I’m not Neo, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a succession of obligations this week whizzing at me like the missiles in The Matrix. Missing one day of a busy week for travel will do that, I guess. This week I must prepare two course proposals for next year (for our new-style taught Masters programme), continue interviewing colleagues for my Learning-and-Teaching responsibilities, continue developing one grant proposal and turn in another, write back to my wonderful hosts at Oxford, make time for community worship on Tuesday and Thursday, gear up for beginning my New Testament lectures Monday, and prep my role for the all-day Gospel of Matthew Study Day on Saturday.
It is good, though, to remember that the sermon seemed to have gone down well (it’ll be posted in the “extended” portion of the entry; it needs a couple of corrections, which I’ll get to anon) and that Margaret and I had a delightful time down south. I must say that the guest rooms in the Warden’s Lodgings — which the College had only just finished refurbishing Friday for our arrival Saturday — were extraordinarily comfortable and elegant. We’d have loved more time to meander and explore Oxford, but I think we dare hope that we may have another visit sometime.
Now, back to work.
Keble College Chapel, Oxford
Jesus said, “In the resurrection from the dead they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
+ In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit — Amen.
We should not be too hard on the Sadducees. Although they ask Jesus their question from a general context of people’s hostility toward Jesus, this gospel story depicts no trickery, no conspiratorial subtlety. Their query expresses a concern that has teased imaginations for millennia: “What does the future hold for us? If we live beyond our bodies’ death, what may that life be like?” Such speculations draw our imaginations to a domain where we encounter an unsettling lack of direct evidence; the prospect of something after death puzzles the intellect, troubles the heart, and amply warrants an earnest question to a wandering preacher.
The Sadducees, after all, found no reason to believe that life persists after death. They saw no teaching in their Scriptures, the Torah, that suggested eternal life; Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Miriam, the whole cast of characters from Genesis through Deuteronomy seems to have lived and died without anticipating any participation in eternity, without expressing any confidence in a heavenly reward or any fear of divine punishment. Resurrection was not taught in their Scriptures, and it wasn’t enshrined in their traditions, and they certainly didn’t have any first-hand evidence for resurrection from their daily lives. The Sadducees were sensible people with an entirely reasonable objection to the promises that Jesus was preachin
So I can see why some of the Sadducees might challenge Jesus with what they figured was a logical puzzle for someone who believed in the resurrection: “If you’re correct, Jesus, if our person, our very identity is raised from death into new life, what about the distinctive characteristics and relationships that make us who we are? It’s all very well to invite people to imagine things for which there’s no empirical evidence, but you really ought to be able to answer obvious conundrums that arise from your programme.” God gave the Law that we should not leave a widow childless; how does Jesus’ teaching fit into this picture?
Jesus, in turn, does not so much answer the Sadducees’ question as he changes the entire frame of reference. When Jesus says that “those who are considered worthy of the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage,” he insists to them and to us that resurrection life is not just like mortal, temporal life. Resurrection, Jesus reminds us, is not a long, drawn-out version of human adulthood. Our destiny as children of God removes us from some of the kinds of concern that characterise this age. The Sadducees pick the example of marriage and family law, assuming that a covenanted marriage ratified before God must last beyond life itself — but Jesus explains marriage as a distinctly earthly, mortal institution.
In the temporal world, marriage integrates us with a wider social and economic order, from our ancestors to our children’s children, and with our in-laws and their relations. Marriage serves to situate us, to locate us in a web of relationships and embed us there more comprehensively. This may be one reason that Jesus himself did not marry: to head off nonsensical speculation about his children, or to avoid implying that one or another family group was especially closely linked to him. Marriage, and especially the sort of marriage about which the Sadducees asked Jesus, asserts something about our identity and our obligations; but in the life of the resurrection, we need no further identity than “children of God,” and in the abundance of eternity we no longer face the kind of economic need that families protect against.
Similarly, the temporal institution of marriage provides a safe space for spiritual and bodily nakedness. We take a tremendous risk when we unveil our souls to another, as anybody who has endured heartbreak and the subsequent shattered loneliness can attest. We take a great risk when we unveil our bodies to another. And by ordering our lives so that we reserve the most fragile forms of human intimacy for the context of particular, unique relationships that endure for the course of a lifetime, we set marriage apart as the preserve of the very most risky forms of human trusting and caring. Marriage protects us from ourselves, from our foolishness and flightiness, by committing us to making ourselves trustworthy and trusting to one particular person; to asking more, asking the most, of one particular person, and of giving the most to them; and therefore marriage gives us permission to be perfectly, unreservedly open to another. Yet the children of the resurrection need no longer mistrust anyone, need not hold back any part of themselves; our risen selves will need no protection from shame or betrayal.
And marriage offers us a setting in which to practise and exemplify the kind of love analogous to the love with which God loves us. The love in marriage is not determined by deserts or merit; we do not promise to love our spouse as long as they earn that love, but we promise to love them in all conditions until death do us part. We marry another perhaps most importantly as a crash course in forgiveness, displaying to us all the multifarious ways we can disappoint, injure, or fall short of the best of what we might offer our lover. These boundaries mark off a unique intensity in human love that hints at the divine intensity with which we are beloved of God. Yet when we are drawn past death into the boundless life of God, we take part in that expansive love for which human examples are but a rough draft.
And none of the limitations characteristic of marriage endure beyond death to our hope for participation in our unlimited life in the presence of God. Marriage acknowledges our limitations, and at the same time it launches us on brave, fallible efforts to reach beyond our human limitations to love somebody, as best we can, in the way that God loves. Once we pass beyond the limitations of mortality, marriage no longer serves that role. The angelic children of the resurrection no longer marry or are given in marriage any more than they choose particular clothing for particular days, or prefer particular flavours of ice cream. We will be like angels, deathless, and so abounding in the radiance of divine love that no particular relationships will define us more than any others.
Now, we have not yet reached that state. You may not use tonight’s sermon as an excuse for breaking up a strained relationship, saying, “It’s all over, dear; as a child of God, I will no longer date you or be taken on dates.” Nor indeed may you suggest that the universal love into which we will one day be brought justifies, ahem, expanding the horizons of your affections. As tonight’s epistle lesson reminds us, the day of the Lord has not already arrived. We have a ways yet to go, probably a long way to go until we attain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. The patience, the waiting go along with the limitations of our condition as children of this age.
But the promise of our destiny as children of an altogether different sort of life promises to raise us out of temporality, out of partiality, out of limitations into God’s boundless love. And after this mortal flesh has been destroyed, after old age or alienation or suffering or oppression have done their worst to us, even then we shall be raised from death, and we shall see God.
And if the Sadducees didn’t grasp this possibility, we may not think ill of them; of the glory of resurrection life we ourselves have only the faintest glimpses in a glass, darkly. That good hope eludes many, from Sadducees and centurions of old to professors and prime ministers, bailiffs and bishops today. And we ourselves may err in the contours of what we anticipate. Yet we answer the queries and challenges of this age with our confident hope something greater: we baptise, in anticipation of our own rebirth into new and unending life; we marry, in anticipation of being united in love with God and all creation; we break bread and pour out wine, in anticipation of sharing in the superabundant communion of the unbroken Body of Christ. And we rise up in anticipation of being raised, and standing in the presence of of our Redeemer, of him and not another, as children of God — sharers in the eternal glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.