The Sadducees, who confront Jesus about the resurrection in today’s passage from Luke, were a strange bunch. What little we know of them suggests that they prided themselves on their intellect, were difficult to get along with and shunned anyone who disagreed with them. They rejected any notion of resurrection, or life after death. And, typical of those who are determined to prove others wrong, they create a caricature of the others’ position to win their point. Hence they throw up in Jesus’ face the absurd scenario of the seven brothers who each married their dead brother’s widow and tried in vain to produce children with her. “In the resurrection, therefore,” they ask him, “whose wife will the woman be?”
I love Jesus’ answer, where he cuts right through the Sadducees’ nonsense and says, “those who are considered worthy of…the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage…because they are like angels…being children of the resurrection.” And then he goes back to Moses and the Patriarchs, whom the Sadducees well know, and reminds them that all these are God’s servants—and therefore are very much alive. God, says Jesus, “is God not of the dead, but of the living: for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:38) Whether that satisfies the Sadducees Luke doesn’t tell us. I think the answer probably is no. People who are certain they’re right and everyone else is wrong are hard to deal with!
Now, we need to realize that what Jesus is saying here is only part of the truth about the resurrection. He’s talking to a group of Jews who denied what most Jews of the time believed, namely, that life does go on after death. Jews in general at that time believed that. But when Jesus talks to his friends and followers, he comes much closer to the full Christian understanding of the resurrection. At the Last Supper, for instance, Jesus is quoted by John in that passage so often read at funerals: He says to the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them, and he adds these words: “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:) And one of his most memorable words from the cross is his assurance to the penitent thief on the cross beside him: “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The heart of the resurrection, as far as you and I are concerned, is that we will not only be alive but will be with God in the company of Christ. As Paul writes to his friends in Rome: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:9-11) In other words, we who believe in God as revealed in Jesus Christ will, like Christ, “die to,” or be extricated from, the sinful life we know now and will be raised to new life in the closest companionship with Christ. Not only that, but the resurrection life begins right now, in the life we live today as followers of Christ. The thing we need to do is embrace that life, and live into it. Paul says that plainly in the Letter to the Colossians:”So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above….for you have died, and your life is hidden in Christ with God.” (3:1,3)
I’m glad that we’re led to talk about the resurrection today, because today, as you know, is Veterans Day when we honor those who have served in the armed forces of our country and remember especially those who have perished. Many of you, I’m sure, have been close to families who have lost loved ones in the military, and some of you have experienced such loss in your own family, as we Burgoynes have. My wife’s older brother Dan was killed on a troop ship in the South Pacific during World War II, and I lost a close friend and shipmate named Bill in the Coast Guard in 1953. And anytime someone close to you dies, and especially in the prime of life and in the course of trying to make the world a safer, better place, you can’t help thinking about the meaning of life and death, and what lies beyond. I still remember those thoughts racing through my mind as I attended my friend Bill’s funeral in a large Roman Catholic church in Florida.
How senseless death can seem; how cruel; how perverse; how final. My heart goes out to families today whose loved ones’ remains have come back in body bags from those terrible conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I thank God for the resurrection of the crucified Christ and for the reality of life in and with Christ which is held out to all who will yield to God their trust. Nothing can bring them back in this life, but to know that they’re in the loving care of God means everything. And we trust God where our own vision and understanding fall short. We trust God when we find it hard to attach any good purpose to their deaths. Yesterday on NBC Tim Russert interviewed Tom Brokaw about his new book on veterans of the Viet Nam War and how they struggle to find meaning and how the cloud of Viet Nam still hangs over the nation. I look forward to reading the book. People like Brokaw help us to see the bigger picture, and I thank God for that.
But in the meantime, until the day when we rejoin our departed loved ones in the great companionship of the risen Christ, the thing I do, over and over again, is to look for glimpses of the resurrection in people I love and admire. I’ve always been big on “glimpses”—glimpses of courage, glimpses of hope, glimpses of light in the midst of darkness. I think back to a visit I made to a hospital in the 1960’s, in the middle of the Viet Nam War and the Civil Rights Movement. There in the bed, close to death, lay a dear friend named Maurice Kidder—the Rev. Maurice Kidder, a fellow Episcopal priest. Except we never called him Maurice. He was huge—a giant of a man, giant in size and faith. So we called him “Tiny”—Tiny Kidder. Tiny loved everyone, and everyone loved him. He had been a parish priest in Chapel Hill and a chaplain at the University of North Carolina, preaching and ministering the Gospel of Christ during those turbulent years. Then, somehow, Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts managed to steal him away to be their chaplain, and that’s where I met him.
Tiny lay close to death. That huge man had been wasted away by the ravages of cancer. He couldn’t talk; and I wasn’t sure how much he took in as I sat with him and chatted quietly about what was going on in the outside world. After I had prayer with him and rose up to depart, he did one thing, and it has stayed with me to this day. He held up his hand toward me and with two fingers made the V-sign, the sign of victory. And I knew Tiny would be all right.
You know, it’s always nice when someone smarter than you agrees with you about something dear to your heart. I had that experience this past week in the light of Dr. Marcus Borg’s visit last weekend, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I bought his book on Jesus from the book table and started reading it. And when I knew I would be preaching on the resurrection today, I looked ahead to see what Dr. Borg wrote about it. He says what I have long felt, namely, that the heart of the resurrection is not what the gospels record about the empty tomb or the various appearances in various forms of the glorified Jesus, powerful as those accounts are. The heart of the resurrection is the utterly changed lives of those affected by it. Tiny Kidder was one of those: in his wasted body, his spirit glowed with the light of Christ. So has it been all through the ages since those heady days of the early Church when a courageous band of persecuted Jesus-followers grew and flourished, until in a mere 300 years Christianity became the official religion of the mighty Roman Empire. The Lordship of Caesar was trumped by the Lordship of Christ. And the world has never been the same since.