Sermon 6th November 2022. David Cornick
Sermon Job 19:23-27a; Luke 20:27-38
It’s the question of the bride for seven brothers, as elaborate a put up job as any fired in Prime Minister’s Questions, designed to catch Jesus out. The question is framed by the Sadduccees. Think the county set, the minor rural gentry, dominating the bench and the hunt, politically conservative, those who think that power is naturally theirs, and you have them. Its not that they weren’t religious – they were, in a prayerbook-Anglican kind of Judaism. They were not at all persuaded by the trendy Pharisees with all their modern ideas about how tradition worked and new-fangled ideas like resurrection and life after death which had developed over the last two or three hundred years.
True weight belonged to the original books of the Hebrew Scriptures – the writings of Moses, the books of the Law, the Torah. No dangerous new ideas there, just the proof that God had chosen his people Israel and delivered to them the responsibility to keep the Law. So, the Sadduccees were pragmatists to the end, their idea of power was a foreign policy conducted to ensure their wealth and success along with that of the nation, and if that meant a degree of acceptance of Roman rule, so be it, however it might be resented. Strange as it may seem such far right ideologues were in power in Jerusalem in the early thirties.
The Sadduccees’ question to Jesus then, is about a doctrine – the resurrection – in which they did not believe. It’s a question woven out of the practice of levirate marriage (Dt 25:5-6), which was in abeyance long before Jesus’ day. So, a question about a doctrine they didn’t believe in about a law that was no longer practised. Levirate marriage was in essence a compassionate law. If a man died childless, his widow was espoused to his brother, and if they had a son, that son was regarded as the dead man’s heir, and needless to say his widow was part of the wider family and protected.
Its all very patriarchal, but that goes with the territory. Well, said the Sadduccees, using the same script writers as the Monty Python team, what happens if her husband has six brothers, and they all die childless in succession, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Leaving aside the obvious point that if you’d been brother four in the list you might have smelled a rat and taken a vacation in Joppa by the sea, the whole idea was to produce a neat legal knot which would flummox him, show up that resurrection nonsense for what it is.
And most of the time, the Sadduccees’ world is our world, our way of thinking. A world where death is the fullstop, believing in the soul is a weak romanticism, and what matters is doing the best for ourselves, our families and our neighbours in the here and now. It’s the creed of pragmatic atheism. The absurd beauty and grating ugliness and pain of life is all there is. Get used to it. Revel in the good things until your time comes. Carpe diem – seize the day! Works pretty well until someone you love gets ill. Worked pretty well for our post-war nation until the Queen died, and an era passed with her, our era, and then we wanted rather more than journalistic platitude, and the sonorous depth of a very Christian liturgy transplanted us to a different level of being. At that moment it was as if we were saying collectively, ‘All of this cannot be for nothing, a mere chance collision of atoms’. Life, service, love, mean more than that. It mattered that the Queen was laid to rest next to Prince Philip.
That juxtaposition of realities was present in Jesus’s response to the Sadduccees’ question. Well, said Jesus, what seems important now,– birth of children, growing up, marrying, wielding power, living the good life, dying – belong to the world of time and history. And they are irrelevant in the world of resurrection, because the children of the resurrection ‘…are like angels and are children of God.’ This is language at full stretch, because we’ve precious little idea what kind of life the angels and archangels enjoy. And that’s why Bill Loader’s story which we used as a commentary on the reading is so insightful.
In his story the angel Loader allows the archangel Gabriel to inject possibilities, and as it were he freeze frames the consequences of the Sadduccee’s question. First of all, he guesses what the brothers’ reaction will be – they’ll all want their wife, whom he calls Judith. So, first of all, he offers a Judith like doll, and they each stake their claim – and they end up with an arm here, a leg there, and a deal of kapok on the floor. Whatever they’ve got, its not Judith.
Next day, they are in the market, and Judith appears, and there is contact and relationship and love, and that love brings about a miraculous transformation into doves and dolphins and dogs and lizards. Once more though, nothing left – neither Judith nor the brothers – and its left to an old woman to speak the truth – that in the kingdom there is no possession, but a holiness undefined by boundaries and ‘…a being born to a higher and deeper reality of love which goes far beyond the worlds of duty, claim and rights and more than fulfills them.’
