Saturday, November 27, 2010

Advent Sunday

Well, it’s the season for making lists, and that is exactly what we have been doing this week in my household.  Letters to be written, cards sent, celebrations to attend, presents to buy, decorations and parties to plan, and just in case you’re thinking of putting it off for a week or two, the horrible piped Christmas carols in the shopping centre are winding up to full volume and the store Santas are looming.  It is of course the frantic season, followed by the shortest and most inaptly-named season on the secular Aussie calendar, the season to be jolly, before we plunge as a result of over-consumption and too much fun into the inevitable and rather blessed relief of January, silly season, and nothing much to do except listen to the cricket.

You make the mistake of coming to church, however, in the middle of all this commercialised holiness, and you might be forgiven for thinking you had arrived on a different planet.  Not only do we firmly resist the temptations of tinsel but the readings from the Bible focus our attention – not as you might think on the impending birth of an inoffensive little baby in a scruffy unimportant outpost of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago ... but on the end of all things, and on judgement, all the vaguely scary stuff that seems out of place in the countdown to Christmas. Perhaps the desire of many Christians is that this year, finally, the Church will let us get a bit earlier to the message of peace and goodwill and the general excitement of anticipation of the birth at Bethlehem.

Except, of course, that the sort of nostalgic anticipation that focuses on the birth of a baby two thousand years ago without noticing the connection between that event and the future promises of a God who continues to break into our lives and our world today, tomorrow and the next day – also misses the bigger and ultimately more helpful reality hinted at by Christmas – the claim that history itself is the story of God’s saving activity, and so has a shape, or a trajectory – that history is not random or meaningless because it is headed somewhere.  One thing I can’t help noticing about our Christmas celebrations – both the church kind and the secular kind – is how much they focus on the past, on a romanticised but not deeply thought-about memory of a birth in a stable that is emotionally satisfying because it affirms our own religious traditions - but is of little real help in connecting us with the realities of the world we live in.  Advent, however, forces us to think not backwards but forwards, toward the challenge and the fulfilment of all things, the hope that someday the world will be at peace, that one day, finally, creation will be as God wants it to be.

We live, as I may have suggested before, in an age of anxiety.  Probably every generation has its own unique things to worry about – as a university student in the late 70s I remember a general feeling of anxiety about the threat of nuclear oblivion – someone somewhere had a finger more or less permanently hovering over the button that would start the countdown to the end of the world as we knew it.  Today the end of the world comes in a variety of slower-motion scenarios – images of a planet that is drying out, running out of oil or heating up, losing its wealth of plant and animal species, running out of space and food as the human population continues to grow unsustainably; endemic levels of political and ideological conflict creating entire populations on the move and increasing our anxiety even further – and we have seen recently how politicians of all persuasions play on our general anxiety and sense of helplessness, re-focussing it as a fear of asylum seekers, re-branding our insecurity as a demand for stronger border protection.  Little wonder then that at this time of year we long for the familiar fairytale narrative of shopping, and decorations, and carols?

But the tradition of the Church suggests otherwise, and nudges our attention towards the future, as well as towards the long-ago story that helps us to remember who God is, and how God works in the world, in our lives – and the reason for this double-focus is so we can get a sense of where we are headed, and what the promises of God will bring. And so Advent calls us to remember and re-tell the story of people who, like us, were looking to the future, and waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled, and striving to live faithfully as they waited. One part of faithfulness, of course, is repentance, turning away from the paths that have taken us away from God, turning off the things that have drowned out God's voice in our hearts and minds, and turning toward new ways of living that offer hope not just to us but to those we encounter, in our personal lives, and in the wider world that God loves.

