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Living Deathlessly (sermon)

November 6, 2010

Luke 20: 27-38

This is one of those passages in the NT where my first reaction is to think… I guess I’ll preach from the OT this week. I know some other ministers who had a similar first reaction.

Haven’t we got more to think about this week than who is married to who in the resurrection? Do any of us really care about Jesus’ answer to this silly question? Or whether Jesus managed to outwit the Sadducees?

It was tempting to run from this passage. But then I read a little background… and I was hooked.

The passage begins with a big clue. The Sadducees are those who say there is no resurrection… When it comes to death and the Jewish hope, the hope they call resurrection, Sadducees tried to manage without it. This life is it, they said. Get used to it. They were not atheists… at least not in any ordinary sense of the word, but I guess they must have been the closest thing you could get to being a practical atheist in the 1st century. They tried to live without hope. God has given them the law for this life, and that’s enough. Get used to it!

The Sadducees were a group within 1st century Judaism who believed that the only Sacred Texts were the 5 books of the Law of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Their argument went a bit like this. If there was a resurrection to look forward to then this was so important that God would have told Moses and Moses would have included it in the Law. Moses was God’s prophet and friend. Moses didn’t. So God didn’t tell Moses. Therefore there’s no resurrection.

Today’s little story about the hypothetical seven brothers who pass on the wife from one to the other like a used car is intended by them to make the resurrection seem absurd. Jesus is supposed to imagine them all turning up in the resurrection married to the same women, all adulterers, all getting stoned presumably.

But actually this story is far more relevant to the issue than we might think at first sight. It’s actually a further plank in their argument on the basis of the law of Moses. You see as they see it, and they might have a point here, it’s certainly one way of reading Deuteronomy. This provision for one’s brother marrying the wife when you die is a way of ensuring that someone who dies without children still has a chance of continuing the family line… his hope, his future lies in this life, but in his children, or strictly speaking the children of his wife and his brother. It’s a kind of insurance policy for a certain kind of future. It’s like people who have children, so they’ve got someone to look after them in their old age – only here they are extending it beyond their death but in the world as it is. Their children become their after-life. So part of what they are saying is “See, Moses didn’t believe in resurrection here either. The only future he cared about was in this world and its accumulated inheritance. There’s no hope beyond this world. Don’t worry, get used to it! (like those Atheist bus stickers in London).

It reminds me of funerals where people have no Christian faith and get a celebrant to help them ‘say goodbye’. At those funerals I hear one of two things usually. Either they say, usually quite sentimentally, that the person isn’t really gone, kind of not really dead, only hidden, just through a door, not far a way, like a ghost, or looking down from somewhere. Or they say he or she is dead and will live on in our memory. Something very close to the Sadducees hope of a future through posterity and children. A desperate protest against the sands of time.

Both have no place for God. God is irrelevant. Faith is irrelevant. People either go on forever, or they don’t.

This text is actually an opportunity for us to reflect on what we really believe about what happens after death, and how it effects our life. Do we really believe in the total destruction and nothingness of death, the unimaginability of simple not existing. If not what kind of hope do we have? More importantly what difference does it make to our living?

Jesus has no time for the Sadducees. It’s not just their clever trap… it’s their whole view. He goes to the core of the matter. “They know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mark 12: 24).

They are missing the point… of scripture. Hope is nothing if it is not bound up with the power of God.

“The children of this world marry and are given in marriage”…  but in the resurrection from the dead they will “neither marry nor are given in marriage”. He is saying that the whole question is surrounded by fear of death. Death surrounds marriage in this life, in a way that can taint it and does taint it. Marriage becomes another desperate survival tactic involving children who carry our hopes and ambitions (rather than the celebration of life it should be). In the resurrection from the dead, all that is irrelevant.

Those who read the scriptures properly, in Jesus view, know that what matters is the power of God, completely beyond death. For God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the creator of all that is, death doesn’t matter at all. It is nothing. These three dead men are not lost to God. “To God all are alive” says Jesus.

But to us, who live alienated from the power of God, death taints everything. Life starts to mean “not being dead”. As John Davies puts it, we know we are alive because we’re not dead. And because death surrounds and taints and defines our life, death takes on God. Death which is nothing to God becomes an enemy to God. Blinded as we are to the deathless life of God, we need to be set free from the power of death, over marriage, over every detail of our life.

The lesson here is not simply the one the Sadducees sought – that marriage is not part of the resurrection future. But also that hope in the resurrection affects the way death contaminates our life now, our marriage now, our relationships now, our investments now, our care for non-human creation now, our determination to become somebody at all cost.

Jesus says the real power of hope comes not with surviving death, nor with continuing our memory and influence in this life. Real hope comes with the power of God.

And we only know what that really means by looking at what it meant for him. Jesus saw his life as a gift to be given… he went into the death-dealing world… the political back-stabbing conniving world, the insanely out of control world of public opinion… in agony over what he encountered and yet completely trusting in the deathless power of God. Every temptation, every possibility of dealing out death in turn, or of escaping from the enemy power of death was left behind. He stood in the place of death as a man whose only hope was in Abba and in resurrection and in the deathless power of God.

So does it matter what you believe about resurrection? I guess for a follower of Jesus it’s not what you say you believe, or even think you believe, it’s where your heart is in the face of the power of death. Which is why we find ourselves so desperately dependent on grace, on the Spirit that was in Jesus… not just for life after death, but for life before death also.

This Sermon is indebted to the remarkably creative theological reflections of James Alison and to another sermon by John Davies

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    November 8, 2010 3:36 am

    The only and necessary price or way to live deathlessly is to fully understand the meaning & significance of death, because until then every minute dimension of ones being is saturated with a hell deep fear and trembling.

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