(Creative Commons image by Mark Stradling on Flickr)
Dear Working Preacher,
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the resurrection is all the rage these days. Or, perhaps more accurately, the resurrection has a few folks in a rage these days.
In particular, there’s been a lively exchange at the all-things-spiritual website Patheos.com between emergent church guru Tony Jones and Jesus-scholar and best-selling author Marcus Borg about whether or not Jesus rose from the grave bodily and, relatedly, whether believing in a bodily resurrection is an essential element of Christian faith. While I won’t rehash their arguments here, I suspect that you won’t be surprised that a) Jones is for it (while avoiding a literalist reading of the Bible at most other points) and b) Borg is dubious of it (while avowing his own belief in a more spiritual rather than material resurrection).
All of this is to say that while many of us -- and the people we serve -- affirm the resurrection each week in the Creed without batting an eye, underneath our routine confessions of faith, questions about the nature, form, and importance of the resurrection may be roiling. And the passage appointed for this Sunday is just peculiar enough that it may bring some of those questions to the surface.
We can preach the resurrection in a way that offers the full-bodied hope of the gospel.
Why peculiar? Because it assumes knowledge of two bits of bible-knowledge that a lot of folks don’t possess: a) who the Sadducees are; and b) what levirate marriage is. Because I wrote in greater detail about these elements of the story in a WorkingPreacher commentary three years ago, I’ll move instead to suggest three questions that this passage may stir up for our people.
1) “What will resurrection life be like?” I think this is an incredibly understandable question given that we are naturally curious about what comes next, both for our loved ones and ourselves. It will be important to note that the passage in front of us gives little specific or concrete details. It revolves, after all, on a hypothetical question the Sadducees ask Jesus in order to discredit him while simultaneously trying to embarrass their resurrection-believing rivals the Pharisees. (I don’t think I would have liked the Sadducees that much!)
But even if the passage doesn’t paint a vivid picture, it does insist that resurrection life is qualitatively different from life as we know it. This is, in fact, the mistake Jesus points out the Sadducees are making. Their question is premised on the assumption that eternal life is an endless state of “more of the same.” But resurrection life, Jesus insists, is qualitatively different. The ordinary events and relationships by which we track our journey though this mortal life -- marriage, childbirth, graduations, retirements and so on -- do not characterize our eternal lives because resurrection life is not merely an extension of this life but something wholly different.
2) “Is Jesus saying we won’t know our spouses, friends, and family members?” This is an understandable next question given Jesus’ words about not marrying and our previous emphasis on the qualitative difference of resurrection life. And it may be asked -- spoken or silently, consciously or unconsciously -- with some feeling, as most of us have a hard imagining eternity without our loved ones. But as important as that question is, let’s be clear: Jesus isn’t addressing it here. He does not say we will not know those who have been dear to us, only that resurrection life will not be marked by the same features as this one. Indeed, given his next statement about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it seems that the relationships defining our current life may persist, certainly with God and likely with each other.
3) “Is resurrection the same as immortality?” Okay, so in actuality very few of our hearers may articulate this question explicitly, but you can nevertheless count on the fact that many of them regularly confuse these two things. Why? Because the immortality of the soul -- the belief that some essential or spiritual element of a person persists beyond the physical death of the body -- provides a measure of comfort to those grieving loss, assuring them that at least a part of their beloved has not, in fact died. In distinction to this notion, Christians have instead confessed that while we really and truly die, resurrection promises that the whole person will in some way be united with God (see I Corinthians 15, especially verses 35-49).
But here, let me be clear, even though I think this distinction matters, I don’t ever want to scold someone for being unclear about the resurrection or in some way possessing a theologically inadequate piety. Instead, I hope that we can preach the resurrection in a way that offers the full-bodied hope of the gospel.
Allow one personal example. After teaching an adult forum on resurrection some years ago, a parishioner came to me afterward very upset. Her husband had died the previous year and her belief in the immortality of the soul had brought her comfort. As gently as I could, I said that I didn’t want to take that comfort away, but rather to make it stronger, more complete. “What I want and hope for you,” I said, “is more than the wispy essence of your husband. I want the whole person for you, the whole person created, loved, and now redeemed by God in and through Christ.”
Over time, it seemed like that affirmation helped her reckon with her grief, not by denying it but by promising that there would be an end to it -- and, indeed, an end to all of our grief, tears, and suffering -- when God creates a new heaven and new earth and invites us all to live there together with God and in the fellowship of the saints.
Here’s the thing, Working Preacher, these are important issues, but let’s face it: They are also issues with which none of us has direct experience! For this reason, I hope we will speak with some modesty about our beliefs and affirmations and avoid validating or defaming another’s Christian profession of faith based on their adherence to our views.
At the same time, whatever the limits we may experience about describing resurrection life, this passage nevertheless invites us to proclaim with confidence our faith that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob raised Christ from death and promises to do the same also for us. For God is the God not of the dead, but of the living, both then and now.
Thank you for your bold proclamation and enduring faith. It makes an immeasurable difference.
Yours in Christ,
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