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  • The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok

The Light of Eternity

Luke 20:27-40

In the reading we just heard from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is having a conversation with the Sadducees. There’s a lot of background to this conversation. The Sadducees were the leaders of the Temple. They had wealth and power and influence. They respected Roman rule and were the ones most responsible with keeping Rome happy. The Sadducees were different from other Jewish sects like the Pharisees. The focus of the Sadducees’ tradition was the Temple and sacrificial system, whereas the center of the Pharisees’ was the Torah and the written word. Of course both groups honored the Temple and the Torah, but they had different emphases.

One big difference between the Sadducees and other first century Jewish schools of thought is that the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in the resurrection at the end of time. The idea was that when people died they stayed dead until God raised them up on the last day. Scholars say this idea seems to have been picked up in Babylon from the Zoroastrian religion. And it was the common belief among Pharisees. Now in Jesus’ response, we see something different from both the Sadducees and Pharisees.

In the text, the Sadducees come up with a question trying to stump Jesus. They ask about a pretty extreme hypothetical scenario about a woman whose husband died. Now according to the law of Moses, if a husband died without having children then his brother was obligated to marry her and the first son he had with this woman would officially be his deceased brother’s son, entitled to the dead man’s inheritance and responsible for caring for his mother.

So…the Sadducees are trying to poke holes in this idea of resurrection and pose this scenario about a woman who married seven brothers, one after the other, and didn’t have any children. “Whose wife will she be in the afterlife?” they ask. Jesus answers the question in a way that’s not really playing their game. He doesn’t try to argue using the rules about marriage in the Law of Moses, but instead explains that in the afterlife people won’t be married. That’s something that is of this world, not the next. Instead, he says, people will be like angels. And then Jesus concludes with pointing out how when speaking to Moses, God identified Himself as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Jesus explains that this was in the present tense, like they are still alive. So Jesus is saying that these Hebrew patriarchs, and presumably all the dead, are actually still alive in God.

Recall that the Pharisees believed in an afterlife at the end of time. Here Jesus seems to be challenging that view too, and saying that there is an immediate afterlife. That Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are with God now. So in this passage, in different ways, Jesus challenges both the Sadducees’ and the Pharisees’ understanding about the afterlife.

This is the most detailed conversation in the Gospels about the afterlife. And even here Jesus doesn’t really describe much beyond the fact that there will be no marriage and that people will be like angels and that the dead are alive in God now. He doesn’t say where the afterlife will be. Or what it will look like. Or what we’ll be doing. He doesn’t really describe it at all. I think this is because Jesus’ main concern in his ministry was more about how humans are called to be in relationship with God in this world. The Bible says surprisingly little about heaven. Although it’s clearly acknowledged, the focus of the Scriptures always seems to be how we are to relate to God during our life on earth, in the here and now. How we are to embody the light of eternity in this physical existence. How to manifest God’s kingdom in this earthly realm. This is why Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Both Jesus and the tradition of the Hebrew prophets seem clear that bringing this earthly realm into alignment with the divine realm is humanity’s mission here. Like the reading we heard from the prophet Isaiah describing God’s promised future of a world at peace. A world where violence and war have disappeared. A world where people live in peace and harmony. A world that manifests God’s Shalom. It may sound like a vision that’s far too good to be true. And I bet it sounded that way to Isaiah’s original audience too. But I also bet our current world would have sounded far too good to be true, with our abundance of food, the freedom of democracy, and the incredible advancements and comforts given by modern technology. Point being, we shouldn’t simply dismiss Isaiah’s vision as too good to be true; we should understand it as describing the future God promises.

This promise of a world of Shalom, a world at peace, is present throughout the Old Testament and in the New Testament by different names. Jesus came proclaiming that this kingdom of God was already present in him and would eventually be revealed to all. Paul wrote about the birthing process of the world into a new creation. Second Peter describes theosis, the participation in the divine nature that is human destiny. And John of Patmos described at the end of Revelation, a vision closely resembling Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth.

What do these two ideas—the afterlife and the promise of a future new creation—have to do with each other? A lot, I think! It’s not that we have to choose between believing in a promised new creation or the existence of a spiritual dimension.

As if knowledge of the afterlife should make us not care about the earth. Or that caring about the earth means we should reject the possibility of spiritual realms. Conservative Evangelicals tend to make the first mistake and Liberal Protestants the second. But when we allow ourselves to appreciate the truth of both ideas, we start to develop a more holistic understanding of the universe.

I think the lives of people who’ve had near-death-experiences (NDEs) demonstrate this point. We’re lucky to have Dr. Eben Alexander with us today and many of you heard him speak last night. Those who’ve read his book or heard his talk know that he had an NDE in which he experienced the beauty and joy and love of the spiritual world beyond this physical realm. And perhaps one of the most striking things about NDEs is that people who’ve had them often come back with a renewed sense of gratitude and love for this life. Rather than making them wish their life away, their NDE inspires them to greater appreciation for this physical life and the created natural world. Knowledge of eternity makes them more engaged with this earthly existence. More grateful for this life and more eager to learn and grow. More mindful of the time we have here. More appreciative of the gift that this physical life is. More curious about the universe. More dedicated to this life’s purpose and the spiritual journey. More committed to growing in love and compassion, wisdom and truth. While there are exceptions, more often than not, people with NDEs come back with a desire to be more engaged with life on earth. It seems that a genuine experience of eternity doesn’t make a person want to ignore creation; it inspires them to be more deeply a part of it. To want to manifest the divine realm here and now on this physical plane. To manifest God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. To shine the light of eternity here.

We are all called to this. To shine God’s light here. To manifest God’s will. To share God’s goodness and love. Whether we’ve had an NDE or not, we are all called to grow spiritually, to get in touch with the divine light, and to let that light shine in our lives here and now. We are called to deepen our relationship with God; grow in alignment with the divine. And allow the Spirit to expand our consciousness, our wisdom, and our compassion & love. And we do this not because we have to in order to earn God’s favor or forgiveness, but because we’ve been so touched by divine love that we naturally want to share that light with others, and grow into the mature children of God we’re created to be.

Thanks be to God for the gift of eternal life. And thanks be to God for the gift that it is to be here now. Let us all follow our call: to grow, to learn, to embody love and gratitude, to manifest the kingdom with our lives. Let us shine the light of eternity in this created world. All the while knowing that we are eternally cared for, infinitely valued, and unconditionally loved. Amen, thanks be to God.

Pastor Brian | Second Sunday of Pentecost | June 2, 2024

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