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Sunday November 8,
Luke 20:27- 38
Focus Text: "Indeed they can not die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection." [20:36]
A View From Beyond the Grave
"If mortals die, will they live again?" Job's ancient question [14:14] has never become irrelevant. It is as vital today as it was the day he asked it. Is there life after death? Those of us who have been raised with the Apostle's Creed have affirmed since the days of our youth, "I believe in.... the life everlasting..."
Those of us who have been there can attest to the passion that suddenly accompanies this question when someone we love has died. It is amazing how the issue of everlasting life or resurrection can be launched like a rocket from the academic to the practical for us pastors and Christian teachers. It happens every time our very first parishioner -- who has lost the love of their life -- looks us right in the eye and says, "Pastor, do you believe in life after death?"
The tone is quite different when it is a classroom debate where people present their best intellectual arguments. There may be passion in both discussions but one is fed by academic and intellectual fervor while the other is a product of personal and emotional pain.
Interest in the issue of life after death is huge if the sale of Betty J. Eaedie's book, Embraced by the Light, is any indication. Her runaway bestseller, written twenty years after her near death experience, details her trip into the light. She reports lengthy conversations with Jesus who tells her all kinds of things about life and living -- and how wonderful things will be after we die. One reader wrote, "This book makes you think, feel, dream and gives you hope for the future. You will be captive and will not want the book to end. You will want copies for friends and loved ones. The best account of life after death I have ever read." [From a review on Amazon.Com] ¹
Another indication of the strength of this issue is the fact that an entire CBS 48 Hrs episode was devoted to "near death experience. It was chosen as one of their re-runs last summer. [8/6/98] Not surprisingly, many scientists explained the phenomenon of the near death experience as "electro-bio-chemical" activity of brain cells under crisis. True believers, on the other hand are profoundly impacted by what they describe as a "real" experience that changes their life.
This issue of life after death touches all of us -- sometimes with enormous intensity.
I will never forget being called to the home of a young, divorced mother who had taken her life. Her two sons, aged five and six and a half were in a bedroom with their bewildered father who left the room and said simply, "The boys need you." They were filled with questions. "Is mommy in heaven? How long does it take to get there? Can we go and see her? Will she know us when we get there? What is it like in heaven? Is there anything to eat -- anything to do -- a place to sleep? Can I go there and be with her?" The questions and tears rolled out like a flood.
The feeling of this experience was certainly unlike my seminary seminar debate over whether Paul Tillich believed in life after death. (There was, by the way, no resolution of that question as various quotes from Tillich's writings seemed to support one view -- then another.)
In today's scripture lesson Jesus is drawn into a discussion of resurrection. Not by people who cared about the issue for personal reasons, but by religious leaders who were determined to demonstrate how absurd the idea of resurrection is. In the process of his answer, Jesus engages the academic side of the issue, but at the same time he gives some clues which speak to our hearts in times of loss.
A bit of background on today's scripture will help us understand the reading. In Luke's narrative, Jesus has entered Jerusalem for his final week. He is constantly engaged by the priests, scribes and religious officials who are trying to bait him. They hope he will make a public statement which will go against Jewish law. Every time Jesus speaks, agents of the establishment are waiting to find some charge against him.
On this particular occasion, Jesus had just shut the mouth of one band of disingenuous questioners when a group of Sadducees stepped up to the plate. They did not believe in resurrection of the dead and proposed a question to show how ridiculous the idea was. Actually, they had no interest in honest dialogue -- their minds were already made up on the issue. They were not personally dealing with pain or grief -- they just want to make Jesus look like a dunce.
So who were these Sadducees? ²
The Sadducees were a minority group primarily consisting of the more wealthy families, mostly from priestly and aristocratic clans. They generally collaborated with Roman officials, not wanting to rock the boat since they were doing quite well with the way things were -- thank you! Most Jewish people supported the Pharisees because they resisted any encroachment of Greek and Roman culture on their religion and identity.
For our purposes today, the key issue is that the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. [A handy way to remember this is an old line taught to children in Sunday school. "The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection so they were -- sad-you-see."]
Old Testament law required the brother of a man who died childless to marry the widow so that the deceased brother would have his lineage continued by the brother. The Sadducees propose a question to Jesus.
"Supposing," they say, " A man dies leaving no children and his six brothers in turn marry the woman and then die without children. Then the woman dies. Who will be her husband in the resurrection?"
The Sadducees made the same error many people make. They take life as we experience it now and project it into life after death. Heaven, they suppose, is some kind of wonderful theme park where everything is as it is now -- only perfect. Everyone is happy, healthy, wealthy and wise -- life is one continuous afternoon on a Caribbean beach and ice cream contains no cholesterol. It's the "better place" people mean when they casually affirm that a departed soul is "better off".
In other words, it doesn't work to simply project this life, minus the negatives, into the next life and assume that's what resurrection is all about. Jesus' answer to the Sadducees translates to something like, "People don't get married in the resurrection and there is no need to produce heirs. Everyone in the resurrection is a child of God -- they don't need the equivalent of earthly parents. In fact, they don't die anymore, so there's no necessity for the child rearing function of marriage. Heaven isn't what you are making it out to be."
