"Heaven" Image by Yasmin Elizabeth via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
We tend to ask the wrong questions about the resurrection -- case in point, the inquiry of the Sadducees. Of course, their engagement with Jesus is to challenge the very notion of resurrection itself. But their question gives voice to the kinds of queries that come from our parishioners about what resurrection looks like, what we can expect, or, what we should be guaranteed.
You know what I mean, right? Those times when people come to your office with the generic questions about resurrection. But also those times in a hospital room, a hospice center, a bedside, when the questions are as specific as that of the Sadducees, not to pick an argument with you or with God, but because resurrection matters more than ever. And the general promise of the resurrection does not seem to ease the pain of the prospective loss, the specificity of the impending separation, the possibility that the particularities of a person’s life might not transfer to the afterlife. If you are preaching All Saints, this is an All Saints text for sure.
The questions about resurrection are not simply about how to imagine our lives in the beyond, but affect our decisions now. In reflecting on this text, I thought about recent conversations with my mother in her preparations for her death. She has planned her service. She has prepaid for her funeral arrangements, including her burial plot. My parents are divorced, so she will not be buried with my dad. Her second husband died three years ago (they were married sixteen years) and it was a second marriage for both of them. He is buried next to his first wife. So, my mom has decided that she wants to be buried in the cemetery of the church where she served her first and only call.
She waited a long time to be a pastor. She had to retire earlier than she wanted because of having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Her choice to be buried in the cemetery of St. John’s indeed imagines a life beyond this one. A certain kind of life, a life lived among people she loved doing what she loved. How we imagine resurrected life gives us a glimpse into what matters for our lives here and now. Questions about resurrection are not just theological. They are deeply personal. Relational. Meaningful.
And that is Jesus’ point. What we want resurrection life to be is, in part, what we want or wish life to be now. Let’s be honest with ourselves -- as much as we believe in the promise of the resurrection, our belief in ourselves sometimes sidelines the promises of God. And so we attempt to orchestrate, delegate, delineate our future life with God as much as we try to do the same now. And in doing so, we overlook the kinds of promises Jesus makes about our future that should very well lay claim on our lives in the present.
Hidden in the verbiage of this debate between Jesus and the Sadducees is a critical claim for the sake of women -- it seems that the Kingdom of God has something more in mind than the patriarchy that imprisons women now. No, women will not continue to be property. Women will not continue to be owned. Women will not continue to be passive in their place in society. The assumptions of the Sadducees when it comes to resurrection exposes their doubt and disbelief in its possibility, but also their inability to imagine that God might have something different in mind when it comes to eternal life -- and when it comes to what the Kingdom of God should look like amongst us.
Remember for a moment those parishioners whom you have accompanied from life now to the next life. Recall those conversations. To do so is to get at the deeper level of what is going on in this story. It is to get to a place where the questions about what resurrection looks like might be replaced with the fact that resurrection is promised.
That is, we can spend a lot of energy asking about or imagining the details of eternal life, or, we can channel that energy toward how the security of its promise might make a difference for how we choose to live now. It is to imagine uttering, “For I know that my Redeemer lives!” (Job 19:25) regardless of the guarantees of the specifics of redeemed life.
This is awfully hard for us. The control we want to have over our lives now we most certainly want to have continue in our life to come. Perhaps we might want even more, anticipating that our reward in heaven might include the kind of power we were not able to have in our earthly life.
The question of the Sadducees is an attempt to bait Jesus, but yet disarmingly does the same for us. We are called out for the ways in which we believe in a resurrected life that is no different from now. We are asked to answer the question of whether or not God might promise something different in the life to come. We are put on the spot for having assumptions about the promises of resurrection that are autonomous, insular, independent rather than having an expectation of the wider possibility of God’s grace.
It is not often that we talk about the promise of resurrection outside of the promise itself. This is our chance, not only for those with whom we do ministry, but also for our very selves.