Year C, Pentecost 25
I spent some time around Evangelicals in high school and college. I got used to the question: “Are you saved?” I had a pretty good answer to that. Yes. But when people asked me when I was saved, things got a little confusing. While at seminary I asked an Episcopalian how he responded when asked that question. He said, “Well you can tell them one of two things: I was saved 2000 years ago when Jesus was crucified or you can tell them you were saved when you were baptized. Both are correct and neither answer will actually please the person who is asking.” Sadly, I have not been asked that since being ordained. I want to be asked because I think I have a better answer now. I’m not going to tell you yet because then you will have no incentive to listen to the rest of the sermon.
Our Gospel reading begins with, “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question…” Already, it seems pretty clear what this question is going to be about. Otherwise Luke would not have had to preface the question with the reminder that Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection. Often the Sadducees and the Pharisees get jumbled up. They were both part of the Jewish leadership, but they represented different kinds of Judaism. Much like we have differences of opinion within the Christian faith, the Jews are not all of one mind. In the time of Jesus, the two major divisions (at least the ones that we hear about) were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees accepted all of Holy Scripture including all of the oral and ceremonial laws. The Sadducees only accepted what were written in the 5 books of Moses, which are the first 5 books of the Old Testament.
As a result of this more limited acceptance of scripture and tradition (and probably a couple of other factors), the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection from the dead. When Christians hear resurrection, we think of Jesus’ resurrection, but there was already a belief in general resurrection before Jesus even started talking about it. Jesus was not debating his own resurrection with the Sadducees; that had not happened yet. He was debating the general concept while also laying the ground work for people to later understand his resurrection and what would become the Christian understanding of resurrection.
If you try to follow the argument in the Gospel today, it will get a little confusing. Because the Sadducees believed that resurrection was impossible, they were using an absurd hypothetical situation to test Jesus. What if a woman is widowed 6 times, and therefore ends up marrying seven different men? Who will she be married to in heaven? One of the reasons that Jesus was a master of debate was because he always kept in mind who he was talking to and what context they were coming from. He knew that he was talking to the Sadducees and they only believed the first 5 books. Any effective argument would have to come from those first 5 books. He also knew that they were not really worried about marriage in the afterlife. They just wanted to make the concept of the afterlife look absurd.
His answer was basically this: Marriage is not something that people are concerned with after they are resurrected. It’s an entirely different world. Then he reached back into the scriptures that they believed in. He talked about Moses’ experience with God in the burning bush. When God spoke to Moses he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” All those people God mentioned were already dead. So why did God tell him “I am the God of” all those people if they were dead. To us, it might seem like a weak argument, but at the time, it was a pretty good one.
Then Jesus went on to say something about God that was a lot more important than marriage in the afterlife. “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” Our God is a God of the living. Jesus went on to prove this for once and for all when he himself was resurrected. He took what was one just this piece of lofty and unrealistic theology and he made it real. He made it flesh and blood. You don’t get any more real than that.
I was leading a chapel discussion for 3 and 4 years old and we were talking about the church calendar. When I got to Easter, I asked, “And what happens on Easter?” A little girl raised her hand and said, “Jesus died and came back…and he does it every year.” It made me laugh because I realized that it would look a little silly to a child that we go through this every year. Every year Jesus is born. Every year he dies about 4 months later and then come back 3 days after that. Yet then I thought, maybe that is a good thing. We all need a little more resurrection in our life.
I love the part in the Baptismal liturgy that says, “You are marked as Christ’s own forever.” When I am teaching classes about baptism, I remind people that no matter what happens, where you go in life, you are always Christ’s own. You may turn away from God, but God will never turn away from you. On the one hand, you could say, “Well I guess I never have to go to church again. I can do whatever I want. I can be selfish and hurt people and I will still be good because I am marked as Christ’s own forever.” And I suppose that is one way to look at it. Or we could look at it like this, we have unlimited opportunities in life to resurrect ourselves. We might have a couple months or years where we have strayed from the Christian path, but we can transform ourselves, have our own resurrection. I have never strayed too far from church and my faith. But that does not mean I don’t need little resurrections in my life.
I have always liked the idea of reincarnation (that you keep returning to the world until you get it right). But then I realized that we have something better. As people of the resurrection, we don’t have to die to have new life. We can choose it each and every day. If someone asks me when I was saved the answer will depend on what day and time they ask me because I am being saved all the time. I am experiencing God’s saving power each and every day and you know what, we all can. Because our God is a God of the living. Our God is a God of unlimited potential for new life.