And the dancing begins, room for everyone, and that night a young man came with his sack, emptied dried fish and loaves, poured wine, reached out nail pierced hands and invited them to share. For it is Jesus’ resurrection which is the ultimate answer to the Sadduccee’s question, and his supper which makes the kingdom of God and the world of resurrection real.
But, new-fangled it definitely isn’t, Jesus insists. It is written into the very fabric of way God intended the world to be, Jesus told them, way back in the days of Moses and the Torah for at the burning bush God revealed himself as the God of the present tense – ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of the Isaac and the God of Jacob’. God is present to all. The patriarchs are therefore present to him, just as our parents are present to him and our children’s children are present to him. Our bodies will have their day, but that relationship with God is beyond time and can never be destroyed. Resurrection therefore begins now, for it is nothing less than being a child of God.
And there is the clash of cultures stark and clear. For Jesus, reality begins with God, and all that is depends on God, derives from God and is intended to journey to God. For the Sadduccees, what you see is what you get. The echoes between Jesus’s time and ours are only too obvious. We live in a bounded world, and the tools with which we explore it, mainly scientific, are exceptional at measuring what is there, what we get. Life without science is unimaginable, and without it we would lead vastly more impoverished and painful lives. It is one of God’s most precious gifts.
Yet is the bounded all that there is? One of the greatest mathematicians and cosmologists of our day, not long before his death, suggested that the universe had incomprehensibility built into it. It was built into the way it was that it could never be fully comprehended. One of our finest neurosurgeons now retired, reflected that his work was intensely physical – the structure and diseases of the brain – but that somehow, in a way that defies understanding, that very physicality gives birth to consciousness and personhood. Both may be contemporary ways of deploying what theologians or a previous generation called ‘the God of the gaps’ – we don’t understand it yet, but one day we will, but in the meantime we’ll say that’s where God can be found. For myself, I don’t think it is that, for I think both are affirmations of the wonder and mystery that life is, and that life in its fullness is more than we can know. As Hamlet said to Horatio, ‘…there are more things in heaven and earth / than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
It is only natural that we should wonder what happens after we die. Jesus’ answer to the Sadduccees is no road map, but there are hints for pilgrims like you and me. The first is that God is present to all, beyond time, unlimited by space, and in the dimension that is God resurrection life is now, life with the risen Christ, nourished by prayer, worship, bread and wine. The second is that resurrection life is profoundly different from the life we know now, for more than life in the womb is different to life outside it. From conception to death all life is temporal, but resurrected life is beyond the limits of time and death. So, childhood, adolescence, graduation, marriage, maturity, death – have no meaning beyond temporality. Resurrected life must therefore be very different. But, third, Jesus tells us that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they are not only patriarchs but people with stories and histories, and God relates to them as persons, people with names and pasts. So too God knows us, and one day we will have the chance to whisper our stories into God’s loving ear. And if individuality is in some way part of resurrected life, then relating to other individuals must a possibility. There is deep wisdom in the old Christian tradition of the communion of saints which is so much in our minds during this season of remembrance, pitched as we this week between All Saints and Remembrance Sunday. The saints are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord. Will we know one another in the resurrected life? I suspect we shall, but mercifully we then shall be known as we are known by God.
Beyond that, all we need to know is that Christ has gone before us, the first-fruit, as Paul puts it. Let me finish with the words of the Christian poet, Stewart Henderson:
It is he whom I will meet
And in whose Presence I will find tulips and clouds
kneeling martyrs and trees
the whole vast praising of his endless creation
and he will grant me the uniqueness
that eluded me
in my earthly bartering with Satan
That day when he will erase the painful gasps of my ego
and I will sink my face into the wonder of his glorylove
and I will watch as planets converse with sparrows
On that day
When death is finally dead.
(The Last Enemy)
Sunday 1st May
Our New Testament reading records an encounter between Jesus and several disciples after the resurrection. The disciples, at a loss to know what to do after this momentous event fell back to doing what they were familiar with. They went fishing. Jesus appeared on the shore and called them to him and invited them to eat some fish that he had cooked. The story now continues.
