Sermon on Luke 20: 27-38

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
Be acceptable in your sight
O Lord, our rock and our redeemer

“He is God, not of the dead but of the living. For to him all of them are alive.”
A long time ago, in a former life, when I was a pastor in rural Switzerland, one of my parishioners told me the following remarkable story:
Joe, for this was his name, had learnt through some village gossip, that a fellow farmer and friend of his had fallen ill and had to go to the hospital. Joe was sad and worried to hear this news but did not quite get round to visit his friend in the hospital. When he next inquired about his friend’s well-being he heard that the man was in a critical state now. Shortly afterwards, while running errands in the village Joe got the sad news that his friend had died. This time Joe did not delay and lost no time with fact checking either but went ahead and bought a bouquet of flowers for the grieving widow. He drove to the farm and knocked at the door – only to find the dead man himself opening it, alive and reasonably well.
Joe concluded his story by saying: “And there I stood, having to explain to the chap what I was doing in front of his door with flowers for his wife!”
Death is such a game-changer.
It severs bonds of love and law, it separates spouses, parents and children from each other.
But if death separates, would the resurrection bring them back together?
Would it restore the bonds of nature and law, connect what has been disrupted?
At first glance the conversation about marriage, death and afterlife we overheard in today’s Gospel seems to deal with precisely this question.
And Jesus’ answer that bonds of marriage will not feature anymore in the resurrection age would be very disappointing for many people who take comfort in the hope that they will meet their loved ones in heaven.
But we have to look more carefully at this story.
Jesus is involved in a series of debates with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Right now it is the Sadducees’ turn, the religious party, which is part of the temple establishment in Jerusalem and rejects belief in the resurrection, as we learn right at the start. They construe an outlandish example of a woman, who married seven brothers in turn or rather, was given seven times in marriage.
The seven brothers follow the law of Moses which stipulates that if a marriage remains childless and the husband dies, a close relative has to marry the widow so that the name of the deceased lives on in their children.
Now whose wife will she be if they all are raised from the dead they ask?
We can almost see the triumphant smirk on the faces of the Sadducees: Can’t you see how absurd your faith is?
But Jesus says coolly and calmly: Yeah, but actually, this is not my faith.
The whole presupposition of the question is wrong. Because resurrection, says Jesus, is not a mechanism, which reverses death in a blink. Nor is resurrection simply a drawing out of the lines of life as we know it into an infinite future.
Resurrection is an altogether different existence of an altogether different age, almost like a new habitat. It is a gift, granted to those who are deemed worthy to share in God’s coming world. And those who enter into it as children of the resurrection no longer marry and no longer are given in marriage, because they are like angels, unable to die.
Jesus basically says: In the age without death there is no more procreation needed, and this is why marriage, seen here in somewhat narrow fashion as the institution of procreation is obsolete. Jesus says: There is a world coming, which is brimming and humming with life, with pure, undiluted, uncontested life which knows no death anymore, an endless day without night.
You see, our “problem” is, that we cannot really picture life without death, just as we cannot really picture light without darkness.
All we ever know is death and life in a continuous interplay.
The whole complex process of the evolution of life plays out through a string of birth and death, of adaptation and extinction. We watch new life coming into this world and say goodbye to people leaving it. Indeed even giving birth itself can still be a close brush with death in many parts of the world. And today we remember how the defense and protection of life might in extreme situations require the taking of life and the sacrifice of life.
At its best this interplay of death and life can be an awe-inspiring rhythm for us, like the changing of the seasons. We are made aware about just how precious life is when we face death.
At its worst it can become a merciless competition: One nation’s military victory means another’s humiliating defeat. One’s adaptation means another’s extinction, one’s taking implies another’s being taken.
We cannot picture life without death. And the Sadducee’s idea of resurrection is therefore one, which factors in death, which unfolds in an interplay with death.
For them the way you can deal with death is by having offspring, sons and daughters, though sons are to be much preferred, who carry on your name and legacy. The Sadducees speak of the marrying brothers’ task as “raising up children for their brother”, a verb, which is very similar to the word for resurrection. This is the small-scale resurrection they can fathom under the conditions of death: You leave children behind, or perhaps, in our time and age, a book or two, a reputation, a name, some great achievement, tales of heroism, a name etched on a war memorial.
This is what we know. This is what is within our power. But Jesus raises the stakes of hope considerably higher. There is more in store, not just a softening and managing of death, balancing it out with life. There is the doing away of death for good. More wonderfully breath-taking than we could ever imagine.
Jesus could finish here. He has made his point. But he continues and says: If you care that much about Moses, why not look for an instance at the faith of Moses, not just his legislation. Jesus invites his conversation partners to enter with Moses into the scene where the bush is burning without being consumed, where the ground is holy, without opening up and swallowing the mortal treading on it.
Look at Moses, says Jesus, and how God is revealed to him as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We might expect Jesus to say: surely those towering figures from Israel’s history, who have been so intricately bound up with God’s story of salvation, surely they cannot be dead. As in: Some people are just too famous for ordinary death. But interestingly the argument goes more the other way round: Surely God is a God of the living, being life itself. And surely those whose lives have been claimed by the living God will be under the pull of his life, in this life and beyond the grave.
“He is God, not of the dead but of the living. For to him all of them are alive.”

Some 20 years ago there was a big national exhibition in Switzerland with a lot of exciting outdoor art installations. An ecumenical committee of catholic and reformed churches contributed a number of such installations, reflecting themes of the Christian faith. The last one was called “au-delà”, the French expression for afterlife or rather more fittingly “the beyond”, as opposed to “ici-bas”, here below. A long queue had formed before something, which looked like a giant hollow mirror. For once even Swiss people behaved in a very English way, waiting politely and shuffling forward patiently until it was their turn to see what was happening at the end of the queue. It must have been something extraordinary, because the people who stepped up to the giant mirror let out a little cry of surprise. Finally I had made it to the mysterious mirror myself and walked the last few steps towards it. There was my reflection, a bit faint and blurred and rather bizarrely walking upside down on its head. Until two steps away from the mirror it was suddenly and unexpectedly flicked around and stood on its feet. I think I let out a little yelp of surprise…

“He is God, not of the dead but of the living. For to him all of them are alive.”

And so as we walk through this life, as we cradle children and bury the dead, as wars are fought and peace is negotiated, we walk with hearts which are heavy with hope for this greater life, which we cannot yet fathom.

As we walk expectantly towards the life without death, which puts what is upside down back on its feet, we pray to be deemed worthy to be part of it.

And as we are aching with the void left by those taken from us, as we mourn the far too many, who perish in the mud and sand of battlefields, all those whose lives were and are cut short by the horrors of war, we long for death to be swallowed up in victory, the victory of him, who died and rose for us.

And we pray for the grace to be alive to God, alive, awake and alert, to live for him, the God of the living, as children of the resurrection and children of God – already ici-bas, and one day au-delà.