a sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 27C]
This is a bit of vulnerability here, but I must admit that back when I was trying to figure out whether or not I felt called to seminary and a possible public role in the church one of the things that I really struggled with was whether or not I could handle all the religious questions that I thought would come my way. It’s not that I didn’t like to ponder theology and matters of faith, but I worried that I would grow weary of being “that guy” in every social situation in my future who would end up fielding everyone’s questions about God or the church. It’s kind of like how I imagine people who are doctors probably end up talking about people’s medical symptoms even when they’re not at the office, or how car mechanics end up hearing people talk about noises their cars are making. The people who probably have it the worst in this vein are the people who work in I/T. They never really get a day off. Every time we run across an issue with our computer or our router we feel entitled to their advice or help. That’s what I feared about being seen as an “expert” in religion. Would I ever be up to all these questions, especially considering that religion can be so controversial? What if I gave a wrong answer?
However, I came to realize at some point that it’s not just seminarians or church professionals who end up being seen as religious experts. I imagine that you have figured out from your own experience that once you’ve been identified with Christian faith, you can end up being the one who receives the religious questions people have. I’m sure many of you deal with the “what do you believe about this?” or “What does your faith/church say about that?” I have come to appreciate that faith often strengthens and deepens through the process of asking better and better questions, struggling with them constantly can also be wearying.
I wonder if that’s how Jesus ever felt. I mean, he gets everybody’s questions, and he gets really hard ones. His own disciples ask him a lot of things. Every time he turns around it seems like the Pharisees are pressing him on some religious matter why don’t his followers engage in ritual handwashing? Why does he pluck grain on the Sabbath day? His entire trial with Pontius Pilate is a essentially a battery of questions. Come to think of it, there was a Prayer of the Day in the old green hymnal, the hymnal before this one, appointed for one Sunday in each fall that really drove the point home: “Our Lord Jesus, you have endured the doubts and foolish questions of every generation. Forgive us for trying to be judge over you, and grant us the confident faith to acknowledge you as Lord.”
When Jesus finally enters Jerusalem, which we hear about in this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus really gets a whole bunch of doubts and questions. The Sadducees think up one particularly foolish one that is actually a front for trying to be judge over Jesus. The Sadducees were a group of elite Jewish scholars we don’t know much about because their beliefs were tied so closely to the Temple life in Jerusalem and when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70 it basically wiped their whole denomination out.
What we do know is that they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or in the life of the world to come. That was not part of their belief system, for whatever reason. They were in an ongoing debate with other Jewish groups about this topic, and they see Jesus come along and since he is now “that guy” who can field religious questions, they approach him and come up with a purposefully complicated question intended to make the idea of the resurrection sound stupid.
Of course, there’s a lot of backstory here about why they choose this particular question, but it has to do with the custom of Levirate marriage, which was a law ancient Jewish people followed to ensure offspring within one family system. You can hear this question and hear that women were really valued primarily in terms of their ability to produce children, essentially like property. And the Sadducees come up with this outlandish hypothetical episode where one poor woman outlives not only her husband but also all seven of his brothers. And then comes the foolish question: when God raises everyone from the dead, smarty-pants religious guy Jesus, which of the brothers will be her husband, or will she somehow belong to all eight?
Jesus, gentle Lord Jesus, receives their foolish question graciously, just like he does all of ours, and says, “The life after this life doesn’t work like that.” Jesus, who himself is unmarried, understands that marriage exists in societies in large part to offer stability and continuity amid the trials and struggles of this world.
I remember when I was still unmarried in my twenties and my grandmother couldn’t understand why I was single. She and my grandfather had gotten married right out of college and she told me one day, “We needed each other.” And she was right. There was World War II. They had grown up in the Great Depression. People needed a partner to manage life in a way young people don’t really need them now. Of course, my grandparents happened to love each other very deeply, too, but her comment opened my eyes to the fact that marriage wasn’t only about the partnership of true love. Marriage, in Jesus’ time but also to some degree in ours, also allows for life to go on through the bearing of children, since it is through parents that new life is brought into this world.
