Thursday, June 16, 2011

Square Peg and Round Hole

Yesterday's gospel lesson (Luke 20:27-40) is still on my mind. In it, the Sadducee, who didn't believe in the resurrection, come to Jesus and pose a somewhat ridiculous hypothetical question in which a woman marries a succession of brothers, each who die and leave her childless. Their question, whose wife will she be in heaven, reveals their problems with a belief in the resurrection more generally. Their unspoken challenge is this: "How can we fit Almighty God--infinite, incomprehensible, incorporeal--into the world we know--limited, sinful, and broken?"

Implicitly, this lesson comes up frequently in premarital counseling. When I'm sitting with a couple who are standing on the verge of a lifetime together, ready to celebrate the fervent love that they share, and we get to the point at which we review the vows, they often balk at the part, "until we are parted by death." I think that's because it's hard for a couple who are in love and who are about to start a new chapter of their lives together to name at the same time a definitive end of their marital relationship. "Are we really not going to be married in heaven? Then why would we want to go there?"

Indeed, this passage makes it clear that there is no marriage in heaven. Partly, that's because husbands and wives often remarry after their first spouse dies. Whose husband or wife would that person have in their marital mansion? Would they all live together in some sort of Big Love relationship? But I think there's something more important than "until we are parted by death" going on in this passage.

Some ask similar questions about heaven that aren't related to marriage. Will my dog go to heaven? Will I recognize my family when I get there? Will I get to eat fried chicken in paradise? Will they serve vegetarian meals? All of these questions, when we all ask in one way or another, reflect our problem with heaven, and that problem is the exact opposite of that of the Sadducees. We're all trying to fit our experience of earthly life into heaven, and that's not easy to do, either.

How are we supposed to fit the world and all its limitations & joys together with heaven and all its otherness? Well, I'm not sure we're supposed to do that at all. Rather than trying to mix together oil and water, I think we're instead supposed to focus on the transformation of this life. As we are taken up into the kingdom of heaven, we--and everything we know about this earthly life--is transformed and made new. That means relationships, appetites, occupations, distractions, shortcomings and everything else is changed and made ready to live with God in heaven.

Whether Sadducees or contemporary Christian, when we try to cram humanity and divinity into one little box just as they are, we sell short the power of God's ability to transform us. Just as in the incarnation, the divine doesn't change--it's the human that undergoes a complete redemption. And, as these things are taken up into the life of God, they are forever changed. Even our worries, anxieties, and concerns about what heaven will be like--who will my spouse be?--are transformed. Perhaps, if we allow God to use us as we have given ourselves to him through baptism into Christ's death and resurrection, we can even experience some of that transformation in this life.

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