Pentecost 25 | Proper 27(C) | Revised Common Lectionary
No Death in God, by Pastor Fred Kinsey
“Till death do us part!” “Pastor, can we just leave that last line out?! I don’t really want to think about death on my wedding day.”
I have been encouraging of couples for a long time to be creative in their marriage vows: to go ahead and re-write the seven choices of vows we offer them, make them their own, or even to take a stab at writing something new! Not many couples have wanted to do that. And the one time I can think of that they did, it turned into a disaster, and we had to ask the couple to start over! What they had managed to come up with, and this was a second marriage for both, was a kind of a laundry list of what they expected from each other – you will this, and you will that, for me, instead of, I promise, this and that, to you. “It’s supposed to be the life-long promises you make to your spouse, we counseled them, as gently, but firmly, as possible.
Most vows end in either, this poetic Elizabethan, “Till death do us part,” or the more modern, “As long as we both shall live.” Either way, they remind us that marriage is for life, for this life. We don’t usually consider the repercussions of what this means, that these vows won’t be needed in the resurrection life, where all things are made new. Where, as Jesus said, “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. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection,” he answered the Sadducees.
Resurrection from the dead had become a common belief of the Jews in inter-testamental times, the 2 centuries, in between the writing of the book of Daniel and Jesus’ ministry. The only hold outs were the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the elites of Judaism, Temple priests who had mostly made friends with Israel’s overlords, the Romans, and who were into protecting ‘tradition’ and ‘keeping things the way they always were.’ There was another difference too. Everyone else, the Pharisees and the Scribes, had accepted all the other books of the bible: all the prophets, and the wisdom literature, like King David’s Psalms, for example. But the Sadducees only accepted the Torah, the first five books of the bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Perhaps they meant no disrespect, but to our ears, the example of marriage they used sounds crass, to say the least. In trying to trick Jesus, they use a law from the Torah that was meant to protect widows: if a woman’s husband dies and they have no children, the next oldest son is required by law to marry her, and give her children. Becoming a widow, and having no legal source of income, without son or husband, most always meant destitution. So the law itself, was a life-giving thing, in that it guarded against poverty. Except that, women were always property of one man or another.
Well it just so happened that there was a famous case in those days about the Jewish populist freedom fighters, the seven Maccabee brothers. They rescued Israel for a time, from the Syrians, who had desecrated and demolished the Temple, but then they were executed for their beliefs, which they refused to renounce. The reason it was such a well-known story, was the fame of the Maccabees. Their liberation of Israel is what the Jews still commemorate in the yearly festival of Hanukkah!
It was the martyrdom of the Maccabees then that fully brought the belief in resurrection, first formulated in the prophets, and especially Daniel, to widespread acceptance. Their inspiration brought to awareness, the belief, that God never lets the people of faith perish. Death is not final, as long as God, the God of the living, has the final word. And so the seven brothers were considered immortal.
So when the Sadducees come to Jesus with no other purpose than to trick him with this well developed biblical trap, they are pretty sure they have him cold. They use the Maccabee story, conscious that this was an example taken directly from the resurrection camp that Jesus was part of, and they would use it against him, and it would make catching him in the trap, all the more delicious. If after seven brothers die, and the woman still dies childless, whose wife will she be in the afterlife, they ask Jesus, laughing into their sleeves?
But Jesus gives that brilliant, though not altogether clear, answer. BTW, Jesus says, there won’t be any marriage in the resurrection! “Indeed they cannot die anymore.” “There will neither be marrying nor giving in marriage.” “They are like angles,” says Jesus.
That part isn’t so hard to understand. But then, Jesus, to answer the Sadducees from the Torah, their own scriptures, about how the resurrection from the dead, was real, cites Moses, the traditional author of the Torah, who at the burning bush called “the Lord… the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now,” says Jesus, “[the Lord God] is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to [God] all of them” – the three Patriarchs – “are alive.”
It’s not all that clear at first what Jesus is saying. Not only has he reframed the Sadducees question in his own terms, but he is talking about things we always have a hard time processing: resurrection from the dead; angels; and the age to come. But they are of first importance for understanding our faith, here and now. Jesus came to announce and enact, that the realm of God and resurrection life, was now being revealed and initiated, in him. As the anointed one of God, “Jesus was able to imagine God in such a way that his whole vision was colored by God as radically alive… as in no way shaded by death.” Jesus gave us “an indication of the sort of power which characterizes God… This ‘power,’ this quality which God always is, is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God,” as theologian James Alison has said (Raising Abel, James Alison, chapter 2).
Like the Sadducees, we are often slow to understand the realm of God that has dawned in the resurrection life of Jesus. We tend to fall back on the rules and the scriptures of old, because we lose our edge, lose touch with the living power of the Spirit that is calling us from the burning bush. We not only are bound by this world of death, we think we can escape it, simply by ignoring it’s unpleasant reminders, as if we can just leave out the word ‘death’ from our promises and vows, and thereby, have life.
These are not easy times for people of faith in this rapidly changing world. Who are we in this post-modern world, this relativistic time? So much has been revealed, and yet, the wool is pulled over our eyes in ever new ways. What is faith when it is not handed to us by our parents at birth? What is church and membership in this age of decline? How is integration of cultures and races in the church the same or different than in the world? Is this space sacred when Mozart and Merlot is served up, or when the Chicago Chamber Choir or the Unity Players perform here? What does sacred place mean?
So, we definitely have our own issues! One thing we can learn today, from Luke’s gospel, is that trying to trick one another, trying to prove one another wrong to win and puff ourselves up, is not very Jesus-like.
And so, that’s why I’m excited to work with Partners for Sacred Places, who is putting on our workshop, New Dollars, New Partners, next Saturday. They do not have all the answers to these questions. But they understand the practical and theological arguments, and are finding creative and spirit filled ways to address them. And so, more than most, I think they are able to help us continue the conversation and planning we have been having, here in this place, about our Vision for Unity.
God is the God of the living, calling us closer, calling us home, calling us forward into an always unknown future. That’s no trick. And we know, as a people of faith, that we often have to pass through death, on our way to resurrection and new life. But there, God has already been waiting for us, just as we are confident, God is here now, walking by our side, “until death do us part.”