With all this in mind, and in the Sadducees’ minds, Jesus says, the question is moot. In the resurrection of the dead, there will be no need for anything other than God to establish continuity and stability and joy and new life because that’s what Jesus himself will do and be for everyone. In the world to come, when God’s eternal light will dawn on this darkened world, if that is something you believe in, marriage will be essentially outdated. That doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t know and love the people we’re married to now, but it does suggest the new life God has in store for God’s people is beyond anything we might imagine.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there, because that doesn’t really answer the deeper question the Sadducees are getting at. They most likely want to know if there is a life to come, and that’s when Jesus goes back to an old passage in Scripture about Moses. There Jesus finds a clear moment when God leaves a clue that there is more to existence than what we hear and see and perceive now, that the concept of the resurrection, therefore, is not just something the Sadducees’ religious opponents have thought up along the way, but something God established at the beginning.
Jesus says there’s this one time that happens to be in the book of Exodus, where Moses is talking to God himself through the burning bush. And in that moment, God identifies himself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, who were long since dead and buried. But, Jesus points out, God doesn’t say to Moses “I was the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” God says, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And if God says he still is the God of those people, then they must somehow still be alive. God isn’t the God of the dead. God is the God of the living. God is the source and meaning of all of existence, by God’s own definition and name. It’s fundamental to God’s identity, so if he names himself as God of these people there must be some way that life goes on even when here it seems to be over.
What we don’t hear in this morning’s gospel lesson (because it gets clipped off) is that the Sadducees are impressed with Jesus’ answer and they are no longer willing to question him! He doesn’t just endure the doubts and foolish questions of every generation, but he thoughtfully and carefully receives them and offers us surprising love in return. And Jesus not only argues for the case that there is a resurrection by quoting Scripture and doing a little theology, but he’s willing to lay his life down on it. In doing so Jesus is not saying that what happens in this life isn’t important, or that the world and creation are bad, or that our lives here and now have no value, which is, sadly, how some early Christian interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus. But what Jesus is doing by going to the cross is cutting through all the questions they and we might have about God’s ability to raise life and love over death and doubt and hate, about God’s ability to create hope and justice when we only feel fear and despair. And God shows himself once more, in bright shining fashion, that he is God of the living by bringing about a resurrection through Jesus. On the third day he rose again.
Late this summer some of you may know that my kids and I found some Monarch caterpillars on the milkweed in our backyard. Feeling like they were rare treasures, we brought them inside with some clipped leaves from the plant and put them in a little cage. Lo and behold, they all formed chrysalids, one by one. I know not how even though I got to watch a few of them as they did it. And then, several days later, they each became a butterfly, and we got to witness that process too. It takes only a few minutes. One second they are this lifeless-looking pod thing, and then the next second there is a beautiful, orange and black and white butterfly hanging there by legs with two minuscule claws. And it looks absolutely nothing like the caterpillar that formed the chrysalis. The butterfly eats differently, moves around differently, has different body parts—and we’ll never know how it all happens because we can’t put a little camera in the caterpillar’s body to film it happening.
For the first time on my back porch, of all places, it became easy for me to see why the butterfly was a symbol of the resurrection for early Christians. God is God of the living even though we do not always understand it and our foolish questions can only take blind stabs at it. People who used to live behind the Berlin Wall could really only guess what life on the other side might be like. It was immovable. You’d get shot if you tried to cross to the other side. And then one day thirty years ago this weekend it just came down. People jumped on top and could not just see life on the other side, but walk right into it. And no one ever thought it would happen so peacefully.
There are mysteries, my friends. There is wonder. I think that in such a scientific age we can forget that. I know I do. I want logic and straight lines and if the lines can’t be straight then I at least want them pretty. But often the lines disappear or get blurry or get crossed. There are mysteries about God and about life and triumph that we just can’t understand and can’t answer now, but I hold out hope that God will one day address them all in the light of Jesus’ resurrection.
Church historian and professor at UVA Robert Louis Wilken says, early followers of Christ and members of the church “were not in the business of establishing something; their task was to understand and explain something” It’s easy to forget that, too, when we see the church just as an institution with programs that serve people or that the point of any sermon is just some application for living our lives, that we always need to establish and build and do. Let us not forget that we’re here mainly because we have experienced some kind of life we want to understand more deeply We’re here primarily to ponder and give thanks for the mysteries, to gaze with the eyes of a child who is looking through a mesh cage at the wondrous life of an insect, to hear the stories of the One who has climbed to the top and testifies to the life beyond. We’re here to look into the eyes of people like the families of our sister Eddie and our sister Flo, people who are fresh back from the graveside, and say to them, “Your loved ones are alive to God.”
We’re here to ask all our questions, foolish and otherwise, because we can stand and declare with a song in our throat that our God is God of the living and that in him life has no boundaries. No boundaries at all.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Robert Louis Wilken. 2003 Yale University Press, p 3