A little girl walked into a pet shop. She went up to the shopkeeper and asked in a sweet little voice, “Excuse me, mister, do you have any white rabbits?”
The shopkeeper bent way down and put his hands on his knees so he would be on her level, and asked, “Do you want a little white rabbit or that cute little brown rabbit over there?”
The little girl thought for a moment, put her hands on her knees, leaned forward and said in a quiet voice, “Mr., I don’t think my python really cares.” (Dynamic Preaching fall 2010, p.35). I guess her snake really didn’t care what color his meal was.
Likewise, in today’s gospel passage, the Sadducees are asking the wrong question. The gospel-writer Luke tells us that Jesus has just entered Jerusalem.
He was teaching in the temple. He has created a lot of controversy with the political and religious powers. The Romans were always alert to any threat of upheaval. They looked to the local religious leaders to deal with matters of faith in ways that did not upset public orders. The two major religious parties were the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
The Sadducees were the priestly and aristocratic party within Judaism. Socially and theologically conservative, they were concerned with keeping order and maintaining the status quo within the temple organization, worship activities, and in society at large. They considered only the Pentateuch, the first five Books of Moses, (Genesis to Deuteronomy) to be authoritative. Since the afterlife was not defined or described by Moses, they did not believe in it. They also did not believe in angels, but that’s another topic.
The Pharisees were more active in the local synagogues. Their teaching of religious law offered interpretations based not only on the first five books of the scripture, but also giving consideration to the writing of prophets in the Old Testament and oral tradition that affirmed a belief in life after death.
Despite their differences these two groups found common ground in their opposition to Jesus. On this day the Sadducees asked him a trick question, designed to make Jesus look foolish. The absurdity of the questions designed to make Jesus look foolish. They wanted to undermine Jesus’ authority. The question was about what was called Levirate marriage. The questions were also about inheritance, ownership and marital rights. But the real question was “Is there life after death?”
Levirate marriage was an institution in those days whereby a widow was required to marry her deceased husband’s brother in order to provide protection and material care for the extended family of the deceased. Now, women, imagine that you were a part of a system like that. If you were married to a man and he died, you would automatically be passed on to his brother, then if that brother died, the next brother and so on, regardless of what you thought about it or what your sisters-in law thought about it. In our culture, that would be considered pretty weird and creepy, but in those days, it was a way to provide for the woman and to keep the wealth in her family. The Sadducees carried the idea to the 7th degree in their trick question about who the woman be married to in heaven. Since the Sadducees didn’t believe in heaven, they thought Jesus would be stumped trying to answer that question. Instead, he gave them a lesson on what happens after we die. We would be wise to listen to his teaching as well because what we believe about what happens after death is a critical part of our Christian faith.
First of all, there is the issue of what kind of creatures are we? Are we spiritual or physical beings or a combination of both? What do we think happens after we die? Do we believe in the possibility of having a truly personal relationship with a God who transcends death itself?
Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees is that heaven is not a physical place and time, but a spiritual one and we will be spiritual beings not physical creatures. New Testament scholar Kenyatta R. Gilbert explains, “Resurrection is not to be confused with the resuscitation or the reanimation of the physical self; rather it signals the activation of a divine sovereign to bring about a complete psychosomatic transformation of the human body. (Connections, Green et al , Year C. Vol. 3, p. 476). We don’t know what our spiritual bodies will be like. But we do know that we will be with God in a different kind of world that is governed by love.
Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander was comatose for seven days from a bacterial meningitis infection. His experiences during the comes affirmed for him that there is a “consciousness beyond the body.” This is very interesting because here is a neuroscientist affirming an afterlife. He says, “The universe that I experienced in my coma. . . Is the same one Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in very different ways. (Dr. Eben Alexander, “Proof of Heaven” A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife,” Newsweek, October 8, 2012.
Author King Duncan tells a story the untimely death of a brother. There were three brothers in the family and in the rural south, often, flowers were sent to the calling hours at the funeral home. And frequently the ribbon on the flowers said, “Jesus Called.” The brothers heartily disliked this kind of slogan on the flowers. One of these three brothers died as a young adult after a prolonged illness. The family was devastated, and it was their family’s turn to receive friends at the local funeral home. They were mortified when one of the floral arrangements that had been set up in the chapel was one with a telephone and the words “Jesus called” on a ribbon. The brothers were enraged. Who could have sent this to their beloved brother’s funeral? The quickly made their way to the arrangement to read the accompanying card. And on the card was the signature… of their deceased brother. He had sent the arrangement to his own funeral as one last joke on his brothers. In a flash, their tears turned to laughter.
What a gift this dying young man had given to his brothers. He had looked ahead to his journey of transition, and he had sought to make things easier for those he loved. Anger is a normal response to impending death. But faith in life after death helps us overcome that very human response and move on to acceptance. And our faith helps others go on living after we have gone to the nearer presence of God.
We do not fully understand what will happen after death. But we trust Jesus. He points to a faithful God who loves us. And in that faithfulness, we find enough strength to endure all that life and death will ask of us. Our hope is grounded in our faith. We can trust that God will never forget or forsake us or our loved ones. This is one of Jesus’ most important teachings. It answers the question of “Is there life after death?” And the answer is, “Yes there is definitely an afterlife. Jesus gave us that answer not only with his lips, but he also gave it with his own life. “He is alive!” The women who retuned from the empty tomb said this. He was alive and still lives, this Jesus, our savior.
There is one last story appropriate for this Veteran’s Day Sunday. Dr. Ray Pritchard tells about the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, the former prime minister of England. “Most of us know Churchill as the man who single-handily rallied the British people in the darkest days of World War II when the armies of Hitler were poised to cross the English Channel. But the power of his words he gave courage to an entire country.
Before he died, he planned his own funeral service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The service itself was magnificent in every way, filled with biblical liturgy and great hymns. Just as the benediction was pronounced, and unseen bugler hidden in one side of the dome began to play Taps, the traditional melody signaling the end of the day or the death of a soldier. As the mournful notes faded away, another bugler on the other side of the dome began to play Reveille, the traditional melody signaling the coming of a new day (The one that goes, It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get us in the morning.
Churchill believed in life after death and so should we. It is one of Jesus’ most important teachings, Life after death is a reality. Because Jesus conquered death, we, too, shall live. God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Because he lives, we too shall live in the presence of God after we die.
Please pray with me for the faith that conquers our fear and denial of death.