Our Gospel reading this morning is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ anxiety – anxiety about history, and events yet to come, and how God’s purposes could possibly be fulfilled in a world that seems oblivious to them.  And this text is part of a longer passage in which Jesus talks about how we should live in the ‘in-between’ times – the times between Jesus’ historical life and death and resurrection and his return to make all things whole, and right, and good.  While most Bible scholars agree that the specific focus of this passage is the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Roman armies in 70AD – an event that for the writer of the Gospel was already past history – it is clear also that Jesus expected that God to break into human history in a way that would transform and fulfil the initial act of creation.  And he speaks over and over again about the agenda of God in human history – but notice that in today’s reading Jesus specifically tells us he doesn’t know God’s timing, he isn’t giving us a future blueprint of history, just the assurance that God is active within it.  As Christians of course we see the main evidence for this in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus himself.  That however much God’s purposes in history are hidden from us, we know that God’s priorities are the ones revealed in the life of Jesus.

And I think it is significant that in this passage the focus shifts from grand and cosmic images to the mundane and ordinary, from a vision of the sun and moon going dark and stars falling out of the sky to a picture of workers in the field and women in the kitchen.  It reminds us that we need to connect the great and remote-sounding statements of the Gospel to our own lives, and the mundane events of our own time.  Theologian Mary Shore points out though that where apocalyptic writings like Daniel and Revelation seem to be addressed to people living through great and terrible persecution, giving hope that God will break in from outside to restore and set things right, this passage from Matthew seems to be addressed to sleepy people, people who have lost focus or forgotten their original vision.  People – perhaps like us – who have been living with limited expectations for so long they no longer believe that anything much will ever change.  And she describes the passage as what we Aussies would call a “wake-up call” – a reminder to expect the unexpected, a reminder that the X-factor in human history is God, and that ultimately, human power and human plans are not the last word. [1]

Which in fact is deeply reassuring, especially for disciples like us who look around us at the world we live in and see – a seemingly endless parade of human suffering, cynicism and indifference.  It’s easy, for example, to see the deaths of 29 miners in Greymouth, New Zealand, as a great and arbitrary tragedy – less easy, however, to see the deaths of 10,000 underground miners every single year as anything other than the consequence of misplaced human priorities that place more value on coal and power and industry than on the lives of men and women.  And living in a world defined by human competitiveness and greed, the only way to preserve hope, the only way to maintain a willing sense of discipleship, is to trust that at any moment we may be surprised by the sudden presence of God.  Today’s reading reminds us that the living God waiting for us around the next bend is the wild card of our own lives and of history itself, the holy surprise that not only illuminates and makes sense of our lives, but that finally gathers the whole of human history into the extravagant mercy of God.

And Matthew gives us in the very next chapter a hint as to how we are supposed to live while we wait for God’s promises, or, to use the familiar imagery of Christian expectation, for Jesus’ return.  As writer David Bartlett puts it: ‘one day, perhaps, Jesus will reappear, suddenly, in the clouds or like a thief in the night, and we had better be prepared.  But before that – in fact every single day of our lives -  Jesus is going to appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbour ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned’. And how we respond to Jesus in these situations is going to set the terms for how Jesus responds to us on the great day of judgement and fulfilment.

In other words, the focus for Christians waiting for the fulfilment of all things, in other words, needs to be on how we live our lives right now in ways that are pleasing to God and that demonstrate our trust in God’s goodness.  As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: ‘resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow’.  Focus instead on how you live today.  Ours, Taylor reminds us, may very well be the generation that witnesses the triumphant return of Jesus in the clouds – or else we might meet him in the same way that all the generations before us have - one by one by one, as each of us closes our eyes for the last time. Either way, our lives are in God's hands, and that’s OK. [2]


[1] New Proclamation 2007

[2] "On the Clouds of Heaven" in The Seeds of Heaven

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reign of Christ

A couple of months ago the world was stunned – and the governments of the United States, Great Britain and Australia among others infuriated – by the release on the Internet of almost 400,000 separate classified documents and images detailing the conduct of coalition forces in the war in Iraq.  The documents were released by the whistle-blower Internet media organisation Wikileaks, which somehow manages to operate beyond the reach of the governments it is criticising and has previously broken explosive stories on climate change, government corruption religious cults and espionage.  In the introduction to the mass of material on its website, Wikileaks comments that the material it is making available detail over 109,000 separate deaths in Iraq which include the deaths of over 66,000 civilians, or 31 non-combatant men, women and children every single day for six years, many at the hands of coalition forces including Australian troops.  The Wikileaks material documents in excruciating and horrifying detail the flagrant disregard of accepted international legal standards, and documents instance after instances of overwhelming force being used against civilian targets by coalition forces who apparently operated most of the time under a ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ policy.  Also documented are allegations of coalition forces involvement in torture, summary executions and other war crimes.  The project’s organisers comment that they felt morally obliged to publish the material “knowing that we all stand under the judgement of God”.

