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Life After Death
Loving our enemies. The necessity of suffering and a crucified Messiah. Resurrection. I don’t know whether these seem immediately relevant to your life this week, but they were all central to Jesus’ curriculum for his first century followers. And 20 centuries later these are still on the syllabus. Here we are, students, disciples, authorized eavesdroppers on the inter-Jewish argument between Jesus and the Sadducees. Let’s ask for help from the One who lives and reigns forever. May the words…
They asked Jesus a preposterous question about which of seven brothers will have to be responsible in the resurrection for a widow who during her lifetime was passed from one brother to the next in keeping with a law of Levirate marriage. Levirate marriage was supposed to produce a son to inherit property, which would prevent the widow, from falling into poverty, prostitution and death. In a patriarchal marriage system, in a system where land is wealth the law provided some justice. But the situation seems absurd–even abusive from our vantage point; the law fails. This weird argument is repeated in three of our Gospel. It must be sort of important. I’m going to say why Jesus’ argument about resurrection matters. But first, the Sadducees. At the time of Jesus they were in charge of the Temple. Their commitment to scripture was centered in the Torah–Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy–like every other Jewish party. However the Sadducees actually limited their scriptural studies to this collection. They were not interested in the prophets, not interested in the writings. They had the historical origins of Israel without prophetic critique. They had the law without the wisdom tradition. But they had a lot of great material. And Jesus works with whatever scrap of truth we have and builds from there. Hallelujah!
Now the Sadducees controlled the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governance system compromised because Palestine was occupied by Rome. Israel as a nation had lost a lot of ground. The ruling Sadducees hitched their own power to that of the empire’s success, and tried to squelch Jewish resistance movements. So they distanced themselves from Rabbi Jesus and tried to write him off as a teacher with spurious conclusions about life after death.
It’s not that they thought Jesus’ head was in the clouds. They thought Jesus was too doomsday. Jesus said that the Son of Humanity would suffer, that the present generation would reject God’s Messiah, that the Temple had become a den of robbers. Jesus spoke of desolation to befall Jerusalem and heavenly signs that all the power brokers were going down in a crash. Jesus wept over the city saying they had missed their visitation from God.
The Sadducess did not perceive a world gripped by the power of evil. They preferred to believe that if Jews kept the law, kept order in the Temple, kept a grip on whatever meager advantages they had, God would divinely reward Israel in this life. Jesus believed that the justice, forgiveness, righteousness and peace of God’s covenant would require giving his life, suffering at the hands of worldly powers and dying. And he believed in resurrection.
If you’ve read the Gospels, you might remember that Jesus has lots of clashes with leaders. The pattern of these stories is that everyone’s always arguing about Torah–God’s teaching or law. And through some verbal jiu jitsu Jesus always wins these arguments. For example, just prior to this, Jesus bested a bunch of leaders who questioned his authority for teaching good news in the Temple. Jesus responded with his own question about John’s baptism. He turned the tables on them! He also literally turned the tables of the Temple economy some days before. So, when the big guns arrive, the Sadducees, it seems like Jesus takes their bait only to pull his Biblical opponents closer and take them by surprise.
Biblical Evidence for Resurrection
Jesus claims that God’s power to raise the dead is right there in the Torah. Abe, Isaac and Jacob are family clan leaders who are no better than any other family on the earth. Israel believes that the God of all creation, all people, all nations chose through one dried up, unproductive old man with no place to live and a wife who seemed no better, to bless all the nations of the world. In Genesis God proves what can be done with sad sack humanity. God overcomes their barrenness in order to bless them and all nations. In the rest of the Torah, we follow Moses. Moses–an adopted highly educated, rich boy, flees Egypt after a violent rage against the machine of empire. While Moses is having an identity crisis in the wilderness and recovering from the trauma of having killed someone, God speaks to him from a burning bush.
God calls Moses back into the redemption story of his ancestors. Because God’s big Shalom Plan is to redeem from slavery the family of Abraham and Sarah…and all the other people who found themselves needing a blessing, a future, a home, a purpose, and a God who would respond their pain, with deliver, healing, freedom and life.
Thousands of years later, at the time of Jesus, Jews remain loyal to their God-given identity in these foundational stories and aim to live according to the law embedded in their stories. Now Jewish leaders argued vigorously about the implications of their story and their law. Jesus had a rather popular and perhaps dangerous direction in his Biblical interpretation. He claimed that God’s blessing of all nations and redemption of the oppressed and freedom was underway, under the noses of Rome. And Jesus required that everyone break with systems of oppression and sin in order to receive this new kingdom. There was a baptism to indicate one’s break with systems of oppression and death and one’s entrance into this kingdom. Jesus announced that the kingdom of God, this Shalom Plan would favor the poor, the excluded, and even people of other nations. If the Torah experts were not aligned with the poor, the women, the children, the sick, the excluded, and the foreigners, then Jesus was not afraid to say they were wrong about scripture, wrong about God, wrong about redemption and wrong about resurrection.
