Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sermon for October 23rd: Matthew 22:23-33


‘Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory!’

Today we gather to remember with thanksgiving our loved ones who have died over the past year or so. Ever since we began this annual service at St. Margaret’s back in 2009 I have been amazed by the response to it, and by the number of people who choose to bring a carnation forward in memory of a loved one and to offer their name in remembrance and prayer. Obviously many of us have been touched by the sobering reality of death, and it seems appropriate for us today to ask what the Christian faith has to say to us about death, and about life after death? In our Gospel for today Jesus is asked to comment on the nature of life after death, and his comments are directly relevant to our theme today.

In the time of Jesus, the Sadducees were a small and powerful religious party; most of the Jerusalem priests and elders were members of this group. One feature of this party was that they only accepted the authority of the first five books of the Bible, the so-called ‘books of Moses’ - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; they did not accept the rest of what we call ‘the Old Testament’ as scripture. Neither did they believe in any kind of life after death, whether the survival of the soul or the resurrection of the body. As far as they were concerned, when you were dead, that was it; you could live on, in a sense, in your children, but they would never see you again after your death, because death was final.

Now here’s another thing we need to know to understand this passage: there was a law in the Old Testament called ‘Levirite marriage’, which said that if a man died before he had a chance to have children, his brother must marry the widow, and their first son would be counted as the dead man’s son, so that his name would not be lost, and so that there would be family members to inherit his land. This being the case, the Sadducees come to Jesus and try to catch him out by posing for him a rather fanciful story. Imagine a woman who had been married seven times to seven successive brothers. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?

This is not as ridiculous a question as we might think. I know many people who believe that after they die and go to heaven they will be reunited with their wife or husband and will continue to have the special relationship with them that they had before death. But what about those who lost a spouse, and then later remarried? If there is marriage in the life to come, who will they be married to? Yes, the spectacle of seven brothers, one after another, marrying the same woman and then all dying childless seems a little far-fetched! But there is a genuine pastoral issue underlying it, and so the question should not be dismissed as ridiculous.

As it turns out, this passage does have some important things to say about life and death. Let me point out to you three important questions that it answers.

Question One: Is there life after death? The Sadducees said ‘no’, and so do a lot of people today. On the other hand, most people in the history of the world have believed that there is a life after death. In this passage Jesus sides with the majority in saying, ‘Death is not the end’.

In making this point Jesus goes to the books of Moses, the books the Sadducees accepted as scripture, and he refers to the story of how God met Moses at the burning bush. When God introduced himself to Moses there, he said ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Exodus 3:6). This is covenant language: God made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in which he bound himself to them as their God, to guide them and protect them, to bless them and to care for them.

Jesus’ point here is not so much that the verbs are in the present tense – ‘I am their God’ rather than ‘I was their God’ – because in Hebrew there actually is no verb in the sentence, so tenses would not be an issue. Rather, his point is that it is inconceivable that a God who made an everlasting covenant with the patriarchs would allow death to bring it to an end. Nowhere in the Bible is God described as being ‘God of the dead’. As Jesus says, ‘He is God not of the dead, but of the living’ (Matthew 22:32).

So Jesus teaches us quite clearly in this passage that there is a life after death. Now on to the next question: What is life after death like? On this question the Christian faith and Judaism stand almost alone in the religions of the world, and it’s very important for us to understand clearly what Jesus and the New Testament teach here. Most people today believe that life after death is a non-physical experience; that we will leave our bodies behind and live forever as disembodied spirits in a better place called ‘heaven’. We take this idea for granted and we think the Bible teaches it.

In fact, in the earlier books of the Bible people seem to have believed that after we die we go to a shadowy place called sheol, which is neither heaven nor hell but a depressing place of departed spirits. It’s very similar to the Greek idea of Hades, which again is not ‘hell’ but simply the underworld, the world of the dead. No one in the Old Testament wants to go to sheol; they’d all much rather stay alive in this physical world.

So originally Greek and Hebrew ideas about life after death were quite similar, but they changed in the centuries before the birth of Jesus. In the Greek world, the philosopher Plato began to teach that this material world is an evil world which was created by an evil god, and the only way we can be saved is to detach ourselves more and more from this material world and find our pleasure in non-material, or ‘spiritual’ things. No sex please, we’re Platonists! Death, he taught, was a freeing of ourselves from the shackles of this miserable physical world and going to a place which is purely ‘spiritual’, away from the curse of matter altogether. And so Plato reversed the Greek view: life is bad and death is good, because death means freedom from the evil material world.

But the God of the Bible created matter, and he thinks it’s good. He created things like eating and drinking, and the senses of smell and touch and taste. So the truth that he gradually revealed to his people, later in the Old Testament period, was that life after death doesn’t mean living forever as a ghost or a disembodied spirit; life after death means that one day the righteous dead will be resurrected and will have new bodies which will live forever. Our life after death will be a physical life in a world set free from evil by the power of God.