The Meaning (the view from beyond the grave)
So what is heaven all about? What does the bible say about it?
Physically? Well, the streets are pure gold and yet transparent as glass. There are twelve gates all constructed of one giant pearl each. There is no sun or moon or artificial lighting because God is the light and Jesus is a lamp. A river runs from God's throne through the center of heaven -- the river is bright as crystal and it is the water of life. The ancient tree of life is on either side of the river and the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. So says the book of Revelation. [Rev. 21:21ff]
Obviously words fail and the writer of the book of Revelation is reaching out for descriptive language to describe something that simply can not be depicted by human experience. Most people know the "Pearly Gates" as meaning the entrance to heaven, but words can not describe the reality.
How about the nature of life in the resurrection? What does the bible say about that? There will be no sickness or physical infirmity. No one will ever have to hear a diagnosis of terminal illness. There will be no crying or tears and that must mean constant happiness. There will be no sickness and no death. No wakes, no funerals and no loss of loved ones. [Rev. 21:4ff]
Once again, words fall short of being able to describe what it must mean to live in the presence and complete peace of God. It will be wonderful, the writer affirms, but the questions still abound.
Will infants be infants and old people be old? Will grampa walk with a limp and smoke his old pipe? And if he doesn't, would he still really be grampa? And if there are no husband-wife relationships, how will I relate to my husband or wife? All Jesus indicates in this particular passage is that there is no death and there is no need for husband and wife relationships to produce family. God will be our parent and we will not die.
The reality is, there is no complete description of heaven or resurrection life³ in the bible. Clearly, any descriptions would have to be accommodated to our human ability to understand. If we could understand it would not be heaven. Trying to understand heaven is like the family from Kansas who tried to explain to their little girl what it is like to see the Pacific Ocean. They were on their way to California. When they finally reached San Francisco and pointed beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, the child said, "I've seen the Pacific Ocean." How little we know!
Jesus does say that there is resurrection life where death is no longer a condition of life. And there are two powerful biblical ideas which are important to all of us who look for strength and comfort when we face the terrible grief of separation from someone we love.
First of all, nothing, including death, can separate us from God's love. Secondly, wherever Jesus Christ is, he promised his followers they would be there too. Allow me to put these two ideas in the terms I used when I was with those two boys who had lost their mother.
"You know what boys? I don't know everything about heaven yet, because I have not been there yet. But -- there are a couple of things I know for sure because they are things the bible tells us and I trust what the bible says about this.
First of all, I know that there is nothing that can take us away from God's love. Even when we die, we will go to be with God because God loves us and the bible says that nothing can take us away from God's love -- even when we die. (Rom 8:38-39)
The other thing I know for sure is this. Jesus promised the people who loved him that he was going to get a place ready for them and that he was going to bring them to be with him for ever and ever. And if we are going to be with Jesus forever, that is the most wonderful thing! (John 14:1-3)
And so you see, the view from beyond the grave simple and yet strong. There is resurrection. There is "the life everlasting'"after the life temporal. Death and taxes are not the bottom line. And yet the view from beyond the grave is still a mystery. Perhaps we can not improve on Paul's, "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." (I. Cor. 13:12)
May God grant us the peace that comes from knowing that those who love God can never be separated from the love of God. And may we draw courage and inspiration from this "hope" for the living of these days!
Notes On The Text
¹ Betty Eadie's book is frankly filled with more than questionable theology. Her claims of direct revelation are dubious, but the tremendous appeal of the book to unchurched and churched people alike speaks about a concern that needs examination. Eadie's theology and even experience are summarily dismissed by many pastors and theologians -- but we dare not dismiss the concern in our parishioner's lives that is so vulnerable to this kind of material. What does it mean when Christian folk elevate books like this to the level of biblical revelation? You might do an alternative sermon on this issue. See below -- Immortality or Resurrection?
² The Sadducees' question is based on the Levirate law of Marriage. (Deut. 25:5) They were few in number, but wealthy and happy with the status quo. Almost all the priests and aristocrats were Sadducees. They accepted only the written books of Moses and did not believe in angels, spirits or resurrection. While the Pharisees taught that life was planned and ordered by God, the Sadducees believed in unrestricted free-will. The Sadducees, in contrast with the Pharisees, did not believe in the coming of Messiah.