Were the Sadducees just pretending to be interested in the fate of this woman after her death? No. It’s so much worse. They were pretending to be interested in which brother will bear the burden of this worthless barren woman in an imagined afterlife. Jesus, by contrast, is genuinely building community that cares for the material and spiritual well-being of widows. Disciples of Jesus learn to see women as dignified human beings regardless of marital state. If you need the God who cares for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the strangers, the outcasts and the sick, then let me introduce you to Jesus Christ. You will not be disappointed. Jesus says, this woman enters the afterlife without any need for a patriarchal marriage; she herself is free and worthy and alive. And you missed her humanity altogether.
This past week one of my New Testament professors died. We weren’t quite expecting it. He taught me to keep learning to read the Bible, to listen for Jesus’ word in a world that is desperate for good news and people who will give their lives in according to a new world order. He regularly visited me in my first pastorate in IA and preached at my ordination service, on April’s Fools day 2001. Willard Swartley was here in town last month and though we were at the same event, we just missed each other. I’m grateful that Ruth passed along his greeting to me. It came as a welcome surprise when I needed the kind of encouragement and support he has offered in my life of ministry.
One brief story. When I was a twenty-something and gingerly holding the possibility of pastoring a church the search committee of the IA congregation who eventually called me to be their pastor read my ministry file. Willard’s daughter-in-law was on the search committee. So she contacted Willard and said, we read this young woman’s application. She sounds like an environmentalist–is she as as bad as so-and-so? Now, when I was told the story I didn’t know the person to whom I was being compared, so that detail is lost to me. But Willard’s reported response I cannot forget. He said: Oh no. She and husband are much worse. And then he proceeded to recommended me to Cedar Falls Mennonite Church. That formal beginning in ministry confirmed the direction of my life, to become a servant of the Word. Wouldn’t you know that the week Willard dies I have to preach on this baffling NT text. Here’s the best I can do.
The Divine Shalom Plan & Our Part
Jesus takes us back to the time when God spoke through a burning bush. Moses had only recently realized that rather than indulging his privilege passing as a high ranking Egyptian he would align himself with oppressed brothers and sisters whose labor was being exploited. God’s covenant to bless all the nations of the world, to give landless people a home was not nullified when the ancestors died or the empire rose. The God of the living, was still working out a Shalom Plan and Moses–who was kind of a mess at the time–had a part to play. There, amidst the flame, in the company of the living ancestors, Moses began a lifelong resistance to empire, a commitment to building up a people of peace, learning and teaching faith in a living God.
Jesus says: to God they are all alive–the ancestors, those whose material and spiritual needs were not fully met in this life. God’s covenant to bless all the nations, free the captives, to bring life to the barren, and raise up a savior is being fulfilled. The message to the Sadducees–the message for us–is that we will either die with Christ, giving our lives in love as part of the Shalom Plan or we will be co-opted in the machinery of death that is all around us.
Over the past two days, nine of us from CMC (Andrea, Veva, Kent, Ben, Brian, Mike, Jason, Art and I) participated in Racial Equity training. We were learning and reviewing a language of structural racism, a history of white affirmative action in the US, and lessons in economics and psychology regarding how systems in our society perpetuate oppression against people of color for the economic advantage of people considered white. If you overheard a snippet of this training, it would seem too doomsday. Like the Sadducees of long ago, many white people and many persons of color in the US would prefer to believe that law-abiding, good intentions are enough for God’s promised life to be granted in this age. But, as one of our trainers said “an organized lie is more powerful than a disordered truth.” Jesus would have us get the truth in order, so that we might not succumb to racist lies dressed in law, folded into good intentions and poisoning narratives of the self-made American family. Hallelujah! Jesus will work with whatever scrap of truth we have and build from there the prophetic resistance and holy wisdom we need to play our part as people of peace in a nation bound by racist oppression.
According to Jesus, resurrection is in the DNA of Israel’s whole story. God will keep God’s covenant, the Shalom Plan, for all the living–for all who need a blessing, a future, a home, a purpose, and a God who would hear our pain, and deliver freedom and peace. As the church we see Jesus as the quintessential evidence of God’s power of resurrection. As one Pharisee put it: In Christ consider yourselves dead to sin, and alive to God. (Rom 6:11)
Last Sunday during our All Saints Day ritual there was no burning bush, yet we worshipped amidst candle flame reminders of those who have died, yet are alive to God. Next year I’ll light a candle for Willard. And perhaps by then some of us will be represented by flickering candles too. Human beings have always speculated about the meaning of our deaths and the possibility of life beyond death. Religious traditions, ours included, have both conclusions and uncertainties about these matters. I don’t suppose this sermon resolves all your personal or theological queries about resurrection, but perhaps it helps. Don’t we want to live in such a way that by the time we die, we have already given our lives for Christ and the Shalom Plan for the whole world?
The wisdom from Job suggests some certainty: I know that my Redeemer lives and at the last will stand upon the earth, and after death, then in my flesh I shall see God. Some days, I have that kind of confidence, that after death, in Christ there is more life to come. Mysterious perhaps, but that doesn’t preclude it being true, does it? Other days I have a reverent agnosticism about life after death. Who knows? Not I.
Today I see resurrection–especially Jesus’ resurrection–as divine confirmation of a Shalom Plan for the whole community of the earth–people, plants, water, animals, elements and air. And I see resurrection as a way to name the power we share as followers of Jesus to play our part, to resist the lies, to give our lives. How do you see resurrection today? And what does resurrection mean for how you will live until you die?
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