Old Testament Job 19:23-27a
Psalm Psalm 17:1-9
Epistle 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Gospel Luke 20:27-38
From last Sunday’s recognition and remembrance of the communion of saints, through the end of the Church year, we explore the kingdom of God, resurrection and everlasting life. Our celebration of Eucharistic moves to Prayer C as we culminate the year proclaiming Christ as King of Creation, of the cosmos, and of our lives.
Each year on Ash Wednesday, we begin Lent facing our mortality, for to dust our bodies shall return. Our funeral rite in the Book of Common Prayer is titled, “Burial of the Dead.” Who else would we bury? Certainly not the living. The topic is uncomfortable. Our mortality is inconvenient. We struggle to live our lives with nagging reminders in the back of our mind that someday we will not live this life anymore. We like to believe we are ultimately in control, but we are not. God is Lord over life, and death, and new life.
From All Saints through the end of the year, we face death in the hope of resurrection, life not ended but changed, and the promise of being perfected in Christ as we are reconciled more completely with God. Our reading today challenges the world view of death as the end, and proclaims death as a new beginning.
We begin with a teasing question from a peculiar group. In a series of confrontations and controversies brought to Jesus, usually posed by scribes and Pharisees and lawyers, we meet a new opponent ... the Sadducees. This is the only mention of Sadducees in Luke's gospel, although Jesus goes toe-to-toe with them in both Matthew and Mark. The Sadducees were a wealthy aristocracy, closely linked with the Temple leadership. They denied the Pharisees teachings of resurrection and angels, rejecting oral tradition completely, and viewing written scriptures as the only authority. According to the Sadducees, everything comes to an end with death. They disappeared after the destruction of the Temple ... I guess they found out if they were right or wrong.
The Sadducees are questioning Jesus about a mystery they have already considered and rejected. They approach the living Lord, who says in Revelation, "I am the living One. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades." If we are His followers, then we follow the One who has these keys in His hands, not our own. Rather than take this questioning as a personal attack, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach about the love and mercy and kingdom of God.
The Sadducees offer an absurd scenario. A man marries a woman and dies, leaving the woman childless. The man's brother marries the woman and he too dies, leaving her childless. So on and so on until she has married seven brothers, all die, and she remains childless. In the resurrection, and you can almost hear them snickering as they say this, whose wife will this woman be? True to their beliefs, they frame their supposed case in scripture. Note they state "Moses wrote for us," offering a personalizing effect of the law. They are referring to the law of levirate marriage, where a family member will marry their deceased kinsman's wife in order to keep the family name alive and provide an heir. As inappropriate as this sounds to us today, the intent was to care for family, and prevent increasing numbers of widows and orphans.
The Sadducees are trying to trick Jesus into denying the law. This ruse is easy to see through, because they do not even believe in the premise of resurrection. Jesus meets this absurdity. He states marriage is an institution of this age, intended for worldly support and procreation, neither of which are necessary after death. Eternal life is not simply the continuation of mortal life beyond death. Children of the resurrection, children of God, are ultimately one in union and communion, and cannot die anymore.
Jesus and his opponents were reading the same scriptures; Jesus reveals His intimacy with the Word, as the living Word, and offers right interpretation. The Sadducees only recognize as authority the books of Moses, the Torah, which contain no explicit mention of resurrection. Jesus offers an implicit reference. Moses proclaims God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even though these three were long dead by the time Moses comes along. If God is the God of the patriarchs who had died, and God remains their God in Moses' time, then in some sense they must still be alive. Jesus implies the Sadducees know neither the scriptures nor the true power of God. "Now He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for to Him all of them are alive."
Believers cling to the promise of resurrection, then and today. But it didn’t take long in the early Church for controversy and concern to build. The Christian community in Thessalonica is struggling with their mortality. These new followers of Jesus faithfully heard the teachings of Paul and read the scriptures. Jesus said He was coming back, so they got out their day planners and began to get ready. Some probably asked for next Monday off of work because they would be busy with the rapture. Any day now, they expected Jesus to return and take them home. One bumper sticker proudly placed on the cars of the faithful stated, “In case of rapture, this vehicle will be un-manned.
They expected the perousia, or coming of Jesus in judgement, to happen in their lifetime. Now, some of their faithful community had died, and they were very concerned. Some false teachers were proclaiming that the "day of the Lord is already here," but where is Jesus? We have all heard predictions from various groups calculating the precise day and time when Jesus will return. These days come and go, and we are still here. This can be quite a crisis for the faithful.
Paul reassures the Thessalonians that the coming of Jesus in judgement has not happened yet. He explains that the "day of the Lord" is expected to be a highly visible, cosmic event. There will be no mistaking it when it happens. You won't miss it!
Paul urges Christians in the first century and today to stand firm on traditions, including ethical and doctrinal teachings, and to refute the erroneous views shaking the church. We could live life on hold, waiting for the Last Days, or we could continue to strive for the good work of the kingdom God sets before us. When that day comes, and God banishes evil from the world, God wants to find us at work for those things that are dear to the heart of God. Our task is to keep the faith and finish the race.
After Jesus answers the Sadducees, in the next verses, the scribes listening in answer, "Teacher, you have spoken well." Typically opposing Jesus, they cannot argue with his wisdom and authority. They no longer dared to ask him another question.
We still have questions. Resurrection remains a mystery of faith. Anglican theologian Richard Benson writes about resurrection in The Glorified Humanity ... "No eye of man witnessed the Resurrection, for it was an act that human understanding could not fathom. As the act of Creation baffles the cognizance of human senses, so does the Resurrection of Jesus. It is not like the resurrection of Lazarus, coming back bound in grave-clothes to life on earth, as if waking up from sleep. It is the beginning of a new Creation, the exaltation of man's nature to a region of spiritual power that is altogether new."
We continue to remember and celebrate the communion of saints, those we love but see no longer. Though we seem to have been separated from them, we are bound together in the resurrection life. We are united, One, as the Body of Christ. As Paul suggests, we are to live life with our eyes set on the promise of resurrection and the inheritance of the kingdom, comforted in our hearts and strengthened for every good work, standing in the face of death, living and proclaiming life in Christ.
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
And in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
Who is my friend and not a stranger.” AMEN.