Interestingly the response from coalition governments including our own has not been to dispute the truthfulness of the material released by Wikileaks but to complain that the release of the material puts coalition forces in greater danger, and to attack Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

The point, of course, is that if the Wikileaks material is genuine – and so far there is no argument about that – then its publication in defiance of the Pentagon, of the British and Australian governments is an act of moral courage, and a commitment to the liberating power of truth.  And – it seems to me – an appropriate introduction to our reflection on the kingship of Christ.  At first glance, you might not think the connection is very obvious – but today’s liturgical theme, the reign of Christ, is a newcomer to the Church calendar, having been instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, in the aftermath of the war to end all wars and the looming shadow of the even darker war that began a half-century of violent aftershocks, in the context of the wave of destabilising European nationalist movements in the 1920s – and Pope Pius asserted in his encyclical that the Feast of Christ the King would call to mind for all earthly powers and authorities that their actions and their use of power is called into question and ultimately judged by the one whose reign is founded in the refusal to accept any limitation to the power of forgiveness and love.

And so we listen to Luke’s Gospel for an idea of what Jesus tells us God’s reign is all about.  And in our passage today we can hardly miss the note of irony that points uncomfortably to the contradictions in our own world and in ourselves.

Jesus, who has spent three years proclaiming and demonstrating God's reign, who has specialised in the telling of parables – pointed little stories - to tell men and women about the scandalous grace and the universal welcome of God's reign, in today’s passage is mocked on the cross as a false king – as a pretender and an impostor. He is mocked by the religious leaders, by the soldiers, and by the sign above his head that describes this dying 'criminal' as king of the Jews - when he clearly isn't. And the mockery follows the same theme through the whole episode - if Jesus is a king, then he should save himself, and he should also save others. For one of the brigands crucified alongside Jesus it gets even more personal - if there is any saving going to be done, he wants to be a beneficiary, and be released from the consequences of his own actions.

And this is the irony that Luke the Gospel writer is spreading on thick: that right while Jesus is being mocked for his inability to save himself and others, for being a false king – is right when he is doing exactly what is being asked of him, and right when he is doing what any true king or political leader should do.  For everybody gathered at the foot of Jesus’ cross there is real saving going on – words of forgiveness spoken even as they mock; the promise of life for the repentant brigand; the recognition by the Roman Centurion a few verses further on of Jesus' true identity.  For Jesus himself?  The decision to die consistently with how he lived and what he taught and promised, to be a leader who lays down his life for those around him, for those who love him and for those who hate him.  And the vindication of Jesus’ topsy turvy policy of repaying hate and betrayal with forgiveness and love as first Jesus’ closest disciples, then gradually Jews and Gentiles and the whole of the known world begin to experience the shamed and crucified criminal as the risen one, the Word of God that unravels the mystery of our own lives by placing God’s priority of vulnerable love in contradiction to our practice of power and violence.

In short, on the cross, Jesus heals and saves those around him, and demonstrates the power of his kingship that ultimately calls all human institutions and all human pretences at power into question.

If we follow the logic of Jesus on the cross, then everything that we are accustomed to associating with kingship and power in human terms is not what the reign of Christ or the kingdom of God is about.  Actually we shouldn’t be surprised, because that after all is what Jesus taught in his parables and in the way he lived.  God’s reign, Jesus says, is surprising and humble and vulnerable, and it creeps in when you are not watching, and it is found in the smallest and the least valued of human experiences, and – as the Song of Mary claims – reverses our human priorities, our human love of wealth and power and makes worthless everything we thought was valuable and valuable what we thought was worthless.  Or as St Paul tells us – the power of God is what in human terms would be considered weakness and ridiculousness and yet – the folly and vulnerability of God makes relative and worthless all human claims to power.

