Sermon #157 St. James the Less #64 11/10/19
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and 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. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but 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. And 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. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive." -Luke 20:27-38
A man died and went to the gates of heaven where he met Saint Peter. Peter said to him, "I have looked at your Book of Life and you are welcome into heaven under one condition."
The man replied, "Yes, Saint Peter. And what is that condition?"
Peter said to the man, "You must spell the word: love."
So the man spelled the word, "L - O - V - E" then Peter admitted him into heaven.
As the man walks in, Peter tells the man to watch the gate until he returns. Peter had something to discuss with the Lord. Peter reminds the man that he must ask whoever comes to the gate, to spell the word.
After a short period of time, the man's wife shows up at the gate.
"What are YOU doing here?" he demands of her.
"Well," she said, "on the way home from your funeral, there was an accident and I died."
The man told her, "Alright, but before you enter heaven you must be able to spell a word."
"What word is that?" she asked.
He looked right at her and said, "Czechoslovakia."
What happens after we die? What will be waiting for us on the other end? Or should I ask, who will be waiting for us on the other end? I know if I have to spell Czechoslovakia then I’m in trouble.
But all of our readings this morning address in one way or another this question about life after death.
This question brings about a lot of anxiety for many people. Some think about the afterlife a lot, and others don’t, either because they have peace about what lies ahead or simply because they are too busy living life to think much about death.
But even those who don’t typically think about death and what comes after, are confronted with the question either when they have lost a pet or are sitting at a funeral or when they themselves, or someone they love, receive a serious diagnosis.
It’s in those difficult moments that death and the afterlife are in the forefront of our mind.
But time and again in our context this important question gets muddled by an oversimplified debate about heaven and hell. For some reason Americans are obsessed with trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out. We debate with different faiths and even different Christian denominations about who will reside in heaven or hell.
First Century Debate
In Jesus’ day there was a debate as well, but it didn’t focus on heaven and hell and who was going where. The debate within Judaism at the time was over if there was an afterlife or not.
The two major factions at that time were the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and both groups represented a very different way of interpreting and living out the Torah.
The Pharisees appear quite often in the gospels, and we normally hear about them getting onto Jesus or vice versa. They were the teachers of the law and were very popular at the time. Part of the reason that they reappear in the gospels over and over again, and most of the times they’re chastising Jesus is because Jesus held many Pharisaic beliefs.
The Pharisees believed in life after death, the resurrection of the body, and they believed in angels as well. Many of the Pharisees gave Jesus a hard time because they viewed him as a radical Pharisee, but a Pharisee, nonetheless. Jesus held many of their viewpoints, but he also liked to take it a step further or correct a part of it, and that’s why they typically butted heads.
The Sadducees on the other hand were wealthy; they were typically merchants, aristocratic families, or were a part of the priesthood in Jerusalem. And shockingly, they didn’t believe in life after death, the resurrection of the body, or even angels.
Forget heaven and hell, the arguments during the first century in cafes, in homes, and at synagogues focused on if there was life after death.
And those debates could turn into heated arguments at times, just like we sometimes get in with a family member or friend who is a part of a different denomination.
So hopefully you now see the irony in our gospel lesson which starts by saying, “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection…” And then they proceed to ask Jesus a question about the resurrection.
Jesus answers their question by saying that God is the God of the living not the dead, for even those who have passed away are alive in the Lord.
A few years later, after Jesus had ascended to heaven, his followers would make a similar argument whenever a Pharisee, a Sadducee, or a Gentile wanted to debate them about their views of eternal life.
They made one significant addition to Jesus’ argument though. Rather than simply saying that God is the God of the living, they were now proclaiming that God had in fact suffered and died so that they might live…That somehow death had been conquered, and now nothing separated them from God, not even sin. And all of that had been accomplished in the Resurrected One, Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s no surprise then that these early Christians paid close attention to passages like our reading from Job this morning that foretold of such a savior.
Job says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth…then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
You may remember the story of poor Job in the Bible who lost everything. He lost his family, his wealth, his property, and worst of all it seems like God allowed it to happen.
On top of all that, Job’s friends tell him that he should just curse God and die already. But in the midst of that heartache, Job looks at his friends and says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives…and my eyes shall behold [him], and not another.”
Job, like those early Christians and like us today, proclaim that there is more than just this life, and what awaits us on the other side may be a great mystery, but there is one thing for sure: our Redeemer lives and it will be proven to us that we have not been led astray, for we shall see him and not another.
But let’s be honest, sometimes that’s hard to get our minds around, and even harder to believe, especially if we are thinking about our own mortality or someone we love.
I don’t know about you, but I have had a few moments in my life where I have just felt in my gut that we were made for more than this. I almost consider it a deep longing for more than what this world has to offer. And it normally hits me when I’m alone walking through the woods or looking up at the night sky. Maybe you’ve had this experience too.
The writer C.S. Lewis says that we all have this longing deep within our soul for a particular reason. He says that “Creatures are not born with desire unless satisfaction for those desires exist.” So for example, babies are hungry because there is such thing as food. Ducks desire to swim in part because there water. “If [we] find [ourselves] a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that [we were] made for another world.”
The pleasures of this world were never meant to satisfy us, but only to arouse our imagination, to suggest the real thing that is not of this world. The things of this world are but “a copy, or echo, or mirage” of the world to come.
Lewis ends the section by saying, “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same” (Mere Christianity).
In short, what he’s saying is that we desire for more than this life, because there is more than this life. If we talked about the afterlife in this manner I think it would greatly reshape our oversimplified arguments about heaven and hell.
Too many times our debates about the afterlife center on heaven RATHER than on the true Redeemer whom we shall see by our side and not another. People talk more about wanting to go to heaven, than they do about wanting to be with Jesus.
We must ask ourselves: is heaven the goal, or is being with Jesus the goal?
A priest posed a question to me a while back. She said, “What if we got to heaven and the devil greeted us at the pearly gates, and said, ‘Surprise! You have a choice: you can either be in heaven with me for all eternity, or in hell with Jesus. Which have you longed for more? the pleasures of heaven or simply being with Jesus no matter where he is?”
This deep longing that we have in our soul for something more, for meaning and love and abundant life can only be found in the person of Jesus, the Resurrected One, the Redeemer who lives.
He is what our hearts hunger and thirst for, and our souls will ultimately be restless until they rest in him.
And come to think of it, if indeed it’s the case that Jesus is in hell, then I guess it’s okay that at the pearly gates we totally misspell Czechoslovakia.