Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
The leaves are mostly down now. The trees along the parkway across the street, displayed a fiery red. The little Maple near the front walkway is still a glowing yellow. Some people, like trees, reveal their inner glory late in life. To appreciate fall is to savor transience and transition. Being is becoming that becomes being again—which is beautiful and terrifying of course.
Fall begs the question. What happens when I die? Unfortunately, the Sadducees, who actually asked Jesus, were not interested in the answer. Instead, they engaged in combat. The Sadducees sat at the top the religious hierarchy. They controlled the Temple. They were privileged, landed, elite, arrogant, and often in cahoots with the Roman Empire. In forty years, both they and the Temple would be gone. But this was their final chance to put Jesus in his place before they committed themselves to dispatch him by violence.
Their contrived outlandish hypothetical question about a woman who marries and is widowed by seven brothers was a trap. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? They’re point was to prove that life after death is absurd.
Fortunately, Jesus didn’t answer their question. He came closer to answering ours. Jesus realized there is no right answer to a wrong question—especially one designed as a trap. Because the Sadducees’ only read the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch, Jesus quoted Moses. Moses had stood beside the burning bush in the wilderness and addressed “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Luke 20:37) Therefore, the Lord is not God of the dead, Jesus said, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:38) The dead become like angels. Jesus will also say, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) He will say to the criminal crucified beside him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) And that’s it. That is literally all Jesus had to say about what happens when we die. Jesus didn’t offer many details. As pastor, what I often say is, scripture offers assurance that this God whom we have come to know and trust with our life, will also be trustworthy in our death. The realms of heaven go beyond my imagining.
Martin Luther said something like this. He taught that we actually undergo two deaths—one big and one small. We have already undergone a big death in baptism. We are children of God forever. The smaller one is our physical death. We are alive in Christ forever–beginning now, now, now, now, and persisting into eternity. How does that knowledge change the way we live today?
Jesus didn’t have a lot to say about when we die, but he never stopped talking about the kingdom that is coming. A realm where no human being “belongs” to any other, because all belong equally to God. It is the very kin-dom we invite to take hold every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was not a distant future event but a powerful nearby reality. Our true citizenship has already been transferred into Christ’s kingdom. Christians waiting for the second coming have missed the bus. The good news is there’s always another one coming. Like the old song says, ‘You don’t need a ticket. You just get on board.’
This season in the church, the seven Sundays between All Saints and Christmas, this set of readings, are a wake-up call to an ever-present reality. Each season of the church year offers a new window into the life of faith. What makes this stretch of Sundays important is this chance to incorporate an eschatological lens to our life in God. The Alpha is our Omega, our beginning is also our end. God has joined these together in an eternal now Jesus called the kingdom of God.
Dwelling in this kin-dom brings an end to business-as-usual. A new “Day” is upon us. It puts an end to our fear. It protects us from the slings and arrows of this world. We are servants of the God of the living. So, we hold out for the impossible. We may dare to live as Jesus longs for us to live. We set out to advance this kin-dom. We work right beside God confident that the love which propels us has also embraced us and will never let go.
For the next seven Sundays our bible talks a lot about the end times. It will often do so in a language and style popular among ancient people called apocalyptic literature. Earthquakes, plagues, wars, and famines are its dreadful portents, great signs from heaven that God’s judgement is loose upon the land. This baffles modern Christians unfamiliar with this literary style. We often become apocalyptic literalists, by trying to reconcile details from different stories as if these were secret divine messages to be decoded. At best, this is an exercise in futility. At its worst, as in Christian Zionism, it becomes foreign policy, as when Christians send money to Israel hoping to provoke holy war and the second coming.
So, these seven Sundays are important not just for faith but also to prevent violence and suffering from the misuse of scripture. This gospel about God’s kingdom that is coming does indeed set fire to the world as we know it –but it does so from within our hearts and minds. The war being waged now is one of spirit and of faith.
We are a resurrection people. Christ has opened the door to undying life. Jesus affirms the dead are alive to God. God gives life and preserves life. The resurrected life has a different character than life lived only in the present. Jesus taught us, the resurrection is not only a future hope, but an urgent and crucial aspect of our life today. The true dignity and power of human life within us comes from beyond us as a gift from God. Our fragile and finite lives are caught up and joined together in the one eternal life of God.
We do not know what the future or what heaven will be like. We only know at its center will be the One we have always known, who has loved us, and calls us by name.