The Last Things: Resurrection

3rd Last Sunday in the Church Year

Luke 20:27-40

We confess it regularly without so much as batting an eye.  In fact, we’ll do so again in a few minutes with the Creed: “I believe…in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”  But under that simple and somewhat innocuous statement lies all sorts of questions and fears and superstitions…and a good bit of religious silliness.

In our Gospel Reading the Sadducees are taking point.  So we’ll let them embarrass themselves with Jesus…and along the way perhaps we’ll learn a thing or two from their confusion.

So who are the Sadducees?  We don’t bump into them as often as we do the Pharisees, but the Sadducees are another of the political-religious factions in the Israel of Jesus’ day.  Generally members of the upper class, prosperous, intellectual.  Their core belief was that this life is all there is.  When you’re dead, you’re dead.  Game over.

They held only the first five books of the Old Testament as authoritative, the books of Moses.  And their view of life is that a person ought to live a good, moral life—as Moses spells it out—get the material rewards from God which such a life earns, and be content with that.  The Sadducees are like the cultured despisers of religion in our day, like the new atheists.  Highly educated and very materialistic about life and death.

Somewhere along the way Jesus has said enough things publicly about the resurrection to have earned their animosity.  So the Sadducees confront Jesus publicly.  They cite a statute from the Law of Moses.  Good ol’ authoritative Moses.  When Israel entered the Promised Land, the key thing was to ensure that the following generations held on to their tribal inheritance.  So if a husband and wife had no children to inherit the land, and the husband died, well, this law ensured that the man’s brother would marry the widow to have children for his brother’s sake.  Now, allowances were made in the Law of Moses to marry multiple women for the keeping of this law.  But the whole point of that law was to protect a family’s inheritance.

Now the Sadducees take that law and use it to demonstrate (in their minds) the absurdity of a resurrection.  Seven brothers, one seven-fold widow who marries each one of them…so who gets her in the resurrection?

St. Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus is doing the whole time this bunch is laying out their trap.  Does He look at them?  Does He roll His eyes and check his cell phone for text messages?  But the instant the Sadducees proudly finish their conundrum, Jesus takes only a few words to blow them out of the water.  But…Jesus’ answer raises all sorts of other questions.

He replies, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”

Huh?!  He’s saying that life in the resurrection is different, absolutely different, from the life we now know.  The Sadducees brought up marriage, so Jesus uses marriage as an example, but all the ordinary events and relationships by which we track our journey though this mortal life—marriage, childbirth, graduations, retirements, and the like—these things do not characterize our life in eternity, because resurrection life is not merely an extension of this life.  It’s something new, wholly different.

So does that mean we’re not going to know our spouses, our families, our friends?  Doesn’t sound good!  But Jesus isn’t saying that we won’t know these significant people or that there is no intimacy in the resurrection.  What He’s saying is that it will be different…that doesn’t mean it’ll be worse different. It’ll be something new, something more!

St. Paul emphasizes this difference in the long 15th chapter of I Corinthians, where he insists that the body that dies and is buried is not the body that is resurrected.  That was true for Jesus!  The body of Jesus raised on Easter is not the same body that died on Good Friday.  The mortal has put on immortality.  The perishable has been clothed with the imperishable.  Changed.  Different.

So in this life we grow and develop.  But the resurrection doesn’t just pick up where this life ends, as though we would be a baby for eternity if we die in infancy, or an old man for eternity if we die at a great age.  It’s not going to be the same.  But that doesn’t mean it will be less…with God it will be more, always more.  Different!

And yet…for all the differences, there is still a sameness between this life and the resurrection life.  Quoting from the Book of Exodus, which the Sadducees held as authoritative, Jesus mentions Moses and the burning bush.  There God said to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”  And Jesus says, God wasn’t speaking about history;  He was speaking about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who live the resurrection life with Him.  Not dead.  Alive.  Different.  And yet, they are still Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Just as Jesus is still Jesus on Easter.  Different, very much so!  And yet, the same Jesus.

