books of Moses. It was a belief among the Pharisees who felt that God’s justice would reward those who adhered to the law even in the face of torture and persecution, and it is a teaching that Jesus held.
But the Pharisees did not believe in resurrection of the dead and they set Jesus up with a convoluted, even amusing little conundrum. In Mosaic law if a man dies without leaving children to his widow one of his brother is obligated to marry her to give her children. It is a merciful law because women cannot survive without family in that culture. So what if, the Sadducees ask, 7 brothers married the same woman and they all died. Whose wife would she be in heaven? It is a good argument. I thought of widowed people I know who have had multiple spouses they love. The Sadducees point out that in an afterlife these folks are going to feel pretty awkward. It is clever. It is insightful. It is humorous.
Yet also there is not only a tone of philosophical argument in the situation, there is also some mockery.
Jesus takes this challenge very seriously. He says that they do not understand. The life of the resurrection is not just a continuation of this present state. It is a new state. More like the life of Angels than the life where one gets married and has children. And he goes even further; he quotes scripture, to say that God, when speaking to Moses through the burning bush, says I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am God of the living not the dead.
I’ll be honest. I took this reading very seriously this week. I got out one of my old theology text books. I read commentary. I discussed it with clergy and lay. I take it very seriously because the Resurrection is at the center of our faith. It is an keystone part of the Christian hope.
There are many people, including many clergy, I believe even Bishop Spong, who do not see Jesus’ resurrection as an event one could call historical. And they are not on as shaky or surprising a ground as you might imagine. The eternal life that Jesus brings us is one that transforms our hearts. When we are baptized we are sacramentally made part of a new reality. We declare we have died and risen with Christ. We enter through faith into the Kingdom of God in a time outside of time; though our eyes and ears do not see it, our faith does. Understanding the resurrection in this way is faithful to Jesus’ teaching that we cannot understand the resurrection in the same categories as the Sadducees, just more life on this earth. The Resurrection is not just a future event, it is something that is already breaking into the world, and we are to seek it now, not to just wait for it after death.
However for me I hold onto a belief in the resurrection. To be honest, if I did not believe in the resurrection I would not be here preaching to you. Sure, I would still believe in God, but I would be pretty annoyed at him, because this life does often seem unfair, especially to the most vulnerable. I would still pray. They tell us prayer is an activity which has its own benefits even from a health perspective. I would probably even participate in church to some extent. I would for sure still study theology because the study of theology, the discussion with friends about God and wonder and life is the most delicious activity known to man. But I would not be a priest. And I certainly would not be before you today. However, I do believe in the Resurrection. I don’t believe in all the Biblical miracles. I am a very modern man nurtured in a modernist culture, however, just looking at things I do believe that Jesus rose from the dead .
What happened to the Apostles in those days we call Easter is astonishing. Men who were seen as small and mousy became bold enough to spread a movement throughout the Roman Empire and the world. Eventually even the Emperor himself came to worship the crucified one. Their transformation in this life, leaves me with little option but to believe they did encounter Jesus, he did appear to them, he was present to them, and he is present to them and to us still.
There was a series on NPR for a week where they invited people from many faiths to talk about belief in life after death. A Rabbi made a wonderful argument. He says that he believes in life after death because of justice. The promise of this life seems broken. There is far too much suffering, far too much wickedness, far too much pettiness of spirit and downright meanness on earth to believe that the potential, the righteousness of God has been satisfied. I am restating his argument in my own words; I hope I am not misrepresenting him. He says God’s justice demands that there be more than this life.
This sentiment rings in my heart. I look at all the people I encounter. I see such suffering in their lives. I see relationships broken because of a perversion of God’s intent. I am saddened by lost opportunities for beauty, and love, and fellowship, and joy, and peace, especially in the lives of some people who seem caught in circumstances that overwhelm them, and I think this is not what I feel in my heart to be true. God is going to right this, if not in this life, then in another.
This argument about God’s justice and my perception of the life of the Apostles are enough to support my faith. They are enough to allow me to believe with a good sense of intellectual integrity. I can declare and celebrate saying, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”
However, I this week I cam to realize my arguments are bad, bad that is when compared to what I came to realize this week. I came to realize I had ignored the most compelling and indeed the most obvious reason to have faith in the resurrection. Jesus says at the end of his argument that God is the God of the living not the dead. And then it dawns on me, Jesus is the expression of God’s love. God loves us.
God does not just give us new life and everlasting life because he wishes to set right the promise latent in creation. He does it because he loves us. Jesus does not just come to set things right because he wanted the job to be done right. He does it because he desires us.
The apostles were not just transformed because they had hope of everlasting life. They were transformed because Jesus loves them, and they have come to love him with a life consuming passion.
God wants us to rise to new life because God wants us. When our hearts grasp this. When we realize that the resurrection is not just the solution to a problem, but that the resurrection is the embrace of a lover, it is the offering of a relationship of mutual desire, then we realize that desiring God is the purpose of our life, and that desire is so beyond human estimation that nothing can thwart it, not even death. To find satisfaction in God. To Want God. When God becomes our greatest treasure. When God brings us joy. When we learn this in our hearts. When we embrace this divine truth, death and life pale in comparison to this love, to this miracle of life: God wants to give himself to us.
May we throughout our lives give ourselves to God, and know the joy of partnership with the divine!