Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sunday 6 November 2016 - Ordinary 32

Theme(s): Resurrection / Resurrection life / Our glorious future if we hold fast / Holding fast to the truth / Hope in God is never misplaced

Sentence: I know that my Redeemer lives (Job 19:25)


you sent your Son to bring us truth
and your Spirit to make us holy;
open your hearts to exalt you,
open our lives to reveal you,
our one true God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings, related:

Job 19:23-27a

Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38


Job 19:23-27a

This is a fascinating passage to read. 

On one level it can be read wholly in the terms of Job's present life: his hope is that before he dies, his innocence will be proven by God himself. 

On another level (and one which obviously relates to the gospel reading today, about resurrection life), the passage can be read as Job's intense belief that he will be found innocent, even if it is after death.

Verse 25 in particular can be read (and has been read by Christians, including, famously, as lines in Handel's Messiah) as a prophecy of Christ the Redeemer's resurrection to victorious, eternal life.

Psalm 17:1-9

This prayer of David is both desperate (his deadly enemies surround him) and confident (for God will answer him). 

The prayer is prayed to the God who vindicates the righteous. It can be our prayer as ones made righteous by Christ who are confident that if not in this life then in the life to come, God will vindicate us.

2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17

The first part of this reading attends to the 'coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.' (Appropriate as we are a few weeks away from the season of Advent). 

Intriguing here is reference to the preceding appearance of 'the lawless one' prior to the coming of 'that day.' The imagery in Paul's day of a supreme, anti-God ruler would have reminded Jewish readers of Antiochus Epiphanes who desecrated the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple (167 BC) while also bringing to mind all the claims to divinity of successive Roman emperors. 

Yet Paul obviously has in mind neither a past nor a present figure but one who is to come. Is the lawless one present in our world today? There are quite a few candidates! We can think of some nasty rulers, some malevolent global business leaders, and widely known 'opinion-makers'. In all likelihood such a specific 'anti-God/anti-Christ' figure has not yet been revealed. (Those words were first written in 2013 and, notwithstanding the Trump/Clinton/Putin "circus" in the run up to the 2016 US election, they remain true today).

The second part of the reading strikes a different note, but we see that if we follow Paul here, standing firm in our faith, we will be ready for the great coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, whenever that takes place.

Paul reminds his readers that we are Christians because of God's initiative and as Christians we have a purpose, to 'obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.' So Paul prays for us, verses 16-17, that we may be comforted and strengthened by God 'in every good work and word.'

One interesting note in these verses is Paul's talk in verse 15 of holding fast to 'the traditions you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.' Paul the apostle is conscious that what he teaches is truth to hold fast to. Whether through oral teaching or written letter, the words he conveys are authoritative. Thus in this short letter, 'holy scripture' is being formed.

Luke 20:27-38

Originally this story, taking place in the last week of Jesus' life, was a story about the reality of the resurrection. The Sadducees (Israel's elite leadership class), who did not believe in the resurrection, not seeing it taught in the only ancient scriptures they recognised as authoritative (Penteteuch = Genesis to Deuteronomy), sought to check out Jesus' views on the matter.

Was the question they asked Jesus an attempt to entrap him, to steer him towards a nonsensical answer exposing the folly of the resurrection? Was it a genuine question betraying their intellectual doubts about the resurrection based on hypotheses which troubled them such as the 'what if' of a woman with seven successive husbands. (Incidentally the idea of a woman marrying brothers successively is known as 'levirate marriage' for which see Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and Genesis 38:8).

Either way, it is a good question which might be our question. That is, we too ask such "what if" questions about the resurrection. Thus we might ask today, 

'If there is resurrection, what happens when someone has had more than one spouse? Do they share heaven with both spouses?' [See below for Jesus' answer.]

Or, 'What happens if someone is eaten by a shark or if their body is cremated? Can they still receive a resurrection bod.' [I suggest God's power is greater than consequences of the shark's bite!]

Jesus answers the question asked of him very neatly and simply. The life we experience in this age is one in which marriage takes place and the life in the age of resurrection is one in which marriage does not take place. Although he does not explain the implication of this for the hypothetical woman, what he says implies the seven brothers will not be competing for her affections in the new age. This distinction between the kind of life we experience here and now and there and later is further expounded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.

There is more. Jesus goes on to make a subtle exegetical point about the scriptures cherished by the Sadducees: in these scriptures (Exodus 3:6) Moses speaks of God with reference to the great patriarchs in a way which supposes the patriarchs to be alive. The tables are turned on the resurrection-denying Sadducees: they do not read their own scriptures correctly.

As a kind of postscript, we could note that today, this response of Jesus is being used as a contribution to current debates about marriage. Along these lines: 'See, Jesus, clearly teaches that marriage is a limited institution, confined to this life and of no bearing on life beyond the grave.' From that finitude of marriage some wish to draw other implications. It is not part of this commentary to comment on the debate into which this passage is being drawn but I think it worth observing that the story is being read, by some readers, in a new way today.

In general terms, what might be a lesson we draw from this reading for life today? Likely we are not majorly interested in the inner logic of Sadduceean theology, or in the complexities of family life in heaven.

What might be of interest is Jesus' last statement, in verse 38:

'Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.'

From our perspective, life in heaven can seem like a projection of a human wish in the face of a fear: we wish to live, we fear death, life beyond the grave fulfils the wish and deals with the fear. Thus some non-believers despise Christian believers as weak people unwilling to face the brute reality of life: we die, that is the end. As (I think it was) Bertrand Russell said, 'When I die, I rot.'

But Jesus brings a different perspective. The resurrection is not a myth due to our weakness in the face of death. The resurrection is the reality of the power of God which is unable to be defeated by any other power, even death. Resurrection is the living God's gift of life. It would be foolish to refuse the gift!

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