To proclaim the bodily resurrection of Christ is to affirm that his whole person was restored to life. — Katherine Willis Pershey, ‘Making sense of chronic pain’, The Christian Century, 7 January 2015
There is nothing wrong with making sense of life from within the human perspective. That is what human beings do. After all, in Jesus Christ, God stands with us as a human being and empowers us to respond to God from our standpoint, as broken, messy, and complex as it is. The mistake, however, is to insist that all that life can mean is contained within the horizon of our own experience.… Jesus explodes the human horizon. There is profoundly more to life than just the human experience of it, even if that means we cannot wrap our heads around it. Death is not an ultimate condition for Christians, and it does not permanently bind the experience of life and its meaning. — John E Senior, Feasting on the Gospels—Luke, Vol. 2
Human lives are bordered by birth and death; and very often, human lives are bound by the fear of death.
I read a lovely article last Monday in which former US President Jimmy Carter said that when doctors told him in 2015 that his cancer had spread to his brain, he found that he ‘was absolutely and completely at ease with death’. While he would of course miss his family and his work, it didn’t ultimately matter if he lived or died. Though I’m sure he’s happy to be alive and still very active at the ripe age of 95.
In an argument with a religious group called the Sadducees, Jesus spoke about ‘Children of the Resurrection’. I think Jimmy Carter’s attitude to death suggests that he may be a Child of the Resurrection.
I’d like to illustrate what it means to be a Child of the Resurrection today, but first let’s recap that conversation Jesus had with the Sadducees in our reading from Luke.
Luke introduces the Sadducees as ‘those who say there is no resurrection’. There was quite the argument going on back then. While the Sadducees denied it, others like the Pharisees believed in newer ideas like the end-time resurrection from the dead. In this debate, Jesus sided with the Pharisees.
Now, the Sadducees were a very powerful group in the Jewish governing council, the Sanhedrin; they were very heavily invested in keeping the status quo going, the uneasy ‘peace’ of the Roman occupier.
Why did the Sadducees believe that this life was all there is? They were the keepers of a very conservative tradition. They were theologically as well as politically conservative. They only accepted the first five books of the Bible, which they believed Moses had written: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They contended that these books said nothing at all about any resurrection. When you’re in the ground, that’s it. There ain’t no more.
Children of the Resurrection? What a joke!
So they asked Jesus an absurd question designed to make him look like a fool, a hick preacher from the sticks.
The story is really very shocking to our ears. It concerns a widow who was married to seven brothers; each one took her after another brother died leaving her without children. It was an ancient law common across the ancient Middle East; it apparently served to protect the widow who would have no way to support herself otherwise.
To us, it may just seem barbaric to pass a woman along from brother to brother. (I think of this kind of thing every time I hear someone saying we should have ‘biblical marriage’ these days.)
The Sadducees were making fun of the whole idea of resurrection. ‘In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?’ They were treating it like an extension of this life.
It’s like when you hear of those who call themselves ‘psychics’ talking about life after death. Mildred and George had had a happy life together, but now old George had gone. So Mildred asked a psychic, ‘Do you have a message from “the beyond” from my George?’
The psychic says, ‘Oh yes, it’s a bit faint but I’m getting something…I can see him on the grass…it’s coming into focus…yes, he’s on a golf course. And he’s getting a hole-in-one with every stroke!’
‘Ooh, that‘s good,’ says Mildred contentedly. ‘He always did love a good day of golf when he was down here!’
But Jesus makes two moves that stun the Sadducees into silence.
Firstly, he tells them that things will be different ‘in that age’. It won’t just be an eternal round of golf, it won’t be ‘business as usual’. There will be no marriage, he says, because there will be no need to reproduce.
Now, I want to stop here for a moment. What we are being told here is that eternal life with God is something we can’t imagine. Jesus is responding to the story the Sadducees told him, so he’s talking in terms of marriage and reproduction. All we are being told here is that whatever the resurrection is, it will be something beyond anything in our current experience.
But we can know that shall be alive to God. And here is Jesus’ second move: he points to the Book of Exodus, well-known to the Sadducees, and quotes the part in which God says to Moses at the burning bush, ‘I am God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’.
Jesus says this means they are alive to God, because God says ‘I am’ their God rather than ‘I was’ their God.
That’s quite a creative use of the Bible. If I’d done that at theological college, I reckon I’d have got a low mark. (Perhaps we should be a lot more creative!)
So, where have we got to? ‘Children of the Resurrection’ are alive to God, living without fear of death. A person who lives without fear of death is one who can say or do what is needed in the present moment.
I mentioned Jimmy Carter, 95 years old, still building houses for Habitat for Humanity.
I could also mention Julian of Norwich, a woman born in the 1300s. She was the first woman to write a book in English, a record of a series of visions she had received. She lived in a time when masses of people were dying of the plague, when heretics were being burnt at the stake. Yet she wrote of God’s deep and abiding love for us, and famously said that in the end
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
We could also speak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a very creative theological writer and pastor hanged by the Nazis in 1945; his words live on. Or Archbishop Óscar Romero, a man who let go of his natural timidity to become a powerful voice for the poor and disenfranchised of El Salvador. Romero was shot dead while celebrating mass.
We could speak of ordinary people too. My father died at the age of 59. In his last weeks, he found once more his childhood faith; my dad died more alive than I had ever known him to be.
I will also mention our own dear B; in palliative care, she is showing me right now what it means to become a Child of the Resurrection.
What do all these people have in common? Death. We all have it before us. I don’t want you to think that Children of the Resurrection are optimists, positive thinkers, glass half-full people. Children of the Resurrection know they will die. They learn not to fear the losses along the way, the things we all must die to on the way through life, because they trust that they are and always will be ‘alive to God’.
They can stare death in the face, because they trust that God has the last word. They allow their lives to be arrested, changed, enlarged, by the vision of the coming reign of God.
So what is the resurrection? We don’t know any details, but we can trust this: it is life with God and in God that begins here and now. And that, my friends, is enough for us.