Sermon for 06.11.16 – 3rd Sunday Before Advent
Already but not yet
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
At this time of year, as the weather is changing and getting colder, as we begin to think about the coming of Advent and then Christmas, I get caught up with the weekend excitement that is Strictly Come Dancing. Meagan and I were introduced to Strictly our very first winter in England and we haven’t looked back. Every year I am always amazed at how good the Stars become. But equally, no matter how good the Star and Professional couple dance, every Sunday when the professionals take centre stage with each other, I am reminded of just how talented and skilled those professionals are. As I was thinking about this different levels of dance I was reminded of a theological concept I learned in my undergraduate studies, it is all about the already but not yet.
I was introduced to this concept in a course called ‘New Testament Survey’. It was specifically designed to help us get a better understanding of the New Testament texts but also of the narratives that these texts were written in. We were to better understand the cultural context and conversations in the early church, to get acquainted with the layers of culture that made up the contemporary life to those who wrote our early texts – it was all a means to help enrich our understanding, appreciation and translations as we looked to make the Word of God alive in our modern society. Already but not yet aims to describe the church’s experience of existence in light of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early church. (Saturday night of Strictly is, for the Strictly Stars, the already and Sunday night is the not yet)
At the time of Jesus, the Jews were desperately waiting for their Messiah to come, to save them once and for all from all the suffering, oppression and persecution they were still living through. They saw this current life as the already. This already space was the truth of what was going on now, but if they could figure out the right way of belief and action, they could usher in the new world, under the Messiah, and live free. Once the Messiah came and began the next life, justice would be done and Israel would once again find itself established as God had promised.
When Jesus came, for those who saw him as the Messiah, this framework was still in place – they lived in the life of the already and were waiting for the new life brought in by the Messiah – but when Jesus lived, died, rose and then ascended and nothing in this life had changed, they had to ask how to articulate an option they hadn’t considered. The Messiah had come and everything was different for them and new life was being seen, but the world was very much the same way it had always been and the hope was to one day see the fullness of the new life in this world and the next.
In our second reading, the letter to the Thessalonians, we hear this concern of a people who thought they had missed the resurrection or something important about Jesus, as things hadn’t yet changed in their socio-political spheres.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were no different – each had a belief in the activity and work of God, how it looked and was experienced in this life, and what, if anything, we could expect in the next. Both the Pharisees and Sadducees revered the Torah, the written law, and used it as the basis for their belief and activity. But the Pharisees also had an oral law and believed that the Messiah would come when, and only if, the people could stop sining and purify themselves before God. The Pharisees believed in an afterlife, a resurrection for the children of God, unlike the Sadducees, as we have heard in our Gospel reading.
The Sadducees thought the Jews needed to learn to navigate the socio-polical structures of the day so that this life may become the life of the yet to come. They believed that what mattered and was real, was the physical, material world. They did not believe you could hold to any faith in the supernatural if you read the Torah, and so it was only the here and now, the very physical, that really mattered. The soul was not eternal, you only had these moments in this life.
This reminded me of a humanist memorial service I recently attended, at which it was explicit that all that there was was this life, and so all that could be said and celebrated was the life that had been. It was also emphasised that there was no continuity in that life, seemingly even in the love for, and memories of, the deceased, for that life had ended and was no more.
The Sadducees come to Jesus to taunt and mock him with their question – they did not believe in the resurrection and they were not interested in changing that belief. They are looking to mock Jesus by having him answer a question they believe is a ridiculous, that will also allow them to make fools of the Pharisees.
In the Torah, Moses lays out a law for marriage that focuses on patriarchal structures of marriage, the continuation of a man’s life and legacy, and a linear definition of procreation. This is known as Levirate marriage – when the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow if they did not have children. The Pharisees and the Sadducees would have held it as true and the Sadducees saw this a proof that there could be no resurrection because then whose wife would the woman be?
