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.”
(This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
This week marks the first Sunday in a three week series called What Jesus Does. We talk a lot about Who Jesus Is, and I don’t want to downplay the importance of that conversation, but sometimes I think we have that conversation at the expense of talking about what Jesus does, because talking about what Jesus does brings Jesus out of the hypothetical into the material, pulls him from history into our present lives, stands him right in front of the altar so that you can’t miss him. When it’s a theoretical conversation about who he is, he can get stuck there. But when you talk about what he does, well, there are implications for each of us, for all of us together.
I have a clergy friend who’s been in ministry a lot longer than I have, and he says that all new United Methodist ministers should be required to wear a clergy collar for three years before they graduate to a shirt and tie or skirt suit. That kind of public witness, he says, teaches a person about the implications of faith, because you can’t leave Jesus in the theoretical sphere when you’re wearing a collar and the barista says, “Here’s your soy latte, Father.”
So, the idea goes, if you are constantly reminded that following Jesus has implications for your life, for who you are when you are in the shower, or behind the wheel, or checking out at the grocery store—or, you know, the liquor store--even when we wish Jesus weren’t looking, you start behaving differently. A hypothetical Jesus is not nearly as powerful as the real one who gets in the middle of our business.
And in this morning’s scripture lesson, we have the perfect example of Jesus being so audacious as to get in the middle of our business, for there is nothing more human as a marital dispute.
So here is the ridiculous scenario. A man and a woman marry. They have no children. The man dies. The law says that the woman is to now marry the man’s brother, which she does, but he dies, too, and so she marries the next brother, who also dies, all the way down the line of seven brothers, and she checks them off one at a time until finally, she does, too. I think if I were the seventh brother, and the first six brothers had died, I would have said, no thanks, this does not seem to end well so I’ll go be a monk or something, but being a follower of the law, he follows the tradition.
Now, say the Saducees who are trying to disprove the resurrection, what do you do with that, Jesus? If there is but one bride for these seven brothers, and there’s life after death, who’s married to the woman? What is left for the other six?
It’s a trap, of course. The Saducees don’t care what the answer is—they are simply trying to look cool, simply trying to stand up for their philosophy, which does not include eternal life. So they as Jesus a silly question.
We do this too, you know, in all areas of our lives, but especially when it comes to religion. And people who are particularly hostile to religion LOVE these kinds of questions, because they are less concerned about what Jesus does than who Jesus is, and they love asking questions with no answer. You know, questions like, “Can God make a rock so big that he can’t move it?” or “What is the purpose of a cockroach?” or “Why would a loving God create a world in which Arnold Schwarzenegger is allowed to have a viable acting career, let alone be in charge of the most populous state in the union?”
Or, you know, why did God allow this death, or that illness?
The questions, in the final analysis, are not always so silly, and they are not only asked by those who are hostile to religion. We earnestly ask them, too, and so at the heart of the Saducees’ question is one much less ridiculous than the iteration that finally escapes their mouths.
What they say is: which man is the woman married to?
What they mean is: this resurrection you speak of. What is it? What does it mean? How does it work?
Do these questions ring true for you? They do for me. I may not be concerned about what the resurrection means for a woman who ticks through seven husbands, but I am awfully concerned with what the resurrection means for me, for my life, for my loved ones and my relationship to them. Every time somebody I love has the occasion to die, which happens to everyone at one time or another, every time, these questions come flooding back, and I know I am not alone in this. If you want to make a lot of money, all you have to do is write a book detailing exactly what Heaven is like, and every person who passes through the supermarket checkout aisle will spend $7.99 on the answer.
I guess this is ok, but it seems that we focus so much on what will be that we miss what is, which is the point of Jesus getting in our business anyway. Do you see what the Saducees have done? They have taken a question which is supposedly about our everyday lives, about bringing Jesus into the details our mundane lives, and they have tried to find a way out by turning this into a question about only life after death, only about Heaven, so that what you do on earth is less important and we can all rest easier knowing that Jesus is more interested in my eternal life once I die than he is in my life now, which is good because it is a lot of pressure to have Jesus looking over your shoulder all the time.