Reading: John 2112 – 19
Talk: Did you find that reading easy to understand? Some of it was pretty straightforward but, even having heard it possibly 50 times in your life, some of it poses a few questions. The problem with John’s Gospel is that it gets quite deep at times and it’s not always easy to work out how to apply it to our every-day lives and our dealings with the people with whom we come into contact.
What about this exchange between Jesus and Peter which comes after 3 years in each other’s company? It was a sort of summing up after all the teaching and miracles and now, of course, the astounding resurrection. It was a brief but powerful message to Peter; and because we are now followers of Jesus, to us. I wonder how many Bible studies have been carried out on this passage (and of course hundreds of other Bible passages) over the last 2,000 years? Bible studies on the New Testament try to look at short episodes in depth and get to the heart of them. But it’s easy to get bogged down in the details and fuss about particular phrases. What really matters is what we correctly discern about the mind of Jesus and of God. In this particular case, what do we feel compelled to do, when we listen to the instruction ‘Feed my sheep’ and ‘Follow me’?
The feeling is that the question ‘Do you love me?’ which Jesus asked Peter three times was to match the three denials that Peter made after the arrest of Jesus; denials that he even knew Jesus. But also, after this conversation between the two men, Peter could feel totally forgiven even though he let Jesus down, not once but three times and could, in freedom and with a light heart, carry out his mission to spread the Good News that God loves us and all creation.
Peter was asked ‘Do you love me?’ And so we have to ask ourselves “Do we love God and respond ‘Yes, God, of course we love you’?” and, like Peter, feel free and unfettered and therefore step forth and show this love to all creation?’
As far as John was concerned this was the final directive that Jesus gave to the disciples before his departure from earthly life. It was fairly general but embraced the full range of his teaching and example during the last three years. Today I will try to apply them to our concern for the environment. This is not too easy insofar as the Gospels have Jesus saying very little about it. We’ll consider it further after our Old Testament reading. … We’ll now have a moment of silent reflection.
Reading: Leviticus 251 – 12
Talk: I suspect we all like the great outdoors. Gwynn and I, like many other people have been on walking holidays, like the Norfolk Coastal Path, or shortish walks on a day off or as part of a holiday. The longer walks, unfortunately, are now resigned to history. We still enjoy getting about of course and, in particular, going down to Felixstowe and always find a green area to amble about in. Landguard Common, near the docks a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest, is a favourite for us. Gently walking in this natural environment makes me feel connected with creation. For that brief time, I am part of it. I also feel responsible for it in some small way. Were a housing development to appear on it (after enormous protests of course), there would be a huge sense of loss for thousands of people, a wildlife habitat would disappear and Global Warming would increase minutely.
However, we have a Bible reading from Leviticus to consider. The Bible was written over a period of about 2,000 years. The Old Testament spanned round about 2,000BC to 500BC. There are no books in the Bible for the next 500 years and then we have the Gospels and letters of several early Christians. Scattered through it are sections on farming, the wilderness etc. and accounts of droughts and a little about allowing the land to lie fallow but nothing about over-fishing, degradation of the soil or pollution and certainly nothing about resources being used up nor global warming and its dire consequences.
These verses from Leviticus, however, are quite pertinent to the crisis that the world faces. What they are telling us can be expressed in many ways but the gist of it is ‘Don’t take the land for granted. It’s pretty robust but in some respects, it is fragile and you certainly can’t keep taking what you want from it regardless. It must be treated with respect and managed carefully. How much the idea of allowing the fields to rest every seven years was chosen by experience and how much by the notion that seven is a sort of significant, complete or perfect number I don’t know. The number seven occurs in the Bible numerous times; for instance, the number of days of creation, there are seven churches in the book of Revelation, seven holy days etc. But the idea of allowing the land to rest or regenerate for a period of time has been practiced by many cultures. I remember being taught at school about crop rotation in the Middle Ages with the land lying fallow every three years.
Unfortunately, particularly in modern times, though I’m sure it happened throughout the ages, making money from the land in the short term and on as much land as possible has overridden the wisdom of allowing the soil to recover. But more and more, in recent years, the practice of leaving uncultivated areas to maintain biodiversity in the land as a whole has been advocated. The grubbing out of hedges has largely been stopped and patches of land have been rewilded or sown with plants that are wild-life friendly.
