If Train A leaves Milwaukee at 1:05pm traveling at an average speed of 90mph, and Train B leaves Chicago at 1:15pm traveling at an average speed of 80mph…how many passengers are in coach?
That might as well be part of our gospel story. It reads like a bad math problem: “Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?”
It’s a bizarre question. Maybe we need some context. So you’ve got the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the two leading – and competing – Jewish sectarian groups in Jesus’s day. For our purposes, it’s enough to distinguish them on one point: the resurrection. Like most Jews at the time, the Pharisees professed a belief in some kind of resurrection. But the Sadducees disagreed. Because there was no direct evidence for a resurrection in the Torah – the five books of Moses – that meant it didn’t exist. The Sadducees were traditionalists like that, while the Pharisees took into consideration other sacred writings.
One thing they had in common, though: A desire to trap Jesus. Which is where we find ourselves in this chapter of Luke’s gospel. It’s like an interrogation room, and Jesus is the primary suspect: “By what authority are you doing these things?” “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor?” After Jesus skillfully defeats their initial questions, the Sadducees fire away with their contrived scenario about what had to be one exhausted woman (seven husbands!). Ultimately, Jesus prevails again, and in the verses that follow, the scribes, perhaps Pharisees themselves, applaud Jesus’s answer…as though he has taken their side and vindicated them. Either way, it gives us an intriguing insight into one of the big religious debates of Jesus’s day: Is there a resurrection, or not?
Fast-forward to the second letter to the Thessalonian church, and it seems not much has changed. Debates about the end-times, the day of the Lord, and the resurrection still rage. It’s alarmism run wild. Even today, two thousand years into Christianity, fanatic doomsday preachers have come up with some fascinating predictions about the end of the world. There’s something to this resurrection question…
Back to our gospel text: Surely Jesus has the answer, right? Well…in classic Jesus fashion, he doesn’t directly answer the Sadducees’ question. Instead, he offers his own bold assertion: “God is not God of the dead, but of the living.”
The Sadducees ask a bizarre hypothetical question about a resurrection that they don’t even believe in, purely to try to trap Jesus. They don’t care about what happens to this widowed, vulnerable woman after death any more than they (don’t) care about her during life. But Jesus redirects their focus, as one biblical scholar extrapolates: “God is a God of the living, and the living are hungry. Thirsty. Exploited. Homeless. Abused. Overworked. Out of work. Lonely. Despairing. Addicted.”
The Thessalonians have some bizarre ideas, too, about the end of the world…so much that they’ve apparently lost sight of their present reality and what it means to live together in community as people of faith. But the epistle writer similarly redirects their focus and calls them back to what they know: Stand firm…hold fast to your traditions and teachings.
Notice the parallels: Why spend so much time worrying about hypotheticals in the future at the expense of overlooking or neglecting present realities?
Today it seems like the church is really good at finding itself in the place of the Sadducees or Thessalonians. We speculate about our future all the time. We dedicate so much time and energy to talking about declining church attendance numbers and desperately trying to attract new members (especially “young people”). In our Monday-Friday lives, too, we get caught up in productivity and proving ourselves by our achievements and accomplishments, placing our value as human beings on whether we’ll fail or succeed.
In his own way of refocusing us, the farmer, activist, and poet Wendell Berry asks us to invest our time differently:
Every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it…
Ask the questions that have no answers.
In a phrase, Berry summarizes at the end of his poem: Practice resurrection. Love our enemies. Pray for them. Befriend those we disagree with. Practice reconciliation. Embrace mystery. Be open to something new and different and maybe even a little uncomfortable. Because resurrection itself is unpredictable.
“Whose wife is she anyway?” It’s a question that assumes there’s a single easy answer. It presumes predictability. The Sadducees thought they had Jesus trapped, pinned down, exposed. But Jesus had other ideas.
As one pastor writes, “Resurrection is unpredictable. We think we know how the story ends. When people are killed and buried, they are dead. That is the end. The political power and show of the day, the Roman Empire had triumphed. The Jewish leaders had protected their understanding of faith and God. But God, in the act of resurrecting Jesus was proclaiming, ‘I am not done!’ There is more, and this more will change everything you think and understand about life and how the world works.”
Resurrection is so radically different than anything we have come to expect. Resurrection is a gift. And it’s not ultimately about us. It’s not about what we do or accomplish, as though resurrection is a prize to be won or bought from hard work.
Resurrection is about what Christ does for us, what Christ has done already by conquering death and all evil, and what Christ continues to do through us, as we actively resist the sinful structures in this world that degrade our fellow human beings. This is what it means to practice resurrection and be children of the resurrection: In our baptismal covenant, we promise to strive toward the peace, justice, and wholeness of all creation, to actively seek to heal the brokenness of the world, to be open to the new things God is doing in our midst.
In the reality of resurrection, the old ways of this world that bring harm and death no longer have the final word. By his resurrection, Christ breaks down the walls that divide us. This weekend, while the world remembers the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we know there are still walls to overcome – the walls of division that say you must be this or that, that you must vote or believe this way or that way, that you are in or out, legal or illegal…because in Christ there is something new entirely, a new creation, a resurrected creation, new life breaking in, and breaking down every wall and barrier.
If God is a God of the living and we are made in God’s image, then we are a people of the living, called to serve and to love the living. We are God’s beloved children…children of the resurrection. So for God’s sake, and for the sake of this weary world, let’s live like it. Let’s practice resurrection together.
A slightly modified version of this sermon was preached at The Corner House – Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) for their midweek eucharist on Thursday, November 14, 2019. A link to the manuscript is available here.