³ You will need to decide whether to go into the issue of resurrection versus immortality if you are using this homily. If you wish to do that, you could pick some material from the alternate sermon on this passage and conclude with the notion that "resurrection" is the "hope" of the Christian and that this has little to do with the speculations of immortality that fill our culture with respect to this issue. Or -- use the conclusion we've suggested in the sermon above and choose another opportunity to discuss the important difference between the philosophical notion of the "immortality of the soul" and our Christian doctrine of resurrection.
v.27 To see the passion aroused by the issue of resurrection, see Acts 4:1 where the priests, temple guard and Sadducees came to arrest Peter and the disciples for teaching "the resurrection" from the dead. See also Paul's very nifty ruse in dividing those who were deciding his fate. (Acts 23:6 -- "But perceiving that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!")
v.34 In Mark's account of this incident, Jesus begins his rejoinder with, "...Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? He goes on to answer their question with an example from the books of Moses which they accepted and which they believed had no teaching on resurrection. A wonderful response really -- from a Galilean peasant to the aristocratic, elitist Sadducees.
vv.34-35 The words "this age" (ho aion houtos - used nine times in the N.T.) is contrasted with "that age" (ho aion ekeynos - used five times in the N.T. referring to eternal life or life beyond the grave).
v.35 "Are considered worthy" (kataxioo = deemed entirely deserving - worthy) See Matt. 10:11,13 where "worthy" is translated from "axios" "Deserving", "praiseworthy" In Mt. likely a person who honors God. The text here says nothing about how one gets to be worthy or the process of justification.
"Like angels" -- they do not "become" angels, but are like angels in that they no longer die.
vv.37-38 God's covenant with the Patriarchs was not simply temporal. Since the relationship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is everlasting so they would share also in the resurrection.
vv.39-40 Though not a part of the lectionary selection, these verses contain an affirmation that Jesus' argument was convincing as "they no longer dared to ask him another question."
Alternate Sermon Ideas
Luke 20:27-38 ~ Immortality or Resurrection
You might choose to take a separate course with this passage and address the issue of the difference between the Christian doctrine of Resurrection and the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul.
Immortality of the Soul A Greek idea. The soul and body are sharply contrasted in Greek thought. The soul has an independent, immortal existence apart from the body. The soul is "imprisoned" in the body and death is freedom from the body. The body and earthly existence is evil.
The notion of immortality of the soul lies behind much of contemporary thinking about life after death and the popularity of books like Barbara Eaedie's, "Embraced by the Light". There is a wide based assumption that the "sprit" goes somewhere after death and thus... to a "better place." That "better place" and notion of being "better off" is not grounded in anything except wishful thinking. If I go somewhere when I die, then that "somewhere" must be "better" than here".
Resurrection of the Person Jesus spoke of "resurrection from the dead" (20:35) Resurrection is a direct intervention of God in the life of one who has died. The word resurrection is "anastasis" in Greek. It means literally to "a standing up once again". Not a continuation of the spirit, but a bringing alive of the person before God.
Resurrection, which leads to life eternal is not something inherent in human beings, but is a result of the action of Christ. John 10:27-28 " My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish." We do not live forever simply because we have an immortal soul which persists beyond death. We gain eternal life and participate in resurrection because we hear the voice of Christ and follow him. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.(John 6:27)
Jesus says resurrection is for "those who are considered worthy of a place in that age..."
Conclusion You fill in the blanks here. What does it mean to be considered "worthy of a place?" Trust and faith? Obedience and faithfulness? Hearing and following?
II Thessalonians 2:1-5; 13-17 ~ Beware of Y2K
Paul wrote his second letter to the church at Thessalonica in part to correct the idea that the second coming of Christ is so near that one could quit his job and simply await the arrival of Christ. The "Day of the Lord" has not already arrived.
Y2K is "The Year 2000". The religious frenzy has already begun and it will grow until the year 2000 arrives. Predictions have begun about the coming of Christ at the turn of another millennium and you may expect a flood of crazed religious activity until the millennium has passed.
Dire predictions about the end of the world will persist along with the prediction of computer crashes and economic disaster. The year 2000 will bring about a computer holocaust according to many computer experts. There will be economic crisis and international confusion.
Paul warns his readers not to be shaken by the predictions of the coming of Christ and give two important clues for the living of the Christian life in light of the consummation of history.
1. The consummation of history will not come until there has been an absolute collapse of goodness and lawlessness reigns. Something other than God will claim to be God. There is a warning here against allowing anything other than God to have our worship and ultimate allegiance.
2. No matter what happens in the outside world, we are to remain faithful in the inside world. Do not exchange the faith you have been given and taught for something else. In other words... "Hang tight."
3. Paul offers the prayer that God will give us strength to remain faithful and hope to comfort us in the tough times.
Call to Worship (Based on Psalm 17:1-9)
Leader: Come fill this place with your
presence O Lord,
People: We call upon you for you hear us when we pray.
Leader: We come to celebrate your unchanging love,
People: For in you we find refuge from our burdens.
Leader: Watch over us O God, according to your tender love,
Unison: Hide us from all adversity, in the shadow of your wings!
Prayer of Dedication
It is the "Good News" of your love for us that has brought us to this place, O Lord of all. It is the promise of life and life everlasting that strengthens us for our daily lives. It is the profusion of blessings you have poured into our lives that enables us to honor you with these gifts. Amen.
Go out in joy, all you people of the Lord!
Hold fast to the love that has redeemed you,
to the hope that will lead you to everlasting joy!
Share with the world,
The life that has been given to you,
To give away! Amen!