In our reading for today Jesus shows that he totally accepts this view. In verse 30 he doesn’t say, “When they go to heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage”, but “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”. And this view is the view of the rest of the New Testament as well. Of course, the prime example of it is the resurrection of Jesus himself. He died a horrible physical death just as many others do, but death was not the end for him. On the third day God raised him from the dead. He was still the same Jesus his friends had known, but in some ways he was different. They didn’t recognise him at once. His resurrected body could pass through walls and could appear and disappear. But it was definitely a body, not just a disembodied spirit; the gospels tell us that the disciples could touch him, and Luke adds the little detail that he ate a piece of broiled fish before their eyes to prove that he was not just a ghost.

Paul uses the resurrection of Jesus as a kind of visual aid to show us what our own resurrection will be like. In 1 Corinthians 15 he says ‘But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Corinthians 15:20). He then goes on to say that when we are raised from the dead we will have the same kind of incorruptible bodies that Jesus has enjoyed since his own resurrection. As he is today, so, one day, we who belong to him will be.

Now this teaching raises a few questions for many of us. I need to say at the outset that many of the questions aren’t given clear answers in the pages of scripture, and when the scriptures do not give us clear guidance on a particular issue, we need to be ready to say, “I don’t know the answer to that one”.

Some people ask “If the resurrection of the body is a physical experience, where will all these bodies live? After all, the earth is getting rather over-populated now!” A very good question - and one on which the scriptures have absolutely nothing to say! The closest we get is the hint that on the last day God will make ‘a new heaven and a new earth’; not only humans will be transformed, but the whole of God’s creation will be set free from evil and share in the freedom of God’s children. Does this mean more room for the resurrected dead? We aren’t given an answer to that one, and although it’s tempting to speculate about what will happen to all these uninhabited planets in the universe, I’m going to rein in my Star Trek imagination and resist the temptation!

But the big question in people’s minds when they hear about the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is, ‘So what happens to those who have died while they’re waiting for the resurrection? We thought they went to heaven to be with the Lord. Were we wrong on that? And if so, where are they?’

The New Testament gives us hints of an answer to this. Throughout its pages Christian dead are said to have ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’; this obviously refers to the fact that their bodies are inactive, and that death, like sleep, is only temporary. But on the other hand there are also texts that talk about ‘departing and being with the Lord, which is far better’. How might we hold these two ideas together? Is there a temporary non-physical existence with the Lord while we wait for the resurrection of our bodies? Will we experience what we sometimes do when we have a really good sleep: waking up on the resurrection morning with no sense of time having passed at all since our death? Or when we die will we in fact be outside of time, as God is outside of time, so that for us our resurrection day will be immediate?

Any of these are possible ways of reading the New Testament texts. What we can be sure of, on the basis of the word of Jesus and his apostles, are these two things: Firstly, after we die, we are with the Lord. Secondly, God’s long-term plan for our life after death includes not just the survival of our souls, but the gift of new, resurrected bodies, and a continued physical existence.

So we’ve seen that there will be life for us after death, and that it will be a renewed physical life. Now - Question Three: What about our loved ones who have died? What will be our relationship with them? After all, the issue of continuing relationships was what the Sadducees asked Jesus about: “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife of the seven will she be?” (v.28). Jesus’ answer challenged all of their assumptions about life after death. It’s as if he was saying to them “Your mistake is that you’re assuming that life after death will be just like this life, only lasting forever. It won’t! Life after death will be completely different from the life we have now. And one of the differences will be in the whole area of marriage”. Jesus points out that those who are raised from the dead through their faith in him will never die, and so there will no longer be any need to perpetuate the human race. The physical reason for families - the raising of children - will no longer be there. And so Jesus says, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (v.30).

This comes as something of a shock to us, to hear that in the age to come our spouses will no longer have that special relationship with us. I suspect that’s because we aren’t told here what will replace that relationship. It may be that the closeness we will experience with one another as children of our heavenly Father will be so real that we will no longer need the particular intimacy of marriage. It may be that our relationship with God will then give us all we now need from our marriages. We aren’t told. But what we do know from other scriptures is that what God has prepared for us is far beyond the power of our imagination to conceive. If the God who loves us thinks that we will no longer need marriage in the life to come, you can be sure that whatever will take its place will be far better.

So this passage gives us good news when we face the sobering reality of death. Our loved ones who have died in the peace of Christ are safe with Christ, and we will be with them again one day. And we ourselves can face death without fear.  Death is no longer the great unknown for us as Christians; our Lord Jesus Christ has gone through it and come out on the other side in resurrection, and he assures us that if we trust and follow him the same thing will happen to us. So we can rejoice in his victory over death and look forward to sharing the same victory ourselves.

When we see an obituary in the newspaper we often see after it the letters ‘R.I.P.’: ‘rest in peace’. What you might not know is that those three words are in fact a sad truncation of an ancient Christian blessing: ‘Rest in peace and rise in glory’. Resting in peace is a good thing, but by itself it carries no message of hope for the future. So let me suggest that when we think of the loved ones we are remembering today, and when we name them, we don’t just act like unbelievers and say in our minds, ‘Rest in peace’. Rather, let’s act like the believing Christians that we are; let’s pray for something better for them, something that Jesus has promised to all who belong to him. Let’s say, ‘Rest in peace, and rise in glory’! Amen!

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