Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Thessalonians 2:1–5, 13–17
Prayer of the Day: O God, our eternal redeemer, by the presence of your Spirit you renew and direct our hearts. Keep always in our mind the end of all things and the day of judgment. Inspire us for a holy life here, and bring us to the joy of the resurrection, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord
The Sadducees in this week’s gospel lesson were probably more interested in ridiculing and humiliating Jesus than learning anything new about the resurrection of the dead (something they didn’t believe anyway). Even so, the questions they raise are genuine concerns for people who do believe in the resurrection. Will I be raised as the same individual I am today, with all of the same experiences and memories? What will happen to the memories I would give anything to be rid of? Will I recognize and be recognized by the people I have loved? What about people I would rather never see again in this life or the next? And, yes, what about my marriage? Will a lifelong relationship that has come to define me amount to nothing in the new creation?
I used to dismiss these concerns as empty and pointless. After all, we are probably no more able to comprehend life on the other side of the resurrection than a caterpillar is able to imagine life as a butterfly. So why bother puzzling over questions that nobody can answer and probably don’t matter anyway? If God can be trusted to raise the dead, can’t God also be trusted to iron out all the resulting complications? While the left side of my brain continues to assure me that questions about life after resurrection are indeed beyond the reach of my intellect and imagination, my right brain has become restive. Whether it is due to the growing body of evidence for my own mortality, the recent deaths of my parents or a combination of both, I find myself more sympathetic toward people seeking a better understanding of what eternal life entails. Thirty-two years of ministry has also convinced me that the church must speak to these concerns. If we remain silent, we abandon the field to tarot card readers, boardwalk mediums and ever popular TV spiritualists of the John Edward variety. They are only too happy to exploit grief, loneliness and uncertainty for their own personal gain.
Our creeds confess “the resurrection of the body.” Understand that biblical faith knows nothing of an eternal soul. Whatever we are made of-body, soul, mind, spirit or anything else-all of that ceases to exist at death. If there is life beyond the grave, it is not because some eternal part of us survives death and continues to exist in some form thereafter. The Bible knows nothing of any “spirit world.” The only hope there is for life after death is God’s promise to breathe life back into the lifeless dust we have become. The gospel therefore does not promise an escape from death. There is no way around death; there is only a way through it. The way through death is union with Jesus in his own death: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Romans 6:5.
A good friend of mine once told me that he views death as nothing more than “passing through a door into heaven.” While I admire the confident faith that I know lies behind that assertion, I cannot agree with the assertion itself. I pass through any number of doors on any given day and they seldom have any effect on me. I carry through each door all of the same prejudices, grudges, ignorance and nastiness that I was born with or picked up over the years. If I simply carry all that with me into the new creation, it won’t be new for very long. Something has to happen to me before I can live peaceably under the gentle reign of God. Before I can live in the new creation, I have to become a new creation myself. That won’t happen through gradual moral improvement. Nothing short of death and resurrection is required. What is raised from death must necessarily be qualitatively different from what has been consigned to death. I must be raised as a new person capable of loving as I am loved. It won’t be “the same old me.”
Something of that death and resurrection is what should be happening with repentance, confession and forgiveness. Martin Luther calls it “drowning the old Adam.” St. Paul describes it in this way: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:14. The important thing to remember here is that the new person is God’s project from beginning to end. Repentance and confession are not spiritual exercises that transform us. Rather, they are the tools by which the Holy Spirit accomplishes the good work of our re-creation. We cannot even know what that work will look like in the end. As St. John puts it, “we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we shall be like [Christ] for we shall see him as he is.” I John 3:2. That might not be everything we would like to know, but it is enough.
There is one other concern that comes up frequently in my discussions with people about death and dying. What exactly happens at death? Do we go directly to heaven or do we remain in death until the last day when the dead are raised? Again, I used to be more dismissive of these concerns. Who knows? What difference does it make? When you are dead, ten days might as well be ten-thousand years. But I sense that there is more here than idle curiosity. I think we are looking for assurance that we and our loved ones who go before us will be held together somehow even in death. Thus, although the Hebrew Scriptures generally do not acknowledge any sort of life after death, still Israel believed that God was somehow present even when “my flesh and my heart may fail…” Psalm 73:26. When Jesus responded to his opponents’ denial of the resurrection, he did so by citing God’s self identification as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Luke 20:37. He then went on to point out that God “is not God of the dead but of the living; for all live to him.” Luke 20:38.
