Worship on this Sunday is always bittersweet. Although we are comforted by the fact that our loved ones whom we have lost are lifted up and remembered in prayer, it can also make us sad. As we celebrate their lives we also run the risk of allowing ourselves to relive the circumstances of their death. The first year after the loss of a loved one is full of “firsts” – the first Christmas, Easter, birthday, summer vacation, any number of special occasions – without their presence. We have to learn to navigate our way through those times as well as our daily lives, which can sometimes prove to be even more difficult. Yet as much as we may miss them, our comfort is that we believe they are in a safer, more peaceful place. A place where they are free from sickness and suffering, whether physical, spiritual or psychological. A place where they are somehow in closer relationship to God. Sometimes it is only our faith in that sure and certain hope; along with the promise that someday we will be reunited with them; that keeps us going.
Resurrection is the subject of our gospel story for today. This story takes place at the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. He and his followers have arrived at the holy city, and it is there that he will spend his last days. In order to understand this story we have to know something about the Sadducees. Just as there are various denominations in Judaism today – Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, Reconstructionist and Hasidic, amog others– so there were denominations or schools of thought in Jesus’ day. There were Pharisees, many of whose beliefs Jesus shared, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Herodians and the Zealots. They varied in their beliefs and practices and their understanding of the law just as different denominations do today.
The Sadducees had primary authority over the temple. They recognized only the original first five books of Hebrew scripture – “the books of Moses” or the Pentateuch – as being fully authoritative. For that reason, they did not believe in resurrection, because it is not promoted as a doctrine in those books. The Pharisees, who accepted the history books and the books of the prophets as also being fully authoritative, did believe in resurrection. A reference to resurrection in Hebrew scripture is found in our first reading from Job, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” It is widely believed that the concept of resurrection was not adopted by the Israelites until after the Babylonian exile, but the Sadducees never agreed with it.
In our story, the Sadducees are not actually looking for an answer as to which husband the widow of seven brothers will be with in resurrection, they are posing a ridiculous hypothetical question in order to discredit Jesus. Shortly before this Jesus had attacked the sacrificial practices at the temple, so it is no wonder the Sadducees were so eager to join forces with the Pharisees in opposition to Jesus, even though they were often rivals.
The law they referenced is from Deuteronomy 25:5-10 known as “levirate marriage” which sought to preserve a family name by stipulating that a man should marry the childless widow of his brother. That was an ancient practice in Judaism which was in all likelihood hardly ever followed. But the Sadducees were eager to make Jesus look foolish, so they made up this hypothetical question which carried the practice of the law to the extreme in order to demonstrate that the idea of resurrection was foolish. Of course, by doing so they also had an opportunity to try to embarrass the Pharisees who did believe in resurrection.
As usual, Jesus avoids their trap. First he demonstrates their failure to understand that life after resurrection is very different from life here and now. Time itself, as well as death, will have ceased to exist, concepts which are very difficult for us to comprehend. Although we don’t know exactly what it will be like, we can say that we will live, as Working Preacher commentator David Lose describes, in “the nearer presence” of God, and human relationships will exist in and through our relationship to God.
Jesus also shows that the Sadducees do not understand their own scripture. In the third chapter of Exodus, one of the five books of the Torah, where Moses encounters God in the burning bush, the validity of life after death is established. God “is” the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not “was” their God only in the past. Therefore, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must still live in some sense, which proves the validity of the resurrection life. This belief goes beyond immortality, as understood by the ancient Greeks, which implies that some spiritual element of the person lives on after the physical death of the body. Resurrection life insists that in some way which we do not yet understand, the whole person will be united with God. As Christians we believe that even though physical death is inevitable, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we will be united with him in a resurrection like his.
The apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Thessalonians that in our anticipation of the resurrection we should not be upset or alarmed by any who claim that the day is already here. We don’t have to fear death, as our pagan ancestors did, lighting huge bonfires to ward off the evil spirits that they believed roamed the land. But neither should we live our lives focused only on life after death as the serfs in medieval Europe did, because that was the only solace the church could offer them in their miserable and unjust lives of hard work and poverty.
Paul calls us the “first fruits” of creation, an image that makes us think of juicy sweetness, especially after a long winter in the days before fresh fruit was available all year. That is the way we are to look at the life that we live, blessed by God with the free gift of grace. Although we live in hope because we know that we can trust in God’s promise of resurrection, we are to live our lives to the fullest while we are here on earth. God calls us not to sit and wait, to dwell on the life that is to come after death, but to be fruitful and share the good news with others by our words and actions. No matter our situation, whether we are the picture of energy and health or have limitations placed on us, we can still be a blessing to others. That is how we glimpse our future salvation here on earth, through our own good words and works as well as those of others who also share their blessings.
As we remember our loved ones who have died and now live closer to God, may we allow their lives to be a blessing to us. Rather than allowing our lives to be defined by sorrow, we can let them inspire us to live this life to the fullest, sharing our blessings and the good news of the sure and certain promise of the resurrected life with all those we come into contact with. Amen.