Sometimes we read claims like these as saying just that God has got more power even in his little finger than all the nuclear arsenals of the world combined – even when he isn’t trying, even when he has one hand tied behind his back God is still way stronger than any sort of human strength – but that, I think, is not it at all.  Rather, I think, what is being said is quite literally – that the weakness of God, the vulnerability and powerless of God that we see in Jesus on the cross – is what challenges and relativises and erodes our human exercise of power.  German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer looked around himself during World War 2 as his Jewish countrymen and women were being rounded up for deportation and claimed that only a God who is powerless to prevent human evil made sense.  The only God left for us, Bonhoeffer claimed, was the God who allowed himself, over and over, to be pushed aside onto the cross.  The only God that any longer made sense was the God who opposed human evil with nothing more than suffering love.  And this is the kingship of Christ, the reign of God that continues even into our present day to call into question and to critique human evil and to stand in solidarity with human suffering.

Today’s feast, the Reign of Christ, is not a feel-good, triumphalistic and over-spiritualised celebration of the risen Christ seated in heaven at the right hand of God, or even of the Christ of personal devotion elevated as king in the recesses of our hearts.  According to Pope Pius XI, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to St Paul and to the Gospel writer to assert the Reign of Christ is first and foremost an act of political defiance, a claim that God, not human power, gets the last word – and an undertaking to live by the reversed set of values that the crucified Jesus demonstrates.

To oppose murder and betrayal with suffering love and forgiveness.  To oppose meanness of spirit with inclusive love and generosity.  To oppose selfishness and greed with trusting love and self-sacrifice.  To oppose the fear and timidity of our own hearts with the vulnerability and transforming love of the crucified Jesus.

We are actually not very good at this.  We fall back, all the time, into patterns of defensive living and selfishness and mistrust of those who are different from us, different in appearance or class or ethnicity or religion.  We use our own faith as a way of affirming our own value and ignoring the truth of others.  We claim to follow the way of love but practice competitiveness and ungenerosity of spirit.  We are not very good at recognising or at living the reign of Christ.

The one thing, in fact, that stands between us and despair - is the vulnerability and weakness of the crucified and risen Christ himself who without condemnation calls all human practices of power to account, including our own.  Thank God for that.



Friday, November 12, 2010

Pentecost 25C

Arthur Malcolm Stace is, I suggest, the best-known and most widely quoted preacher Australia has ever known.  You might not know the name.  Maybe it will help if I also say that Stace is also Australia’s earliest, greatest and certainly most prolific graffiti artist ever.  Stace, of course, is the man who wrote the word ‘Eternity’ on the pavements of Sydney in chalk over half a million times between 1932 and his retirement in 1960.  Stace’s one-word sermon was quoted in full – in letters a hundred metres high –in lights on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the middle of the fireworks on New Years Day 2000 – making him also probably the Australian preacher whose sermons have reached the widest audience ever, and certainly the only Australian preacher whose collected works most of us know off by heart.

Stace, of course, is talking about the end of human existence – not the finish, not the last bit after which there is nothing left, but the end, the destination or the purpose of human existence, which is Eternity.  Stace also points us, in the sheer volume of his output and in the surprising ordinariness of the places it was and still is likely to turn up, to the fact that the end of human existence is among us and all around us, right here and now.  The end of all things is hidden, but turns up unexpectedly, as Jesus also suggests, like treasure buried in the backyards of our suburban lives; or the love note from your spouse that you discover half-way down your shopping list.

