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Luke 20: 27-40
We all have questions about heaven, don’t we? And NO I am not going to answer them all this morning, because I can’t, I don’t know anything more about heaven than you do- I can’t know because it is quite outside my experience, I’ve never been there, and what’s more, I’ve never talked to anyone who has.
Of course there are lots of people who have described what they call “near death“ experiences. My mother had one when I was a little girl- but the problem with those experiences is that the people who come back haven’t gone all the way, have they? Otherwise they wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. Of course many people give these stories no credence and talk about them in terms of the physiological, or the psychological, but what ever you think about them, and even if they give us some insight about the process of death, they don’t give us a clear picture of what happens after death. And that, of course is the million dollar question. We all want the answer and if we had it there would be no need for faith and I think that ‘free-will’ would be meaningless- we humans have to choose to hand over our lives to God without the certain knowledge of the after life.
These Sadducees in the gospel reading today weren’t actually wanting to know about the afterlife, however, because they didn’t believe in “resurrection”. I have no idea, and couldn’t find out what the Sadducees looked forward to as a reward for their lives of righteousness. This was one of the ways that they differed from the Pharisees, who in common with other Jewish sects, did believe in the resurrection. The question they ask Jesus here is one designed to make a fool of him. Why they choose the subject of resurrection to try to trick him, I am not sure. The Sadducees, were a wealthy and powerful class of people who got their wealth and power from temple service and administration. We don’t know all that much about them, however we do know the important fact that they didn’t believe in the resurrection because Luke, helpfully tells us. So this question is a pointless one, it is designed to make fun of the whole idea of resurrection. In “levirate” law, if a man dies childless his brother should marry the widow and have a child to inherit the property of his brother. This was important to ensure the succession and a refusal to do that caused trouble. Way back in Genesis 38 we have the great story of poor Tamar whose brothers-in-law refuse to do their duty by her, and die for their trouble. Tamar is very cross, really and makes a clever plan- she pretends to be a prostitute and traps her father-in-law into giving her a child. She nearly comes to a sticky end but is ultimately vindicated by the fact that the men in the story have failed to keep this law. She wins out and it is one of the best stories of a woman in the OT- read it this afternoon! The other OT story that you will be more familiar with is that of Ruth and Naomi. Remember how Boaz does his duty and marries Ruth because he is her “kinsman-redeemer”- that is a kind of extension of this basic principle. Anyway, the idea that we will be joined in a marriage relationship after the resurrection is refuted by Jesus here.
Jesus tells the Sadducees that there will be no marrying in the resurrection. This, he says, is because there will be no death. This might seem a strange answer at first sight, but to understand it you have to remember that in Jesus’ day as it has been in our world as well until about a hundred years ago, the point of marriage was to produce children to inherit your name, your land, your wealth if you had any. The point is that if we don’t die, we don’t need to produce the next generation. We today, have some very different ideas about marriage- we think of it as being about love, companionship, mutual support and all kinds of good things. These things will certainly continue in the resurrection but will not need to be restricted to a single person as they are in our world with the complication of the sexual relationship. This is disappointing to many of us for whom marriage is a meeting of heart and mind, though there are many people who are very glad of the fact that they won’t have to go through eternity connected to their earthly partners. There are also of course, many single people, whose hope is that in heaven they will have the kind of perfect connectedness to others that they have lacked in their earthly life.
I was thinking about the idea that is very popular in our society that when we get to heaven we will be reunited with our loved ones. Often you hear people very publically express their hope that after death their child, or mother, brother or sister, not to mention partner, will be there waiting for them to continue the relationship they had in life. When you think logically it would lead to a very complex set of relationships, wouldn’t it? Here on earth we usually have three generations to contend with, sometimes four, but in heaven the generations would stretch back through the centuries, two thousand years at least- it would be a complex web of relationships. Jesus, doesn’t go into that in this brief glimpse of the afterlife. All Jesus tells us is that we will be like the angels, which isn’t much help because we don’t know a lot about them either! The one other thing he says is a little more helpful, however.
Jesus tells us that we will be children of God. This is much more consoling. It means that when we get to the resurrection, we will enter more fully into the relationship with God and that the human relationship will be superseded. Our human parents can only love us imperfectly, and partially because of their own imperfect state, but God will love us perfectly- because God IS love. And if God is our parent in the resurrection then that means that we will all be siblings for one another. All of us through out all the ages, all the generations, married or single, only child or one of a dozen, will be united in a relationship of equality and harmony in God. That is a much better thought than that you will be reunited with particular family members.
The next little bit of the passage is for the Sadducees again, Jesus proves to them, from Scripture, and they were the evangelicals of their day who rejected any value of tradition and had to have things written in the scriptures, that the resurrection exists. God, he tells them, is the God of the living, not of the dead, and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive.
This teaching on resurrection is very important to Jesus of course, because he wants the disciples to understand what is going to happen to him, just a short time later. And of course, Jesus is just the “first fruits” of the resurrection as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15. All the dead in Christ will be raised, incorruptible. That means you and me, as well! Amazing thought, isn’t it. And lucky that we don’t need to know the details in order to believe because there are not many details provided here in Luke’s passage.
The question that has filled my mind is how all this relates to God’s Kingdom that week after week we have been thinking about, because it is such an all-pervasive theme in Luke’s gospel? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers about this either. The kingdom of God is both a present reality, and a future hope. We all live in the kingdom, now, but somehow there is also going to be something very different. When Jesus taught us to pray it was with these words- “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” The kingdom will finally come in when God’s will is done and there are two distinct spheres, heaven and earth. Is it the kingdom of God that will unite the two? Is the kingdom something on earth but not the same as we know it now? Will our world be healed and recreated? I read a very interesting book by the great English biblical scholar and bishop, Tom Wright, dealing with this very subject. In it he expresses the opinion that the ‘going to heaven’ bit is quite unimportant, it is a glorious waiting room for the real action that will take place when we receive our resurrection bodies and get down to the hard work of remaking the creation, what he calls “Colonising earth with the life of heaven”.
Wright goes on … read from book
What Wright believes that the bible is saying to us, is get on with living the kingdom, right now, today. The Sadducees were sad indeed because they had no future hope. But we are also sad if we spend all our time looking forward to some imagined future in heaven rather than living out the new life that Jesus has already given to us. As Jesus says, Abraham and Isaac are alive and so are we, so today, live for Christ.