Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Splitting Up at Death

Until we are parted by death. Until death do us part. As long as we both shall live. [But not after that.]

Since we dispensed with the marriage question in Sunday’sgospel lesson yesterday, I thought it fitting today to go back to it today. If you didn’t read Seth Olson’s take, you should. He says some good things about respecting the Sadducees and Pharisees as foils rather than enemies, and he also writes “that even the best relationships here on earth are not grand enough for post-resurrection life.” It’s that latter point off of which I’d like to spring for today’s post.

Let’s start by thinking like a Sadducee. (Most of us do, anyway, so it shouldn’t be hard.) Why believe in the resurrection? Things are complicated in the next life. Where will we be? Whom will we be with? What about people who get remarried after a spouse dies? I have people who come to me and quietly remind me that they want to be buried next to their first spouse and not next to their current one. It’s as if it is impolite to say to one’s current husband that one would rather spend the next few thousand years planted next to one’s first husband, who died a decade or so ago. Imagine, then, what it’s like when we get to heaven and discover that the woman we loved has decided to live with the new guy for eternity. The Sadducees are right to ask these sorts of questions. They are exactly the kind of thing that keep 21st-century people (including professed Christians) from believing in the real, actual, literal, bodily, tangible, non-metaphorical resurrection.

Assuming that the Sadducees are coming to Jesus in order to engage in lighthearted theological banter, let’s rephrase their question in a less hostile, less ridiculous way: how do people in this world make sense of life in the next? What’s the same? What’s different? If it’s bodily, do we eat? What do we eat? Do we get old? Do we stay young? How do we (created, temporal beings) live in a universe where there is no time? Their point—and it’s a good one—is that we can’t make sense of the resurrection using terms from this life. It just doesn’t work that way. Heaven isn’t puffy clouds and streets paved with solid gold. Those are just analogies to get us excited about construction delays on the heavenly highway. So what are we supposed to believe?

Children of the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage. Yes, the resurrection is real, but, no, it’s not quite like this life. In resurrection life, priorities change. If you want heaven merely to be more of this life only qualitatively and quantitatively better, you’re hoping up the wrong tree. You don’t get to be married in heaven because heaven is so totally better than that that married life doesn’t fit. Is marriage wrong? Heavens no! I love being married. But those of us who talk about resurrection as if it has clear analogues in the pre-resurrection world are missing the point. And, more importantly, we’re driving the Sadducees away.

The world around us is listening. They hear Christians like me talking about heaven. And the more they hear Christians like me talking about heaven as if it were “more of the same only better” the less likely they are to believe. I think we live in a skeptical, rational, Sadducee world. I think evangelists and preachers like me need to find ways of inviting people to hope beyond this life and into the next. The Sadducees question is a good one. It’s not purely an expression of spite. It’s a genuine question of wondering. What’s our answer? Are we willing to think of the resurrection in ways that burst even our most hopeful expectations?

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