At our parish Bible Study two weeks ago, the question of what happens after we die was raised. Whilst there are different views regarding the afterlife, the Church has always believed in life after death. Each Sunday during the Creed we declare our faith that:
‘We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’ ‘A disgwyliwn am atgyfodiad y meirw, a bywyd y byd sydd i ddyfod.’
For Christians life is changed, and not ended. This is shown to us by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Easter is the highpoint of the year because in it we celebrate Christ’s triumph over death, and the offer of new and eternal life in Him. This is our reason for hope. Jesus shows us that our earthly life is not all that there is, and that God sent His Son to show us the way to Heaven.
Such considerations were entirely foreign to the Sadducees, who although they were part of the Jewish religious establishment, held very different views to the Pharisees, especially regarding what happens after someone dies. The Sadducees denied the idea that there was life after death, which is the reason for the Gospel passage this morning. They want to have a religious argument with Jesus in order to support their views. So they ask Our Lord a question:
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterwards the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” (Lk 20:28-33)
This situation may well strike us as strange. It is not something which we are used to nowadays. This is an idea bound up with questions of the inheritance of property, and keeping that property within a family. As such, it is a legal question, which is also aimed to defend the Sadducees’ beliefs, and is an exercise in self-justification. These religious lawyers take an extreme example of so-called levirate marriage, where a widow married relatives of her late husband, in order to justify their lack of belief in life after death. The use of the number seven is significant, as it signifies perfection, the number of days in the week. The Sadducees are attempting to mock Christ’s belief in the afterlife. They are trying to show that the belief is ridiculous, but end up looking foolish themselves.
Jesus begins by addressing their question, explaining both what resurrection is, and what it is not:
“The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” (Lk 20:34-36)
Our Lord’s answer points to heavenly realities, not earthly ones. In the Resurrection we do not simply carry on as before, but being united with God and raised to new life in Him, we live a heavenly life. In our heavenly life we will not be concerned with the inheritance of property, but instead, with the worship and love of God. The Sadducees are focussed on earthly things. For them religion is about power and control, strict conservatism and the literal interpretation of Scripture, in order to reinforce their elevated position in the religious hierarchy and society in general.
Jesus then develops his argument, through an interpretation of a verse in Exodus, to show the reality of the promise of resurrection:
“But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” (Lk 20:37-38)
God’s disclosure of Himself to Moses proves Our Lord’s point, and undermines the Sadducees’ claim to interpret Scripture. The point of God’s relationship with humanity is that it is not ended by death, but lasts forever. In a month when we pray for the Faithful Departed on All Souls’ Day and remember those who have lost their lives in war, the reality of eternal life in God gives a great comfort.
We can take to heart the words of St Paul as he encouraged Christians in Northern Greece:
‘Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.’ (2Thess 2:16-17)
Paul is writing to a community concerned about the hereafter. These are people who need encouragement, and God’s help to live the life of faith. After praying for the Thessalonians, Paul asks them for their prayers:
‘Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honoured, as happened among you,’ (2Thess 3:1)
Paul sees prayer, as an important way to maintain a relationship with God, and put faith into practice. Prayer changes us, and helps us to make our faith visible. It helps God’s grace to be active, because through prayer our will and the will of God become aligned.
Hope is an important part of our faith, which is to be lived out in love: costly, and self-giving. This is our calling as Christians. This is what St Paul is encouraging the Church to live out. As a result of this we are called to prayer and the spread of the Gospel, so that the message of God’s love and forgiveness may be spread. It is a message of healing and wholeness through the person of Jesus Christ. Christ gives Himself to death on the Cross, so that we can have hope; hope that this world is not all that there is, that our destiny is something greater, something richer. The Sadducees can only ask a question to try and support their denial of life after death. Christ, however, communicates the reality of eternal life with God. He speaks of what He knows, that God loves us. Let us trust Him, and show that trust in prayer, that we and the faithful departed may rest in the peace and rise in the glory of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.