notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
To God all are alive
Good Shepherd 7/11/2004 (Communion Service)
2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38
This is a time of year for remembering. And so it is worth our asking ourselves: what do we really believe happens after death?
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace. Wisdom 3
Do we believe that those who pass on, have died, completely, finally, a total loss, a complete disaster, their destruction?
Or do we believe that they are at peace - and if we do, what do we mean by that?
Or do we believe in something more positive, an afterlife or some sort:
For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Wisdom 3
Whatever we believe about death is an important question for us because it completely changes the way we think about God.
And whatever we believe about death is an important question for us because it completely changes the way we behave in life.
In our gospel today Jesus had a debate with the Sadducees "who deny the resurrection" This is one of the more important texts of the New Testament - it is present in almost identical form in three of the Gospels in exactly the same place: just before the Passion.
The reason that it is important is that it tells us about how Jesus perceived God. Helps us to answer our questions about how God sees life and death.
Jesus was debating with the Sadducees: "establishment" figures, for whom the only Sacred Scripture was Moses¹ books of the law. They believed that, if there really were a resurrection, then God would have told Moses, his prophet and friend, about it, and Moses would have put it into the books of the law.
But Moses didn't put it into the books of the law, so they reckoned that God told him nothing about this matter, and since he was God's friend, from whom something of such importance would not be hidden, this means that there is no resurrection.
But more than that, they had better evidence still that there was no resurrection. There was a law in Deuteronomy which set out that, if a married man died without children, then it fell to his brother to take that man's widow as his wife so as to beget a child for his late brother, to keep the dead man's name going in the family line.
This law existed exactly because these people didn¹t believe in a life-after-death; they had to find some way of overcoming death. They had to have a blessing in the land of the living. And, to them, the only way of overcoming death was by having children. The only way of having a blessing in the land of the living was by making sure they had descendants. It was because of this that the man who died without children needed his brother to get for him the share in posterity that he couldn't get for himself.
The Sadducees liked to prove their point by telling an ingenious little story - of seven brothers who died before having children, passing the wife on like a used car.
But Jesus is not impressed by this very clever argument. His reply is both direct and quite rude. They are wrong, he says, because they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Those who rise from the dead do not get married because they are like angels. Luke's version fills us in on this argument:
The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: but they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage: neither can they die any more for they are equal unto the angels and are the children of God being the children of the resurrection.
This means that marrying and giving in marriage are normal things which happen in a world which is full of anxiety about overcoming death. For those for whom death is not a reality, there is no anxiety about overcoming death; and the reason for marriage, or for having children, is not about overcoming death. It is about celebrating life.
The important thing to grasp, Jesus says, is the power of God. He gives a quote from the book of Exodus:
I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. (Luke 20:37 quoting Exodus 3:6, 15, 16)
The reply seems to have nothing to do with the resurrection of the dead, but rather is about who God is. God has nothing to do with death nor with the dead, but instead declares to Moses that he is the God of three people who were apparently dead at the time.
But Jesus is trying to help us begin to understand what the power of God might be about.
This "power," this quality which God always is, involves being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. As Jesus says in Luke, "To God, all are alive" - to God, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive.
Let's put this another way: for us "being alive" means "not being dead"; We know we¹re alive because we¹re not dead. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and can¹t even be contrasted with death.
This is really important. Jesus saw God as being radically alive, not mortal, not immortal, but a-mortal, in no way shaded by death. Those who started the dispute with him just couldn¹t see God in this way, their whole way of seeing is distorted because it is stuck in a vision which flows from death to death, blind to God - who is the entirely death-less.
Now, if we are honest we have to admit that what Jesus said to the Sadducees probably applies to us. It was not only the Sadducees who were mistaken about the resurrection - and trapped by our anxieties about death. If only we really believed only in life! We¹re all quite often mistaken in the way we see the world, including the things of God. It¹s part of the human condition.
This is why St Paul writes in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans, that we have all become futile in our thought, that our senseless hearts have darkened. And, since we will not recognize God, God has handed us over to a reprobate mind and an improper conduct. It is not just some people who are like this, but all of us.
According to Paul we are all challenged by what Jesus spoke to the Sadducees. What Jesus came to tell us, and to make possible for us to believe, was that God is entirely different from what we imagine.
Jesus came to tell us the Good News - a story about God: a God entirely disconnected from death. The Good News is that death is for God, something that is not. "To God, all are alive".
We began by focussing on death. And so much of our time is spent focussing on death. We¹re not yet tuned-in to believing only in life.
Their anxiety about death made the Sadducees create marriage laws which protected their family line through generations. In our world those laws still exist, because those anxieties still exist, and have great influence on us.
And also in our world anxiety about death makes us slaves to the insurance companies or lenders whose rules convert our fears into money for their shareholders; if we believed only in life then our attitude to money would be different.
In our world anxiety about death makes us liable to get into relationships which might be harmful, for fear of being alone - forgetting that we are never alone with God; if we believed only in life then our relationships would be different.
On the other hand in our world anxiety about death stops us taking risks, being creative, living a bit dangerously sometimes, pushing life to its limits to enjoy it as much as possible; if we believed only in life then our faith, our enthusiasms, might overcome our fears.
Also in our world anxiety about death makes some people frightened of not being remembered, which drives them to do extreme and terrible things; the leaders of our nations are prone to fall into this trap, but so can we be in our own ways. If we believed only in life then our politics, our behaviour towards outsiders and opponents, would be different.
But we have learned today that Jesus wants us to turn away from all of this: to embrace the God who is God not of the dead, but of the living.
Jesus wants us to share the good news today - not after death, but today and forever. A good news which releases us from our anxieties about death into a full, creative, liberated life.
It is a mystery which will take us a long, long, time to unravel; how to see God like this, and then to learn to see like God does.
But Jesus is telling us that if we embrace God we can become people who believe only in life, completely focussed on life, full of life; our hope - full of immortality.
This sermon borrows very heavily and unashamedly from Chapter Two of James Alison's Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, which was recommended by the very excellent site Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary: Understanding the Bible Anew Through the Mimetic Theory of René Girard