The Promise of Eternal Life | Luke 20:27-28
Today is All Saints Sunday. It’s a day we remember all those who have died in the past year, and also all those who have been born or baptized in the past year. As Lutherans we recognize that all baptized Christians are saints and so we don’t just celebrate the famous, influential saints of church history, we celebrate all the faithful of every time and place. The focus of All Saints Day is not necessarily on the dead, but on the living as well. That’s why we remember all the newly baptized on All Saints Day as well as all the newly departed. On a day like today it is important to reflect on the new life we have in Christ, whether we are dead or alive, and to recall Jesus’ promise of eternal life with God.
In the Gospel text we just heard Jesus is having a conversation with the Sadducees. There’s a lot of background that’s important to know about 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 for keeping Rome happy. The Sadducees were different from other Jewish sects like the Pharisees. The focus of the Sadducees’ tradition was the Temple, whereas the center of the Pharisees’ was the Torah. Of course both groups honored the Temple and the Torah, but they had different emphases. The Pharisees, for example, recognized the importance of local synagogues in addition to the one and only Temple in Jerusalem which the Sadducees ran.
And a big difference between Sadducees and other groups is that the Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife. On the other hand, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection at the end of time. Meaning that when you died you would be dead until the last day when God would raise up everyone for judgement. Then one group—the righteous, the good, or the chosen—would be rewarded and the evil would be punished. One group would spend eternity with God and the other group would be damned, either go to the underworld or go back to being dead and gone forever. There were different takes on it, but the main thing to know is that the Sadducees rejected the whole idea of the afterlife altogether.
Before we go into their question to Jesus, it’s also important to understand the rules about ancient Hebrew marriage. These laws came from the Book of Leviticus and while they may sound strange to us, they were actually meant to help protect women from becoming vulnerable widows. You see in the patriarchal society that the ancient world was, when a woman’s husband died and she didn’t have any sons to take care of her, she was in danger. And if a man died without having a son to continue his lineage, that was a problem too. So as a way to solve both of these issues, the Law of Moses stated that if a husband died but had a living brother, then the brother was supposed to marry his sister-in-law. Then the first son he had with the wife would officially be his deceased brother’s son and that boy would get all of the dead man’s inheritance and be responsible for his mother and carrying on his lineage. That all make sense so far?
So it’s in that context that the Sadducees ask Jesus this question. They come up with a pretty extreme scenario about a woman whose husband died, and the husband’s seven brothers all end up marrying her and then dying without having any children. Then, trying to poke holes in the idea of resurrection, they ask Jesus whose wife will she be in the resurrection? 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 like they might be expecting, but instead explains that in the afterlife people won’t be married. That’s something that is of this world, not the next. Instead, people will be like angels. And then Jesus closes with a reference to the Law of Moses, pointing out how when speaking to Moses, God identified Himself as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. In the present tense, like they are still alive. So if the Sadducees paid attention to that detail, they’d see that the Hebrew patriarchs, and presumably all the dead, are actually still alive in God.
Now Jesus adds something to the argument the Pharisees would make here too. The Pharisees believed that dead people are dead until the end of time when God will raise the dead. That idea seems to have been picked up in Babylon from the Zoroastrian religion. But here Jesus seems to be saying that there is an immediate afterlife, that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are with God now. So in a way Jesus challenges both the Sadducees and the Pharisees understanding about the afterlife.
But Jesus does not 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 now in God. He doesn’t say where the afterlife will be. He doesn’t say what it will look like. He doesn’t say what people will look like. He doesn’t really describe it at all. But he’s clear that it’s very different from life as we know it.
On Luther Seminary’s Sermon Brainwave podcast Prof. Matt Skinner summarized this about Jesus’ teaching: "Resurrected life is not just this life with no end date. Jesus is talking about a different quality of life, a different character of relationship that defies description right now, except to say it’s not what you’re used to. We’ve reached a cliff of mystery where we really can’t walk any further, but we can survey the possibilities of what’s out there.”
I’ve talked before about the occurrence of near-death-experiences. They are experiences people have when they die for a few moments and are resuscitated. Many report leaving the body and experiencing another world, a beautiful world that they say is more real than this world. Researchers believe that humans have had such experiences throughout history which led to our first ideas about heaven—and that as medical technology has improved more and more people are having such experiences in the modern world. There are fascinating stories of people like Eben Alexander, Howard Storm, Betty Edie, and many others who experienced the wonder of another world and returned to life to share their stories. So while Jesus doesn’t go into a lot of detail, we do have modern reports that help us survey the mystery if we’re curious.
But the important thing is to know that Jesus promises us eternal life with God. That existence may be vastly different than what we experience now, but it will be good. Death is not the end. Our loved ones are with God, experiencing greater glory than we can imagine. Glory that awaits us also. On this All Saints Sunday we remember God’s promise of eternal life for them. And we remember God’s promise of eternal life for us. As we pray in the funeral liturgy: “By his death our Savior Jesus Christ destroyed the power of death and by his resurrection he opened the kingdom of heaven to all. Make us certain that because he lives we shall live also, and that neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, will ever be able to separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
As we heard Job proclaim in our first reading “I know that my redeemer lives,” so we too can rest assured that because our Redeemer lives we shall live also. And that nothing shall ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God for this wonderful truth. Thanks be to God for His love. And thanks be to God for eternal life in Him. Alleluia! Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok, 11/6/22