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)