Long-term, encouraging a wide range of native species keeps every part of the environment healthy and productive. We are even being encouraged make our gardens less neat. A few wild bits, mowing the grass less often, not so much digging will all help to produce healthy gardens with abundant wildlife. I’m sure mistakes will be made but hopefully we will all learn to live with nature instead of twisting it entirely to our own fancies.
Global Warming isn’t of course just about farming and gardening. We have, for too long, taken the world for granted and used its resources without thought, other than perhaps turning mined-out quarries into pretty lakes. We’ve thought that the world is so big that surely our puny activities can’t harm it. But I can remember writing an article in the 60’s for my church newsletter in which I liked earth to a spaceship, (an enclosed space,) and how resources were going to run out and what would we do then? I suppose it was an attempt to be prophetic but it elicited no response from the church folk and quite possibly it didn’t change my own lifestyle very much. The way we ravaged the world and manufactured more and more did concern me but it spoke of a time too far in the future to be truly worried.
Since then, we have gone through phases of prophetic warnings: – pollution of rivers, the ozone layer being destroyed, oil spillages, an increasing incidence of asthma etc. We’ve used science to solve some problems but we’ve learned very little about adjusting our lifestyles. We’ve assumed that ‘those clever scientists out there’ will solve all problems. To be fair on the church, it has at times been outspoken on the environment. The Church Ecology Group made a splash when they produced a leaflet called ‘Live Gently on the Earth’ and Archbishop Rowan Williams conveyed the same message. Numerous small Christian and secular groups work locally but the impact of all this has been minimal on us as the general public. People like David Attenborough and the Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg has raised the profile of the environment lobby and Greta should have stirred great swathes of people into action in her pronouncement that ‘Our house is on fire’. It hit the news headlines and I’m sure made people sit up for a moment. And yet the airports are jammed with people wanting to fly hundreds or thousands of miles, cars still flood our roads and adverts still fill our television screens telling us we need new 3-piece suits, vacuum cleaners, carpets, driveways. ….. you name it; you need to buy it despite the fact that each item has an energy cost and thus a global warming cost, a resources cost and a degradation of the environment cost.
Cigarette packets have a large health warning on them. Smoking kills. Maybe everything we buy should have a variety of pictures and warnings about some animal or plant that is being harmed in some way or other. You buy a mug and it is stamped with a picture of a dead butterfly and the words ‘I couldn’t find any food’. You buy a new coat and there’s a big label on the back with a picture of a tree and ‘Chopped down to build a road.’ That’s not likely to happen and I’m not saying ‘Don’t buy anything’ or ‘Don’t travel anywhere’ but God’s world is beautiful and fragile and we have been savagely attacking it with little regard for its fragile and defenseless inhabitants because we want to live indulgently and comfortably. I’m trying not to be judgemental here but somehow we need to change our mindset and lower our expectations and drastically change our overall lifestyle. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there weren’t several think tanks around the world that have worked out how much energy and other resources the average person can consume if we are to avoid global warming. I imagine, if figures were published it would frighten us because we in the UK use a greater share than someone in Nigeria or Sri Lanka or Costa Rica.
Although Jesus said nothing about global warming, he did instill a wonder of nature when he said ‘Consider the lilies of the field, not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these.’ And, on another occasion, ‘Not a sparrow falls to the ground without God noticing.’ The implication is that God cares about every aspect of creation and expects us to as well.
What of the story I told earlier? The lad found the secret of happiness we hope. The story tells us that we must maintain our sense of wonder at creation but, at the same time, nurture it; keep our eyes on the drops of oil, the everyday things of life. The two must work together in harmony.
To my mind, Christian behaviour stems on three things: – Love, Justice and courage. Not physical courage but the courage to do the right thing. The courage to show love and the courage to carry out justice. It’s not easy to love the unlovely and living our lives justly may be personally very costly. I know I’m being very simplistic. Our relationship with the 8 billion other people in the world as well as elephants and oak trees and spiders, and dolphins and dogs and daffodils and sheep is very complex but, as Christians, somehow we’ve got to grasp the nettle to please God and care for our neighbours. We’ll stay silent for a while.