Every year, around the end of the cycle of readings before we get into the exciting business of Advent, the church gives us for the Sunday readings a set of texts that has us think about the end of all things.  For the mainstream church and for liberal theologians like me, this poses a few problems.  We’re more at home talking about how Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom challenges the way we live, challenges the assumptions of a comfortable Western lifestyle, challenges us to re-order our priorities in line with God’s preferential concern for the have-nots, for the ones who are left out.  We’re not quite so at home putting on the sandwich board and walking up and down the footpath with a sign that says, ‘the end is nigh’.  There are enough people out there doing that already, from the secular prophets predicting the end of civilization as we know it as a result of environmental breakdown or global warming, to the religious ones making tidy sums out of claiming to have cracked the apocalyptic code of international political events.  What’s the message for us in Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth, or in Luke’s warnings of the end of the old ones?

Two words probably sum up everything we need to say – the first one from Stace – Eternity – the second one from Jesus in today’s gospel reading – don’t panic!  But let’s look, firstly, at the message of Isaiah.

The first thing to notice is that these last few chapters of Isaiah were written some time after the Jewish people returned from their long exile in Babylon - after the homecoming, after the temple has been rebuilt, to a people who are disillusioned and disappointed because even though they have returned to the land, the reality hasn’t turned out quite as wonderful as the expectation.  The glorious future they’d built themselves up to expect had turned out to be fairly ordinary. In this section of the writing, the message of 3rd Isaiah says that Israel’s expectation of political restoration was too narrow, what God is on about is nothing less than a new creation – and if we read it carefully, Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth where meat-eaters turn into vegetarians, where people will live heroic lifespans and children will not be born for calamity – where peace will prevail for every creature except that old trouble-maker, the serpent – Isaiah’s vision reminds us of the creation story of Genesis, it’s a vision of Eden before Eden went wrong.  It’s a vision of a new creation where instead of trying to keep secrets from God, and trying to compete with God, humans will depend on God and trust in God’s good purposes.  Everything that has prevented creation from being what God intended is going to be taken away – the details of this utopia are less important than the vision itself – of a new creation in which the daily disasters we see on the TV news aren’t going to determine the future of God’s creation – neither terrorism nor military force are going to have the last word in God’s creation – neither political deception nor domestic violence, neither environmental neglect nor poverty are going to limit what human life can be.  The suffering in Haiti or Burma is not going to have the last word.  Isaiah announces that there’s going to be a radical makeover of the whole creation, a re-integration of the physical and the social and the spiritual aspects of life, and the renewing of our relationships with one another and with God – as Christians, we understand this as the coming to fullness in creation of the resurrection of Christ, or as the outworking of God’s kingdom that Jesus promised in his ministry and demonstrated in his death and his rising into new life.  So this reading from Isaiah reminds us not only of the beginning and the purpose of creation, but of the one event within creation that holds everything together - the joining of heaven and earth that begins with the birth of Jesus, and is completed in the resurrection of the Christ.  The initiative in all of this is God’s and our job is just to trust in God’s purposes, and to trust that God’s intention is to complete and to fulfil the creation that God loves.  When we fall into the temptation of pragmatism – when we look around and say to ourselves, ‘what if this is as good as it gets?’, then we need the perspective of Eternity.

And so to Luke where, at first glance, Jesus seems to be predicting the exact opposite, destruction and chaos and instability.  Here again we need to know the context, because Luke is writing after the event, after the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman armies and the destruction of the second temple in 70AD.  This was the result of a short-lived revolt against Rome during the late 60s - an unmitigated disaster in which a series of short-lived messianic leaders exploited the general panic – Maybe Jesus back in the early 30s predicted the fall of the temple, maybe Luke is putting words in Jesus mouth – that’s not the real point.  But Luke’s readers, this group of Christians, know what it is to have lived through catastrophe and terror, when everything that seemed solid collapsed around them.  The point Jesus (or Luke) is making is, know where your centre is, when you see people trading on despair to whip up religious or political fanaticism, people who claim to know the secret code of history – and we have enough modern doomsday merchants for this to be familiar – we’ve seen in recent times how fear of terrorism can explode into irrationality and victimisation – when we see that the realities of the world we live in are driven by fear, and hatred and suspicion, and the secular wisdom is to retreat into our factions, to react to the hype and the one-liners of media editors or doomsday preachers – Jesus says remember where your centre is, live out of the wisdom of God and the centre which is the Holy Spirit, not out of fear.  When we fall into the temptation of despair – when we look around at the madness and the darkness of our world and say to ourselves, ‘God must be dead’ – then we need the perspective of Eternity.  Luke is realistic – he knows something about conflict and betrayal, he’s not promising that Christians are going to be immune, that we’ll have special protection, but he’s saying live out of trust that our future is in God’s hands, and that even in adversity we can trust in God’s care for us.  Trusting God doesn’t mean withdrawing from the events of our time, it means opposing the madness and hatred that fear creates, it means opposing oppression wherever we find it, it means standing up for those in our community who are on the edges, but above all it means living out of the stillness and the wisdom of God, trusting in God’s purposes and God’s intention to complete and fulfil God’s creation.