I do not know exactly what it means for the dead to “live to God.” I don’t believe for one moment that it refers to some ethereal “spirit world” made up of disembodied souls. Again, there is not one scrap of scriptural support for the pagan notion of an immortal soul. But, in addition to the resurrection of the body, our creeds confess “the communion of saints.” The author of Hebrews speaks of the Old Testament heroes of faith as “a cloud of witnesses” surrounding us with encouragement and support. I don’t know how to reconcile faith in the “resurrection of the body” with our confession of the “communion of saints,” but I believe we need to hang onto both these expressions of our faith without surrendering one to the other.
Personally, I don’t have any need to understand how it all fits together. I don’t need to know how it works. After all, I don’t understand how my computer is printing these words on the screen before me as I type them on the keyboard; nor do I understand how it will eventually spew them out onto the World Wide Web. All I know is that my computer has always faithfully performed these tasks for me in the past and most likely will keep on doing so. But for those of you who might benefit from more conceptual clarity, I share with you the reflections of author and theologian Robert W. Jenson from the second volume of his Systematic Theology:
“The key insight is a simple one: a saint now in heaven is not an otherwise constituted entity who anticipates resurrection. God’s anticipation of the saint’s resurrection is the heavenly reality of the saint. For God’s anticipation of creation’s life in the Kingdom, of our deification and our vision of his glory, is the whole being of heaven. The saint’s present reality is in no way attenuated by this doctrine; what God anticipates indeed belongs to the “whither” of this life but is just so accessible to him and so real in its own mode.” Jenson, Robert W., Systematic Theology, Volume 2 (c. 1999 by Robert W. Jenson, Oxford University Press), p. 368.
Perhaps that is what Jesus meant when he said of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that “they all live” to God.
For my take generally on the Book of Job, see my entry of Sunday, June 24, 2012. In thinking through the lesson for this coming Sunday, I found particularly helpful Claus Westermann’s book on Job. Employing form-critical analysis, Westermann identifies the dialogues throughout Job as “consoling conversation.” Westermann, Claus, The Structure of the Book of Job-A Form-Critical Analysis (c 1981, Fortress Press) p. 10. These interchanges involve one who laments his/her misfortune and one or more persons offering comfort and consolation. He further notes that “What it comes down to is that a repeated exchange of words belongs to the process of consolation. In real situations of consolation-as experience demonstrates thousandfold-it almost never happens that the sufferer speaks only once and the consoler replies only once.” Ibid. Furthermore, it is “essential to the process of consolation that the one doing the lamenting be allowed to express himself.” This process, which ought to result in comfort to the afflicted one, goes awry in the Book of Job. “Disputation has intruded” into the process of consolation with the result that what began as a comforting visit becomes a hostile argument. Ibid. As one reads through the cycles of dialogue in Job, it becomes clear that the target of Job’s lament gradually shifts from his friends to God. Even so, the tone of disputation continues driving all parties away from any prospect of resolution or closure. The spiral of pointless argument is broken only when God intervenes speaking from the heart of the whirl wind.
This is in fact how many encounters with suffering turn out. When people are smarting from a traumatic loss, say for example, the death of a loved one, they often appear hostile and even unreasonable. They might lash out at their loved ones for being unsupportive or the pastor for being inattentive or the church for failing to be sufficiently compassionate. They might even blame God for failing them. Defensiveness tends to be our default posture. You might point out that the family came from all corners of the country to be present at the sufferer’s time of need; that the pastor did everything possible to make the funeral service meaningful and comforting; that the congregation is being supportive in every possible way. You could point out that God has blessed the sufferer throughout his or her life and that this loss is common to everyone at some point. It is therefore entirely irrational to suggest that God is singling him or her out. While all of that might be true, it misses the point. Grief is a matter of the heart, not the head. Consolation is a journey toward healing, not an argument designed to establish propositions. Job’s three friends started out on that journey well enough. They sat with Job in silent solidarity, weeping and mourning with him for seven days. Job 2:11-13. Only when they opened their mouths did everything begin to go downhill.
