The following sermon was preached by Peter Vethanayagamony, Associate Professor of Modern Church History and Director of D.Min. Program, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, November 12, 2007.
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus who is the risen Christ. Amen.
A young pastor in India had just taken his first call. The church president came by to visit him on a Sunday afternoon. He has been a highly respected member of this congregation for over 25 years.
They were sitting on the back porch of the parsonage and the man said, "Pastor, I've got something to tell you. I've never told this to a soul, it's extremely difficult to tell you this now, my wife and I have had a fight almost every day for the past 30 years of our marriage."
The pastor was taken back. He nervously took a sip of his coffee. He didn't know what to say. After a brief pause, the young Pastor said, "Everyday?" "Yes, just about every day." "Did you fight today before you came to church?" "Yes." "Well, how did it end up?" "She came crawling to me on her hands and knees." "My Goodness what did she say?" "Come out from under that bed you coward and fight like a man!"
Well, the Gospel lesson of today recalls a busy friction and fighting going on among religious leaders of Jesus time. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were in constant struggle over the subject life after death. Almost where ever these two groups met, this subject of death and life came up. Each group trying to persuade the listeners their side was right
The Pharisees believed that God revealed His will, not just in the Pentateuch, but continued to speak to and through God's people in their changing circumstances. Their theological innovations included adding new books to their scripture, to the list of what was considered authoritative.
They also came up with new teachings. They looked at what was happening around them in the culture -- the righteous suffered, and the wicked seemed to prosper -- and they knew that a just God wouldn't let this be the final word. They concluded that God would raise the dead. The righteous would receive their reward, and perhaps the wicked would be raised to receive punishment.
The Sadducees were horrified by this kind of theological innovations, and were probably even more horrified as the Pharisees became more popular with the people and gained power -- even power in the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. So when they saw that Jesus of Nazareth, this charismatic rabbi who was attracting so much attention from Galilee to Jerusalem, was teaching as the Pharisees did about scripture and even about the resurrection, they decided they had to confront him.
At the heart of their question was the custom of "levirate marriage," according to this custom, if a man's married brother died without leaving an heir, he must marry the widow (Deut. 25:5-6). The law for this time in Biblical history was probably a good law. There were no Social Security programs. Public assistance's was helpful but the main burden was on the close relative of the person. This would mean that she would have male offspring that by law would take care of her in her old age.
However, this tricky question wasn't about the law or to whom she would be married. The question was about what heaven was going to be like. "Is there an afterlife? Will people really be raised from the dead?"
Either because of their ignorance or arrogance Sadducees raises the question about the resurrection, but Jesus respond to their questions very patiently.
It is not hard to minister to the people who are receptive and appreciative but not at all easy to minister to the people that are trying to put you down. However, Jesus seizes the opportunity to minister to these adversaries and thus set a model how we should be ready to minister to even those who are obviously against us.
Part of the reason why the Sadducees had difficulty in believing in the age to come or the resurrection of the body was the way they were trained and taught. They failed to guard about understanding Scriptures simply from what they have been taught about them and only using their own experience to understand them.
We all filter Scripture; so we have to be very careful. The eye of our understanding can lead us astray if we aren't careful.
That reminds me about a Sunday school teacher, who was trying to demonstrate the difference between right and wrong to her young teen class. She chose stealing for her example. The teacher said: "All right let's use this example. If I were to go into a man's pocket and take his wallet with all his money, what would I be?" A teenager in the back freely offered the answer, "You'd be his wife."
The Pharisees failed to look beyond the box. They were carried away by their day today experience in interpreting the scripture. They were so comfortable in their day to day lives that they were not concerned with the after life. They approached scripture to back up their ideology and conveniently left out the scripture that might contradict their beliefs.
Jesus not only affirms the life after death and resurrection but also gives here a brief teaching on the life after death. Let me briefly summarize them here.
The first and foremost point Jesus makes is that life here on earth and life after death are not alike.
The Jews of Jesus days thought that the kingdom of heaven was only an extension of the good things in this life. Jesus made it clear that the life in the eternal state is more than just an extension of what we have here.
Secondly, there is no marriage in "that age." He did not say that we would not know our present wife or husband in the age to come, but rather that the relationship would be different.
Thirdly, there is no death in "that age." Jesus identifies the quality of life when He says "neither can they die anymore," it is eternal life.
Fourthly, the redeemed will be "like" the angels in heaven, seeing and serving and praising God.
Having made these points Jesus went on to prove that these ideas are biblical based. In proving that the resurrection from the dead was a biblical idea, there were any number of clear Old Testament texts that Jesus could have cited which spoke of the resurrection. The prophet Isaiah said, (26:19) "Your dead shall live; Together with my dead body they shall arise...."
The prophet Daniel said (12:2), "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt."
But since the Sadducees only accepted as binding the first five books of the Old Testament Jesus appealed to Exodus 3:6.
In verse thirty-seven Jesus said, "But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord the 'God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,' (38) For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him."
Jesus reasons that when God stated in the present tense "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob" (Exodus 3:6) it makes no sense if they are not presently alive.
Our Gospel lesson today doesn't include the response of the Sadducees, but if you would read on, you would find they congratulated Jesus on his logic and his use of scripture. They were amazed that he could do what the Pharisees could not do, prove from scripture there was some reference to life after death.
What does all of this have to do with us today?
As we wrestle with the question of resurrection and after life, especially the day we honor our veterans, we come to the point that lives can be lived with a certain amount of hope, a certain amount of daring, a certain amount of adventure, a certain amount of confidence. Our promise of life beyond this one, gives to life a certain dimension that makes for a paradox in living.
On the other hand, the trivia of this life looses its importance, but the values, the important things take on added meaning.
I am assured of heaven, and because of that assurance, I live differently, I live for God, I respond to God my entire being.
I rejoice in life as a celebration to the new life for eternity.
In other words, the promise of eternal life is not just some pie in the sky hope for us as our lives grow old, but that promise was given to us at our Baptism.
Jesus says, "Now he is not God of the dead, but of the for all live to him."
The fact that there is no marriage after the resurrection may be good news to the ones who have unhappy marriages, but if you are in love with your mate, it seems kind of sad. The good news is that we'll love each other more, just not as husband and wife. We'll be ourselves at our ultimate best and will be more loveable and more capable of loving than ever before.
To conclude, discussion on the question of resurrected life can consume our energies and some times lead us no where. It is, after all, a matter of faith and in the end, a mystery. Christians really do not have to spend much time arguing about it one way or another. If we live now as those who have already entered the journey of eternal life, facing into deathly issues and struggles in the here and now as though we do not fear death, then we will convince more people than in any attempt at proving things about life after death.
And so when good things happen to you in this life, rejoice, and thank God for those good things. But remember that better things are coming. And when bad things happen to you in this life, it's natural to feel disappointed, and maybe even a little depressed. But remember that there is a new life that is coming. You have something wonderful waiting for you in your future.
May that give you peace and joy as you live your life right now. Amen.