Today Jesus says to us, don’t panic.  Live from the perspective of Eternity, instead.


Pentecost 24C

The  movie, Amadeus, about the life of Mozart as told from the point of view of his jealous arch-rival, Salieri, makes the point that Mozart’s life spans the closing decades of the 18th century, a time when much that was certain and fixed was breaking down.  It was the time of ending of old political alliances and notions of Empire, and the beginning of the age of modernism, a time of enforced change as the marauding armies of Napoleon tore down the old Europe and replaced royal courts with efficient bureaucratic administrations and the rule of the proletariat.  It was also a time of relentless cultural change, with Salieri at one point lamenting that proper Italian operas were being tossed aside for Mozart’s flashy music-hall extravaganzas.  I must admit when I first read the play on which the movie was later based I found the thought intriguing.  Mozart – who for most of us today represents a tradition that is time-honoured and for younger people even rigid and stuffy – through the eyes of Salieri comes over as a brash, self-opinionated pop-star, his music - brilliant and innovative and ultra-modern as it is – offensive to good taste.

And so it is with the Pharisees.  We in the church are accustomed – wrongly accustomed, in my humble opinion – to a jaundiced view of the Pharisees as seen through the eyes of the Gospel writers and the early Church.  The Pharisees seem to represent a way of looking at the world and of thinking about God that is rigid and hide-bound and unimaginatively tied to lists of do’s and don’ts.  The Pharisees – so the Christian tradition often supposes – completely miss the point of God’s love and of the stunningly free gift of grace.  And I guess we hold this opinion of the Pharisees because Jesus argued with them so much.  Well, but what if Jesus argued with the Pharisees because they were worth arguing with?  What if they argued a lot because they agreed about a lot?

Because in today’s Gospel reading it is the Pharisees – and Jesus – who represent the radical, fresh, smarty-pants new thinking – and who are coming under fire from the old school, the sect of the Sadducees.  Certainly, there seems to have been a bewildering array of different Jewish sects and splinter groups all arguing ferociously amongst themselves, and in the early Church itself there was also fierce argument between different traditions and communities who – as St Paul complains – see themselves as followers of Apollo or followers of Paul or even – some of them – followers of Christ.  It’s good for us to bear this in mind especially when from time to time we hear the complaint that we should all just go back to the good old-fashioned religion of the early Church where things were as they should be.  The reality is that disagreement about what God is like and what God expects us to be like is as old as religion itself!  The Sadducees believed in the good old-fashioned books of the Bible, the first five called the Pentateuch.  God had spoken through Moses and that according to the Sadducees was that.  The Sadducees didn’t hold with the idea that God was still speaking to God’s people, didn’t like the idea of letting newer writings like the prophetic literature into the Bible, and certainly didn’t accept that God could be revealing new truths through outsiders.  There was nothing in the Pentateuch about heaven or eternity, and like good religious people everywhere it became very important for the Sadducees to prove how ridiculous their opponents were - and so in today’s story they come up with a hypothetical example as a way of demonstrating how this new-fangled belief in resurrection leads to an impossible contradiction.

Well, we should probably pause at this point and feel sorry for the poor lady in the example who gets passed along from brother to brother like a sack of potatoes, and certainly we need to notice that the hypothetical situation revolves around the Levirate marriage system which was designed to ensure the continuity of families in a society where there was no such thing as social welfare.  A patriarchal society that more or less treated women as possessions.  But the real point that is being made in today’s Gospel story is about God.