The Pharisees would have stumbled through trying to reconcile a compelling answer to this question because they would both want to affirm this law for marriage and yet want to find a way to affirm the continuity of the marriage in the life yet to come. The expectation is to do the same with Jesus, but he sees through their schemes and leaves them with an answer and conclusion that neither group had every articulated.
Jesus says, in his response, that there is a resurrection but the resurrection was not how the Pharisees imagined and proclaimed, for there will be no one being married or given in marriage. Jesus addresses and challenges each group and offers, as he so often does, a third option, a new paradigm, that is rooted in a relational, active and present God in who all life finds its beginning and continuation.
Jesus’ example of Moses at the burning bush, was a direct challenge to the Sadducees to see in their own tradition where resurrection was not only possible but was proclaimed. When Moses meets God in the burning bush we are told that God says of God’s self that ‘I am…’ – in the present-active tense – ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ God does not say that he was their God, but that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Because of this Jesus tells them, ‘he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ He is not saying how the resurrection works, or what it looks like, but that they can be assured that in God is the continuity of life for all God’s children, past, present and future.
Jesus has just gone after both the Sadducees and Pharisees belief in the afterlife, or lack thereof, to tell them that there indeed is resurrection but not as we think it to be. But he didn’t just do that, he also, and in a bit of a sneaky way, stops to offer comment on their contemporary view of marriage.
Marriage was seen as something that involved the passing ownership of a woman between men. Men would be married and woman would be given in marriage – a play on words Jesus himself indulges when he says, ‘those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’ He follows this with, ‘indeed they cannot die any more…children of God, being children of the resurrection.’
If you remember the Levirate marriage was a means to continue the lineage, life and legacy of the eldest son. Men were held in remembrance by the life of their children and a marriage that was blessed and good would be shown through the fruit of procreation. This is not an archaic idea and still runs strongly through the world today. When Jesus says that in the afterlife, those who are resurrected will not need to marry to live forever, he is saying that they are the very life and legacy of God, and in that life and legacy they will find eternal life. Not only is procreation no longer necessary, it is not the means by which blessings, fruitfulness and things eternal are measured.
The fullness of life that is promised to us is not measured by patriarchy, procreation and linear attempts at legacy, the fullness of life is our very selves finding their rest and existence in the eternal life and being of God.
So what does all of this mean for us today?
This afternoon we will be hosting the second of our ‘Grave Talks’ which offers safe space to ask questions and to have discussions about all things surrounding our life, death and legacy. These are important questions, not least to ensure that we are able to continue to support family, friends and activities that are dear to our hearts now, but also to make sure we, and those we love, have peace about what will happen once I am no longer here. Today is a chance to come out and get the wheels turning and to do it within a safe community and with the care and support of professionals who deal with questions and concerns and plans around death, funerals and bereavement – I encourage as many as are able to come out and take part.
We could also chime in with all the discussions and debates about marriage and the fruitfulness of relationships – seeking ever expanding ways of affirming the creative, positive depths of life that comes from healthy, mutual, loving relationships. We can offer our support of those who try to subvert the oppressive patriarchal structures that still exist around the world. We can affirm every woman’s ability and right to access education and opportunities that affirm her being made in the image of God and not bound to be a means for someone else’s procreation.
But, I am also struck with the underpinning of Jesus own subversion of the commonplace beliefs of the day for both the Sadducees and Pharisees, and I can’t help but wonder, ‘What in our world needs to be subverted today?’ It is clear through Jesus’ whole ministry that he came for the sick, lost, oppressed and needy and so the subversion is directed at challenging the preconceptions of the powerful towards those they could ultimately help. And in this vein I cannot help but think, we may have to rethink our sense of nationality, identity, belonging and nationalised rights. For if we are all made in the image of God, and in the fullness of eternity our lives will find their deepest root in the being and love of God, then perhaps in this already but not yet we can start to live this now.
So let us hold on to investing everything we can in the now; living in the fullness of relationship with God, with each other and with creation – so that the legacy and continuity that is held in God is one that will bring life, health and freedom for people in this life and the next.