“Equal to the angels…sons of God…sons of the resurrection,” Jesus explains.  That first one is a slap at the Sadducees’ disbelief in angels, but the other two, oh, that’s Jesus language.  “Son of God.”  “Son of the resurrection.”  As a theologian of the early Church put it, “In Christ God became what we are, so that we in Christ might become what God is.”

That’s why we don’t become ghosts when we die, floating around in some shadowy existence.  Oh, there may be ghosts…but ghosts are something demonic, not angelic.

Nor do we have an immortal soul, as popular as that notion is!  That’s not a Christian teaching.  That’s an ancient Greek idea, Plato, to be exact, who held that some part of us is immortal, and when we die God has to put that immortal part somewhere…either with Him in heaven if He likes it or if not, down in the fire of hell…or maybe send it off to buff it up a bit in purgatory.

But we are not immortal.  Only God is immortal!  But in the resurrection we are given to share in His immortality.  In the resurrection we are still us…but oh so different, so very much more us than we can imagine.  It will be life in a body, not a spirit…just like Jesus on Easter.  For in Christ we will be “sons of the resurrection.”  In Christ we will be “sons of God.” We will be very different…and yet we will still be us!

Will be?  Ah, that’s the other point in the Sadducees’ confusion…and, often, ours.  The way the Bible speaks it’s clear that the resurrection belongs to the last things, the things of the Last Day.  As St. Paul writes, when Christ returns, “the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we [who are living at the time and have not yet died, we] will be changed.”

The Last Day teaches us how to live our lives fully in this world, looking ahead to that which is yet to come.  The emphasis on the Last Day teaches us how to treat the dead.  When we die, our body is laid to rest, to “sleep” in the earth until the Last Day.  That body is not just the former container for our soul as the Greeks thought.  It’s not just mortal remains.  It’s us.  We are laid to rest when we die…to await the resurrection on the Last Day.

Ah…but especially in St. Luke, that day is also called “Today.”  The Last Day is Today with Jesus.  As He said to that thief on the cross, “Today You shall be with Me in Paradise.”  Not just the man’s soul.  The man himself, with Christ, in Paradise, Today!  Yes, the thief still died.  He was buried.  His body decayed because the Last Day has not yet come.  And yet, “Today” that man, with Jesus, was resurrected to life everlasting.

When God says to Moses that His name is “I AM,” He tells us that time—past, present, and future—is all wrapped up in an eternal “now” for God.  We see time only as a line stretching ahead and behind us.  But for God, that line is all wrapped up like a ball of string.  Birth, death, resurrection, the very first human being, the very last, it’s all a present reality, a Today, with God.

So we have another paradox.  Not only is the resurrection very different from and yet same as this life, so also the resurrection is on the Last Day even as it is Today in Christ.  But all sorts of Sadduccean confusions emerge when we try to reconcile the paradox.  The Bible doesn’t do that.  In some places, we die and we await the resurrection.  In other places, it’s “Today we have crossed over from death to life.  Today we will live, even though we die, and in Christ we will never die.”  Not either/or…both/and.

But all of this is held together in Christ.  In Christ, we now live our days, we bury our dead, in hope, looking forward to that which is yet to come—the Last Day, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  And yet, in Christ, we also know that now we have died, been buried, and are raised again; Holy Baptism.  So even while we wait in Christ for our own Easter, that Easter is ours today in Christ, already raised up again, already dwelling in the fullness of that resurrection life. Now/not yet!

The Sadducees in their materialism couldn’t grasp this. Truth be told, neither can we.  But while our minds will always stagger at how these paradoxes fit together…all we really need to know is that in Christ, time and eternity, death and resurrection, are held as one.  And we are in Christ.  In Him we live, we die, we are raised up, and seated at the right hand of God…us…the same us and yet a new us simultaneously; on the Last Day and Today at the same time.  And all of this mystery, us included, is hidden with Christ in God.