Now, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to live as a Christian, to behave in such a way that what you say you believe shines forth in your actions. But it was not in seminary that I started thinking about this. It was in a political science class, my senior year of college.
You may not be surprised to learn that I was a political science major, not a religion major, and I am sorry to say that political science has helped me more in the church than it probably ought to’have. And for my senior project, we had to do a big data-based, large-scale project, starting with a focus group to help us fine-tune our research.
Here is the question we decided to explore: how does your religion affect your understanding of the world?
Now, I think that’s an important question, because as a professional religious person, I think it is important that your religion ought to at least somehow affect your understanding of the world, of the ways in which we make our way through life. Otherwise, what is the point?
Suffice it to say, it was something of a disappointing project. By the time we’d crunched all the numbers, done all our surveys, finished our interviews and regression tables, it turned out that the answer to the question of “How does your religion affect your understanding of the world” was, for many people, “not much.”
But the thing that struck me the most in that project is something I’ve been chewing on for ten years now. As part of our focus group, we invited Mr. Johnny, an older man who made some nominal income on campus by living in the student apartments and responding to calls for repairs, telling students to turn their music down late at night, that sort of thing. I didn’t know him well, but I did know a little bit of his story. His wife had died about ten years prior, and as she’d been the breadwinner in the family, he was left without a lot of money. Somehow, he landed at the college, and so he was an easy recruit for the focus group.
The day of the focus group, we went around the table and did introductions, and we had several high powered executives around the table, and the campus chaplain, and other learned folks, who were all clearly used to introducing themselves, as they spouted off their stations in life and awards and accomplishments, until we got to Mr. Johnny.
He said, “I’m Johnny,” and we moved on.
And we had a lively discussion. People pontificated and prattled on about this issue and that, although I couldn’t tell you exactly what we talked about. What I do remember was that at the end of the focus group, one of our project members looked at Mr. Johnny and said, “Mr. Johnny, you haven’t said much today. How does your religion affect your understanding of the world?”
And Mr. Johnny said something that I thought was really disappointing: “I’m just trying to do right so that I can go to Heaven.”
That was it. “I’m just trying to do right so that I can go to Heaven.” I remember being disappointed, because I believed—and I still believe!—that religion is about way more than going to Heaven. I was convinced—still am!—that the life of faith is about living, not dying, and that if God is the God of the living like we heard in this morning’s scripture lesson, we ought to worry less about going to Heaven and more about offering others a piece of Heaven on earth, and so it was a disappointing answer, a shallow answer, I thought, evidence of a shallow faith.
But as I was leaving the room, that answer reached up from the table and grabbed hold of me and hasn’t let go since, and I have to tell you that ten years later I’ve arrived somewhere completely different.
I am somewhat ashamed to say that it took me a long time to realize that what Mr. Johnny was saying was not that he was only interested in heaven, although he’d lost his wife and that was certainly on his mind. The business of accepting eternal life is not about accepting it the moment you cross the precipice of death, but about accepting it now, for the life that comes from Jesus does not begin with death, but with acceptance that I am not in charge. The world does not revolve around me. The business of worshipping God does not just happen on Sunday morning. It happens every time I acknowledge that my ultimate allegiance belongs to God rather than my own political beliefs or my own desires. Every time I acknowledge my allegiance to God, that is an act of worship.
Here, I was being critical of Johnny for doing right so that he could get to Heaven, just sitting around waiting for his eternal life to begin, when it had already begun! You cannot separate the business of Heaven from the business of living, for the eternal life that Jesus promises is not merely about dying, although that’s just as inevitable as taxes and trash on TV. It is not just about death, because when you choose to follow Jesus, Indeed you cannot die anymore, because you are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. For God is God of the living, for to God all of us are alive.
God is the God of the living! And, Luke says, to God all of us are alive! This is great news, but I would suggest to you that we ought to be following Jesus in such a way that God isn’t the only one who thinks so.
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