Sermon from Sunday 10th November

Luke 20: 27 – 38

Sermon

100 years ago, in the years after of the first world war, the subject of sex was very much taboo.  Such activities may have taken place, and indeed the continued increase in population in that time is strong evidence that it did, but it was rarely spoken about in civilized company.  We might conclude that things have rather changed now.

By contrast, 100 years ago, death was not a subject that people were embarrassed by.  War had made it appallingly familiar, mourning was an open and public demonstration of grief: curtains drawn, mourning brooches, black clothing… We might conclude that things have rather changed now.

Today if anything it’s the other way around: sexuality is openly discussed and displayed, and used unashamedly to attract audiences and to sell products.  Death, on the other hand, has become something we feel awkward about, something we find it hard to talk to about, something which makes us feel uncomfortable.

Whether we talk about it or not, it won’t go away: the one remaining certainty in an uncertain world.  So we can be thankful that Jesus did not share our inhibitions.  We can be thankful that our scriptures do not shy away from the real issues of life, and death.

In our Gospel today, we find Jesus confronted by the Sadducees.  This was a conservative group of men who rejected all writings except the first five books of the Old Testament.  Because there is no mention there of life beyond death, they would have no time for anyone who wandered around raising hopes of eternity and speaking of resurrection.  Their clash with Jesus therefore seems rather inevitable.

Being intellectual types, they present Jesus with a hypothetical situation: “Teacher. Moses wrote that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man must marry her and bring up the children for his brother.   Now, what if there were seven brothers.  The first took a wife and died without children.  And the second, and the third brother married her, and finally the whole seven married and died without children.   After this the woman died.  When the “resurrection” happens, whose wife shall she be?  All seven had her as a wife.”

Silence.

You can picture the crowd listening, wondering, and maybe some critics starting to smile as they think: “Go on then, answer that!”  Had Jesus been a modern politician he would have refused to answer such a hypothetical question and simply restated his beliefs in a way that would have sounded acceptable to the wider audience.  Or he would have turned the crowds to his side with a smart and witty put down to make his opponents look small.  Instead he addresses, head on, the real issue behind their question.

He did it by using a passage from one of those first five books which they held to be God’s word, quoting from Exodus chapter 3, citing words which suggest that even Moses had a sense that those who had died were kept safe in God.  What is more, he goes on to say, resurrection life is not a continuation of this life; it is not a belief that things as they are now will go on and on forever!   It is something far more wonderful, far more mysterious.  “The people of this old world marry and are given in marriage, but those who are worthy to experience resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage.  They cannot die any more.  They are like angels and are children of God”

Some of the Pharisees, who did believe in resurrection, were willing to acknowledge the worth of his words: “Teacher, you have spoken well.”  But the Sadducees, unable to fault his argument, went off to finalise their plot for the death of Jesus.   After all, they didn’t believe in resurrection, so if they could kill Jesus that would be the end of it.  He and his ideas would disappear forever – wouldn’t they?

Jesus did not satisfy all our curiosity about what life looks like beyond the confines of this world and these bodies.  What is clear is that Jesus believed in life that exists beyond death, that he believed that such life will be far greater than our experiences here, and that it comes to us not as our own achievement, but like our earthly lives - entirely as a gift from God.  St Paul said: “The eye has not seen nor ear heard nor the mind conceived, what God has in store for those whom love him.”

Some Greek philosophers believed that we are, by nature, immortal spirits; the human body and life on earth was a crude prison from which death would finally release us to be our true selves.  Others have believed differently, saying that we die like any plant or animal and that is it, we simply cease to exist.  But the Christianity that flowed from Jesus said something different.  It recognises that there is something eternal about us, but that it survives by the grace of God, in which we put our faith.  It recognises the reality of our human condition, that our physical existence here is fragile and temporary and always moving towards its end, but that we are more than a physical existence.

This faith in eternal life is consistent with everything Jesus was, did and taught.  It is consistent with what happened to him, and with the amazed disciples as they joyfully floundered around in the reality of Christ’s resurrection.  Jesus spoke openly about death and dying and life and living.  His words may not bring us all understanding, but they do offer us great assurance and hope.  It is with that assurance and hope, it is because of that assurance and hope, that today, we dare to remember war.

It is with the courage that our faith gives us, and with the example that our master set, that we dare to speak openly the blunt truth that war brings horror and death to our world, and that it brings it most often to those who are still young and fit and full of potential.  How many of those who whose lives were cut short in the trenches of the first world war, or the battles and bombing raids of the second world war, might have gone on to be great leaders, or artists, or scientists, or teachers, or preachers, or parents and grandparents.  Because of our faith, we dare to face up to just how appalling it is that we do such things to one another.  And because of our faith, we dare to speak up about how appalling it is that we do such things to one another still.

We can talk about death, and how appalling it is when it comes violently or unnaturally, because we are not afraid to talk about it, because we are not afraid of it.  And we can speak up about the value of human life, and the need cherish it, because we recognise the eternal significance of each and every one.

Jesus did not avoid the big issues of his day, and nor should we.  It is right that we take time to remember what war really means; not some glorious battle, but fear and pain and damage and the loss of lives.  It is right to remember those who have died, because their lives are worth remembering, and because we trust that we may meet them some day.  It is right to talk about death, and to remember it, because its reality comes close to us in many ways, but also because, whatever people may do to our bodies, it is God who holds our lives in his hands.

I do not know what happens when we die.  I do not know what our future existence will be like; but I trust in the one who gave me life, and whose life we see most clearly in Jesus Christ.  That is enough for now. “Now we see dimly, as through a glass darkly; the day shall come we shall see with absolute clarity – face to face.”

May this faith inspire us to use our lives well, to work for peace, and to honour our life-giving God in all that we do.