There is one experience none of us has had; yet all of us will. Do you know what it is? I am talking about the ultimate and unknowable culmination of our lives: death. For most of our lives we reflect like crazy trying to reconcile ourselves to it. We hear voices offering all sorts of opinions: some are believers, others put forth the challenge, “show me.” Invariably, those of us with faith have an easier time with death. We find solace in believing there is something after. Nonbelievers go with Gertrude Stein’s observation, “There is no there.”
In our Gospel lesson this morning, it is important that the question posed to Jesus about the resurrection comes not from the mouths of bereaved persons seeking hope, or from believers seeking greater clarity. Rather, Jesus is being interrogated in a rather academic manner by men who already are fixed in their position that there is no resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees present this hypothetical: A women has been “trapped”—my words not theirs—in a levirate marriage in which she must marry the brother of her dead husband in order to produce an heir. She has suffered seven weddings and seven funerals for seven husbands. The Sadducees assume that she can’t be married to one brother in the resurrection because, after all, she was married to six others. Therefore, according to a kind of reverse logic, there is no resurrection.
Jesus responds by saying that marriage is appropriate for this age, by which he means this earth, because the fact of mortality necessitates a means for perpetuating life. But in the kingdom to come, there will be no need for marriage. Jesus implies that resurrection will be a whole new way of life, a whole New World, a world that the Sadducees cannot even begin to comprehend with their legalistic, limited view of things.
A few weeks ago a parent in our parish asked me to talk with her daughter about death. Even before the September 11 attacks this girl was frightened and bewildered by the notion of mortality. My discussion with her reminded me how easy it is to take for granted the theological language that we incant each week during our worship. Only when children ask us to explain things such as, “What happens to us when we die?” do we find ourselves stumped. St. Augustine replied this way when asked about grace, “What is grace? I know until you ask me; when you ask me, I do not know.” This is exactly how I feel about death and heaven and hell and the resurrection. While my faith professes them and while I believe in them, I’m not sure I can explain them.
They are both above and beneath the level of explanation; both too big for words, and to ethereal to be caught in the loose net of language. Christian eschatology as it’s called, please pardon the theological language, has traditionally been defined as the doctrine of “the last things.” In other words, this is what happens to us, to our physical world, at the end of time. The prophets of Israel foresaw paradise on earth. Salvation would be tangible, available to our human senses. The earth would be fruitful, people would be inwardly renewed, society would become righteous, and the nations would be at peace. Job clearly had this kind of “earthly” paradise in mind when he called on his “redeemer” to appear before God to testify on his behalf while he was still alive. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.” After his unspeakable torments, Job raged against the notion that in this life we get what we deserve. He didn’t want a postmortem vindication; he demanded a vindication that he could experience before death, with his own flesh and his own eyes.
Jesus changed everything the ancient world thought about the hereafter with the double ending of his life: his death on the cross and his resurrection to a new form of being. With this double ending came good news: As Jesus was resurrected so will we be. It’s a powerful promise: those who die with Christ will live forever with him. As the first born from the dead, Jesus Christ is the realization and manifestation of this promise that we will see God face to face. The question is then, what does this mean and is this enough?
Two strands have been woven together in the Christian tradition concerning life after death. One stems from the Greek myth of the immortality of the soul and the other from the New Testament message of the resurrection of the body. Both foresee life beyond death. It is worth noting that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus does not address the widespread belief that everyone has an immortal soul. Rather, resurrection from the dead is an act of and gift from God. While immortality implies humanity without end, resurrection implies transformation from a perishable human condition to one that is imperishable and divine.
In fact, nowhere in the Bible is it written that the soul is immortal. Immortality implies an exemption from death and oblivion. If the soul is understood as the innermost core of personal human identity, the “true human self,” then the doctrine of immortality of the soul expresses the hope that what is essentially human will survive death. The machine of the body will break down, but the animating ghost within will carry on. Yet the Bible does not speak of human beings as being divided into “parts” or “substances.” This concept is reminiscent of something Willy Loman said in Death of a Salesman, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away. A man is not a piece of fruit.” It speaks rather of a single entity that is properly understood neither in purely materialistic terms nor in purely spiritual terms. The entire human being is body, and the same human being is soul. A disembodied soul is not a human being, just as a “dis-souled” body is no longer a human being. The Apostle Paul made clear that through resurrection the physical body is transformed into a spiritual body. Salvation is not a matter of freeing the soul from its bodily dungeon. “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor. 6:19), he writes. Later, he explains the nature of resurrection by saying, “What is sown is perishable, which is raised is imperishable. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15: 42, 45, 50).
I think this is the part we get hung up on, the part that causes us to place anthropomorphic limitations on what we perceive will happen to us upon our deaths. We are like the Sadducees, pedantically trying to imagine the divine and dimensionless afterlife using the two-dimensional template of our earthly life.
In the latest issue of U.S. News and World Report there is an article profiling a beloved young man named Scott Johnson, who at 26 was killed and lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Back at his parents’ house after his memorial service a friend was flipping through family photo albums. Scott’s mother, Ann, walked into the room and with tears in her eyes said to his friend, “You’re all going to grow old and gray, and Scott will be young and beautiful.” Her response is understandable. I suppose it’s just human nature to think that
when our lives end our bodies and spirits will be fossilized at that moment in time. Of course, this thinking doesn’t bode well for those who die old and frail and sickly. And what about babies, do they forever remain unevolved and dependent? Some people prefer to think that they will come back at the prime of their lives.
The young girl whom I spoke of earlier wanted to know if she would recognize her family and friends in heaven and would they be reunited. We all want to know the answer to this question. I, like many of you I’m sure, have a sick parent. I am terrified to think that my mother’s death could come much sooner than my brothers and I are prepared to accept and face. So I’ve been trying to figure all this out and reconcile this leap-of-faith notion within myself. This is where the rubber meets the road for me.
What will the final future of life in the kingdom of God look like? Unfortunately, I can only speak about God and God’s kingdom in language limited by the conditions of my human finitude. All I can presume to share with you is what my faith tells me. Upon my death, I will be the being God fully intended me to become. I will be as God would have me be, complete and full and perfected. (My mother, by the way, has stated for the record that she will be whatever the heck she wants to be! And not even God can change that.)
Anyway, can you imagine an existence where everything and everyone you know is made free and whole, no more addictions, no more disabilities, no more illness, no more pain, no more hatred, no more unfilled desire, no more heartache, no more war, no more death. Our personal relationships will exist in new, unimaginable ways. In the Book of Revelation the New Heaven and the New Earth arrive. The consummation is complete. The salvation we seek—paradise, heaven, eternal life—is not the peace and quiet of a retirement home. It is the final ecstasy of life, a vital movement beyond every stasis. All ground will be holy, as all reality will be suffused with God’s love. Not the love we know, but undifferentiated love, unmotivated love, unrestricted love. It will be the world God intended it to be; a world we cannot begin to comprehend. Amen.