This is the time of year that, whether the lectionary directs us that way or not, we naturally ponder death and the possibility of new life. It’s autumn. The leaves have changed color to brilliant golds, and reds, and a color of rosy orange that is as luminous as fire. Slowly the leaves began to let go of the tree and float gracefully to the ground or dance momentarily on a whisper of a breeze. But eventually the November winds strip the remaining leaves from the trees, the skies turn leaden, and winter rains blur the skeltons of once glorious trees. Everything is gray. The earth has entered its season of dying. In spite of our intellect and sophistication, we are creatures of the earth and we notice.
But we also know that the trees will bud again late in winter and that spring will bring new blossoms and the promise of summer shade. Human beings in every culture have pondered the cycle of death and new life. Some have imagined re-birth as reincarnation, the life force incarnated again, made flesh, in a new way. Others have imagined an afterlife of reward and punishment. Most people expect that human life will follow the cycle of nature. That’s why it’s surprising to find that the Sadducees did not expect there to be life after death. Perhaps they were willfully denying the Zoroastrian vision of heaven and hell that the Jews wove into their theology during their exile in Persia. Certainly they were in the minority. The Pharisees believed in resurrection, as did most other Jews. But the Sadducees thought they had a puzzle that would not only trip Jesus with the Law, but would also prove, with clarity, their point.
Referring to the Law in the 25th chapter of Deuteronomy, they asked Jesus about the fate of a woman and the seven brothers she marries in succession. According to the levirate law, when a man died without producing heirs, his brother had the responsibility to take his widow as his wife so that her children would carry her first husband’s name “so that his name would not be blotted out of Israel.” The levirate law is a means of insuring remembrance—a way of enforcing one means of life after death—and a means of caring for women in a patriarchal society. If you read Deuteronomy 25:5-10, you will see that this was a problematic practice. But it is the basis of many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, from Tamar and Judah, to Ruth and Boaz. The Sadducees present Jesus with this hypothesis: what happens when a woman marries all of seven brothers after the first dies? To whom is she married in heaven?
Jesus says that after they die, each of these, the woman and the seven brothers, will find themselves in a way of being in which they do not marry or find themselves married. Now that’s not a thought that most of us embrace when we think of heaven. One of the great comforts when we lose a loved one is the thought of meeting them when we join them on the other side of death. I know one retired pastor whose father made sure each child knew as they were growing up at which gate they would meet in heaven—sort of like agreeing on a meeting spot at the fair if the family gets separated. Wives long to see their husbands again, children want to see their parents. When Jesus says that we’ll be like angels, we hope that our loved ones will be hovering over us with their angel wings to guard and protect us. If there is any passage in scripture, especially among the words of Jesus, that are completely ignored, it’s Luke 20:34 and 35. And that’s okay. That’s not what Jesus really wants to convey. He wants to say that the children of God are children of the resurrection. And we need to live like we believe it. Jesus goes on to say that God is God not of the dead—that’s the heresy that the Sadducees proclaim. No, God is God not of the dead, but of the living. When Moses asked God’s name, he heard the great I AM statement: I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Not only is God alive, but Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive with God. Jesus serves the God of Life for whom death is not the last word.
One of my chaplain friends visited in the room of a four year old cancer patient at Children’s Hospital one day. This little tyke’s head was bald, and there were big dark circles under her eyes. She was so sick, but listen to what she shared about how she felt. She said, “My body is sick, and it looks bad, but inside, my spirit is dancing.” Her spirit dances! This little one is a child of the resurrection.
In Peru, participants at retreats on the spirituality of Christian nonviolence, create a dry cross on the floor of the retreat center as they name those who have been killed: “In memory of a young lad killed by the investigative police”; “for Sister Augustina”; “for the mother president of our mothers’ clubs. . . .” That awful cross will lie there for several days. People kneel by it and weep over their memories and sorrows. . . .
But after the communion of the closing liturgy, everyone is invited to bring in fresh greens and flowers . . . . The cross is covered with color and life. It becomes the Tree of Life, a banner of hope. . . . And then the participants embrace one another with tears of hope and renewed joy and go back to their people. They are children of the resurrection.
The oldest piece of Judeo-Christian writing that we have is the book of Job. In it, Job endures financial ruin, horrible grief at the death of his children, and finally great physical suffering, all the time railing at God, and demanding answers to his suffering. You see there are many ways to react to suffering! But in the end, Job believes that whether he lives or dies, he will see the face of God and that it will be the face of the One who loves him. Listen to the Job’s testimony:
O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in (or without) my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side (or for myself),
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
Job is a child of the resurrection.
God is the God of Life and not death. You and I are children of the resurrection. Ours is the business of living an abundant Life. We are to bring Life to every situation we enter. Just as we plant tulips in the autumn soil, knowing that the frozen earth cannot kill them—they will break through with glorious blooms in their time—we must plant Life even in times of gathering darkness. We are children of the resurrection and we shall see God for ourselves—our eyes shall behold God, for God is the God of Life.