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Reflections on the Gospel, Week before November 10, 2013

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Luke 20:27-38

27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

What I Am Learning:

This part of Luke is quite the head scratcher.

When I was a child we sang a song that referred to this passage – “the Sadducees where sad, you see.” The message of this song, as it was explained to us, was that the Sadducees did not believe in life after death that would take place in heaven. I remember one of the song leaders saying, “How could they deny life after death, that’s the whole point of Christianity!” There are several problems here – including the fact that Sadducees were not Christians!

Last week I got to listen to The Rev. Dr. Dan Peterson from Seattle University work with some Lutheran and Episcopal pastors. (Dan and I are in conversation about him being one of three “teaching pastors” for TCC.) He quoted another scholar named Barbara Rossing that calls this version of Christianity a “heavenist” perspective.

This song I sang as a youth is a great example of a heavenist theology.

In the heavenist perspective the earth and earthly life are just a brief testing period that is miniscule in comparison to the trillions of years of life with God in heaven. The heavenist take on Christianity focuses most all of its efforts on the conversion of persons to the kind of belief that will gain them entrance to heaven when they die.

Heavenist theology contends that the big questions facing the human race are not central to God’s concern. Here is TCC’s take on the big questions facing us:

•                How do we embrace life as it is?

•                How do we live together given our cultural differences?

•                How will we live together while respecting the earth and our children?

Rather God’s concern is rescuing human souls from the earth, where these problems will exist until God destroys the earth and takes Christians to heaven. The primary focus of heavenist Christianity is how we get to heaven, not on how heaven comes to earth. It assumes God has abandoned the earth to injustice and invites us to do the same.

Ironically, Jesus is confronting a somewhat similar issue as he talks with the Sadducees. The Sadducees were among the wealthiest of Jewish people and they were well represented in the Council. While they would have preferred not to have the Roman occupation in place, they were doing very well and didn’t want an abrupt change. And yes, they did not believe in the resurrection. What did the resurrection mean in the first Century?

In the 2 centuries before Jesus, the Jewish people began to believe that a messiah would come to cast out occupying armies and to set the world to right. As they dreamed of this messianic age, they came upon a significant ethical issue:  What about those people who had lived faithfully but never got to experience life as God intended it?

In response, they began to talk about resurrection. After the messiah brought healing to the lepers, the blind, the lame, set the prisoners free and food to the poor, he would raise from the dead the faithful who died before the messianic age began.

I need to be clear here:  resurrection was understood to mean bodily life on the planet earth, as a part of God’s healing and creation of the world. It did not mean life as a disembodied spirit in a heaven light years away.

When Jesus raises people from the dead, he is doing what the messiah was supposed to do. This is why, in the gospel of John, that the Chief Priests decided to kill Jesus after he raised Lazarus. The wealthy class in Jerusalem including the Sadducees, represented by the chief priests, knew that their survival would be put in jeopardy by a revolt and so wanted to stop Jesus in his tracks.

In this reading the Sadducees come and take Jesus on in public, and give him a little puzzle. Their question is about the practice of levirate marriage. The word Levirate means “brother-in-law.” When a man died, if there was not eldest son, the widow would marry the brother-in-law and would seek to have a male child who would carry on the name of the dead man, and take over the property. Their question: Whose wife would the widow be, after this happened 7 times?

Their deeper argument is that resurrection was not only unbelievable it was ridiculous – and so was God’s concern for justice.

Jesus argues that the rules of “this age” and “that age” are very different. The faithful who are raised from the dead to live in the messianic age have already had their chance at children and so would not be married. He goes on to argue that if God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob then God would be the God of nothing if there is no resurrection. For Jesus, resurrection is an important part of God’s healing and creation of the earth. But in the end, the earth and its people are God’s central concern, not just extracting a few billion souls to sing in God’s heavenly choir.

Now this is very different from the way most Christians think of life after death. Many have been heavily influenced by the heavenist perspective to escape the concerns of their neighbors, their communities and the world.

In the end, the perspective of the Sadducees and those who taught me that song had a similar effect on humans about what is important: that the world and its problems are not that important to God and thus not as important to us.

Jesus does promise life after death. But this life after death is an embodied life on an earth that is healed and whole. The idea of life after death for human beings was not meant to create a community of escapists, but rather was one expression of God’s commitment to the earth and its people.

God invites us, in the security of our resurrection, to join God in commitment to the earth and its people – to giving ourselves to working on the issues that face us. We do this, knowing that God’s kingdom is coming and that it is already near. Heaven is coming to earth and that life and love wins.

Jesus was the first person to believe in his own resurrection. In the freedom of his resurrection he could speak truth to power, struggle for justice and announce God's love for the poor and vulnerable. He invites us, the in the power of our resurrection, to do the same.

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