And in fact, at this point in the history of the Jewish people, belief in life after death was very new-fangled.  Most scholars believe that teaching about resurrection started to creep into Jewish thought just a few centuries before the birth of Jesus, when the people of Judah newly released from exile began to re-establish their religious practices under the cultural and political influence of the Persian Empire.  Like the belief in angels, the idea of personal immortality may have been a fairly recent import into Judaism from Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Empire.  And new sects like the Pharisees picked it up and embraced it and thought yes, that makes sense.  That’s how God would be, that makes sense of God’s perspective on justice, especially when we live in a world where justice is so often denied.  A belief in resurrection seemed natural to a people who had lived through the destruction of the Temple and long years of exile.  And so the hope of liberation, that is at the very bedrock of the religion of Israel, began to also mean a hope that at the end of this life, at the end of the age, everything that keeps men and women imprisoned and oppressed would be transformed.  And so the righteous would surely be raised from the dead.  Life, they thought, just wouldn’t make sense otherwise.  And Jesus, like the Pharisees, embodies this hope and belief in resurrection, this hope that all that we are is not lost at the end of our earthly life, but is somehow gathered into God and completed. 

And Jesus answers the Sadducees’ hypothetical question, and his answer makes a couple of things really clear.  Firstly that he is on the side of those who think that God can and does keep speaking new words in new times, that faith is not tied to dusty old scriptures but also grows in response to new situations and new experiences.  That our thinking about God needs to take account not only of our own religious traditions but the insights of other traditions and other ways of seeing the world.  He is a Mozart, in other words, not a Salieri.

And the second thing is – in just a couple of words – he tells us why we don’t just die into nothing.  Which is surprising because at first glance Jesus answer looks a bit flaky.  Not one of his very best arguments.  Hey! says Jesus to the Sadducees, the books of the Pentateuch that you yourselves accept describe God as the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – and everybody knows that God is the God not of the dead but of the living – so obviously Abraham and Isaac and Jacob must be not dead but living.  Well, um, OK.

But I’ve thought about this some more, and I think what Jesus is saying here is stunning in its simplicity.  He is actually pointing out the obvious, which is that the only sensible way to talk about God - is as a God whose character and existence are revealed in relationship.  In relationship with actual men and women in the unfolding of history.  What it means is that God is not God by Godself – but God with us.  God is love, God is the God of relationship.  And if that is the case, if God is first and foremost God with us, and if God’s loving care of us continues so that even in death God is still God with us, then we also are with God.  If God’s life is first and foremost a sort of creative relationality – a relationship which brings us into existence – then our own identity and our own existence is constituted out of relationship with God.  So if God remains God, then we remain in relationship with God.  If God’s loving care for us never ends, then our relationship and our life in God never ends.

It’s a big claim, but it’s a simple claim.  We die into God because of who God is, and because of who we are created to be.

But then in Luke’s version of the story is where Jesus - or perhaps the Gospel writer himself - pads out the argument with the observation that the Sadducees’  hypothetical situation can’t arise in any case because there is no sex in heaven.  Which from the point of view of the poor seven-times married wife might seem like rather a relief though the rest of us might not necessarily see it as such a good idea.  It seems to come from the idea that because there is no more dying, there is no more need for babies – and of course owes much to the sort of over-religious values common in both Jesus’ day and also in our own that curiously overlook the blessing that God bestows on sexual union in Genesis chapter two.  And in fact Jesus’ own theology of loving relationship that lies behind his answer to the Sadducees suggests that we are who we are not only in relationship to God but in relationship to one another – that our human relationships are based on the foundational relationship we have with God – so without arguing the point perhaps we might also trust that the relationships we have with those whom we have loved throughout our lives might also be fulfilled and completed in the life beyond this.

The point is simply that God is God.  That the basis of all our hope as Christians is that we are formed and live our lives in the context of God’s love, and that trust in the eternal God of love to complete and fulfill us in love in the life beyond this is surely not misplaced.