Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 7th November 2010, the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost.
I was watching a trailer the other day for a film which was released in October this year, called Hereafter. The main character of the film, played by Matt Damon, is a psychic who has a gift for helping people to contact their dead relatives. Now I didn’t see the whole film, but what was very clear from the preview was that there seems to be a question on everybody’s mind which is inescapable: “What happens to us after we die?”
It doesn’t really matter how old you are: everybody asked this question at least once in their life. “What happens after I die? Is there another place we are going to? Is there a heaven and a hell? Will I ever be reunited with my dead relatives?” There is a torrent of questions that come from that initial one. Because we are conscious beings, because we are aware of our own finitude, our own mortality, the question regarding what happens after we cross that finish line can cause significant anxiety.
And regardless of the efforts of new atheism to put people’s minds at ease that there’s nothing coming after death, that this life is all there is and that we should live it to the fullest, people are still anxious about death and what follows after death. This fact cannot be escaped. There is always a nagging feeling on the back of our minds: “What if there is something coming after death…?”
I was reading recently about the anxiety that human beings live with everyday. And probably the word ‘anxiety’ doesn’t quite express it. ‘Angst’ is a better word. It’s not just superficial fear, but rather an angst that springs from deep down, from the depths of our beings. It seems we cannot start the day without our minimum dose of caffeine. Smoking has been identified by psychologists as a substitute for nursing: something about the size of the cigarette and the temperature of the air inhaled which is similar to the mother’s milk. If that doesn’t put you off smoking, I don’t know what does…
It is not surprising that alcohol addiction is such a huge problem today. It’s always been a problem, but somehow we are more aware of it now. Where is this coming from? People seem to be doing anything they can to numb the senses, to detach from reality, to escape from the angst that defines their everyday experience. Many would not even think of going to bed without a glass of wine or ‘a nightcap’ to help them stop worrying and go to sleep. There’s a whole industry of anti-depressants, making millions for pharmaceutical companies.
Human beings seem to go to all kinds of extremes to avoid the hard questions, to distract themselves from the angst that holds them captive and disables them to develop to their full potential as human beings.
Much like the new atheists, the Sadducees identified the source of the problem in the idea of the afterlife. The Sadducees were an elite priestly group in the Sanhedrin who did not believe in the resurrection. They only accepted the first five books of the Bible as Scripture and rejected the prophets and the poetic books. They held to a strict and literal interpretation of the law, they did not believe in the afterlife, nor did they believe in spirits and angels.
And, again, much like the new atheists, the Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife because they were concerned that people would become so absorbed by what happens in the afterlife that they would neglect to obey the law now, and improve the life of the nation in the present.
The Sadducees were a highly pragmatic group, supporting a good diplomatic relationship with the Romans who occupied their land, as the best solution to preserve the life of the nation. That’s why Jesus was so dangerous to them – he upset the political balance that they worked so hard to achieve.
Their thinking was that if people were overly concerned with life after death, they would miss out on life now, thus becoming virtually suicidal, not caring about the present and future of the nation.
In a way, I can’t help but sympathise with their concern. The Apostle Paul had to deal with such a situation with the Thessalonian church, when they believed that Jesus had already returned and they stop working, they stopped marrying, and lived as if the end of days had already come. He had to write to them and correct their mistake, urging them to go back to work and live in the present.
There is always a danger in becoming absorbed by the future, and neglecting the present. But where the Sadducees failed was in their attempting to solve the problem by denying the future. One cannot solve the problem of anxiety by ignoring it and living in denial.
You see, when they present Jesus with that ridiculous hypothetical situation, they weren’t trying to gain insight from Jesus on the mystery of the resurrection. What they wanted was to ridicule him, because they knew Jesus sided with their opponents – the Pharisees – regarding the resurrection; and that was a threat to their own programme.
Their attempt was to demonstrate to Jesus that the idea of resurrection is not only dangerous, but that it was also ridiculous. They appeal to the imagination of the audience by presenting the hypothetical situation with the widow who married the seven brothers sequentially. They refer here to the law of levirate, where if a brother died without having children with his wife, the younger unmarried brother had to marry his widow and give her a child who would carry his older brother’s name and inherit his property.
Their intention was to demonstrate that the law was there to insure the future of the nation in this life, which created serious problems for any idea of resurrection. Try to imagine a situation where a husband loses his wife, and then remarries. After they all die, they reunite in heaven, where the husband has to deal with two wives. Imagine the embarrassment and the comparison game which would follow. Which wife was better? That is exactly the effect that the Sadducees were trying to achieve.
For some people, the idea of being reunited with dead relatives offers comfort and hope, especially if there were good relationships. But for others, the same idea is horrifying. Nobody wants to be reunited with an abusive family member. Nobody wants to have to deal a whole eternity with the embarrassment of being reunited with all their former spouses, especially if they had hoped some of them were not going to end up in heaven.
But instead of dealing with the problem of the future by ignoring or denying it, Jesus responds to the Sadducees on two fronts. First of all, he corrects their understanding of the nature of resurrection and the afterlife, and then uses the very Scripture they held dear to demonstrate that God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. Jesus was an absolute master debater. And he managed to silence all of them, as Luke tells us that they did not dare to ask any more questions. They had exhausted all their debating ammunition. It was time for more drastic measures, as they began to plot to kill him. That’s what happens sometimes when people run out of words and give up on dialogue. They resort to murder.
The error of the Sadducees was that they assumed that the afterlife is very similar with the present life. That’s what human beings tend to do when trying to imagine realities beyond their reach. When we think about who God is, we tend to look at ourselves and imagine that God is a better, bigger, holier version of us. We don’t often realize how idolatrous this is.
In the same way, when we try to imagine the afterlife, we assume that it’s pretty much like this life, only better in some regards: no more death, no more suffering, no more anxiety. But it is significantly difficult for us to imagine an afterlife which is radically different to what we experience now. So different in fact, that we simply do not have the language or the concepts we need to even begin to explain it.
That is why, in my view, the Bible is so vague when it comes to the afterlife. We know there is one, we know it’s not like this life, we know that all the relationships that seem to define who we are as human beings are no longer necessary, and that’s about it. Jesus does not paint a clear picture of the afterlife to the Sadducees. He tells them what it is not.
It is not like this life, where women are passed from brother to brother like some kind of property.
It is not like this life, where marriage is necessary to reach immortality by producing offspring.
It is not like this life, in which we cannot imagine engaging in significant relationships without treating people like property.
When we look into the past and examine what marriage used to be, we may realize how far we have come, and how much we moved from treating it like a property transaction to a mutual relationship of love and support. But we should never think that we have arrived. We have so much further to go.
And yes, we may feel anxious about the future, not knowing what it will bring. Jesus certainly does not make the future clear in this passage. But what he IS saying is that we should believe that there is more to come: Much more than we can ever imagine.
And when we choose to follow Jesus and learn from him, we are brought closer and closer to the heart of God, where we are made to feel safe and secure despite the fact that we live with uncertainty and ambiguity. Reducing a complex reality to a simple mathematical formula will never solve the problem. And denying a problematic reality will not eliminate the anxiety.
We are challenged today to believe in the God of the living: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We are challenged to believe that our lives today have eternal significance, even if we do not have the language to understand exactly what that means in the afterlife.
And we are challenged to live in the present, growing everyday towards maturity in Christ, as we learn to live with complex realities without resorting to oversimplifications, as we all bring our own contribution to making God’s kingdom come, for his will to be done here, on earth, as it is in heaven.