By the time we reach Chapter 19 form which our lesson is taken, the conversation between Job and his friends has deteriorated into a shouting match. In the previous chapter Bildad, one of the consolers, lashes out at Job in a fit of rage: “Why are we counted as cattle? Why are we stupid in your sight? You who tear yourself in your anger—shall the earth be forsaken because of you, or the rock be removed out of its place?” Job 18:1-4. Bildad and his friends are angry at Job because Job refuses to humble himself before God and seek forgiveness for what must be some significant sin. They have carefully laid out for Job the theological underpinnings for their conclusion that his suffering is the consequence of his own wrong doing. But none of their well reasoned arguments resonate with Job. He continues to speak the language of lament even as they persist in the language of reasoned disputation. The parties are truly talking past each other. In desperation, Job cries out “How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words? These ten times you have cast reproach upon me; are you not ashamed to wrong me? And even if it is true that I have erred, my error remains with me. If indeed you magnify yourselves against me, and make my humiliation an argument against me, know then that God has put me in the wrong, and closed his net around me.” Job 19:1-6. By this time, Job has given up on finding any consolation from his friends and turns his lament upon God. As much anger and confusion as there might be in Job’s lament, there is also a desperate hope: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” Job 19:25-27.
This particular verse is well known as it is commonly read at funerals. While I believe that is an appropriate use of the text, it should be understood that it is not a reference to the resurrection of the dead, a belief specifically formed only in the latest Hebrew writings such as Daniel. Job is very much hoping for God’s vindicating judgment to be manifest in his own lifetime. Now that the counsel of his close friends has turned to judgment and accusation, Job has nowhere left to turn other than to God. In the end, God does vindicate Job, pointing out to Job’s counselors that Job’s lament, not their many disputations, constituted faithful speech to and about God. God is not glorified by elaborate conceptual arguments defending his honor. God is glorified by the faithful lament of one who takes God seriously enough to challenge him.
Clearly, consolation requires compassionate listening and suspension of judgment. Job’s counselors failed because they put their own needs to defend the honor of God and maintain their belief in an orderly moral universe before the needs of their suffering friend. Sadly, that is a mistake frequently made even today. So next time you encounter a lamenting friend, remember Job. In addition to providing us with a lesson on how not to offer consolation, this text emphasizes how freely and openly Israel entered into prayer with her God. Though mindful of her own instances of unfaithfulness to her covenant with God, Israel was not afraid to let God know when she felt God was failing to come through on his side of that covenant.
This psalm is a lament and prayer for protection from enemies. Some commentators suggest that this is the prayer of a person on the eve of trial in a significant dispute that might cost him/her dearly. The psalmist points out to God that his/her conduct has been faultless and even invites God to “try” and “test” him/her to show that s/he is blameless. Because God is faithful, the psalmist confidently calls upon him for protection and vindication from his/her adversaries. Such vindication will take the shape of a judgment in the psalmist’s favor against his/her opponents.
While this interpretation is plausible, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Given the graphic images of violent attack in verses 10-12 of the psalm (which is not part of our reading), I believe it is just as likely that the psalmist is facing hostility from neighbors in a lawless area of Palestine. The psalm is obviously adaptable for a variety of circumstances. For this reason, it is difficult to date it. As is nearly always the case in Israel’s prayer tradition, the psalmist’s plea for protection is grounded in God’s covenant promises to Israel. No person has any autonomous right to make a claim on God. God owes no one anything. Nevertheless, because God has bound himself to Israel through specific covenant promises, Israel may freely “call God to account” and rely on God to exercise faithfulness to those promises.
The relationship between the form and substance of II Thessalonians and 1 Thessalonians has led most commentators to believe that II Thessalonians was composed by a Christian leader writing to a later generation in the name of Paul and his colleagues. However that might be, this second letter echoes Paul’s admonitions to the Thessalonians in the first letter not to concern themselves with “times” and “seasons” for the triumphal return of Christ. I Thessalonians 5:1-11. Here, too, Paul urges the church “not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word or by letter purporting to come from us to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” Vs 2. He then continues to discuss the appearance of “the man of lawlessness” and the “rebellion” preceding the second coming. This particular section of scripture has given rise to much speculation and is one of the texts that appear to have inspired the Left Behind series. Paul (or the anonymous author) does not explain who the “man of lawlessness” is, nor does he say much about the force that is “restraining him now” discussed in the omitted verses 6-12. Evidently, he assumes that the readers know perfectly well what he was talking about and they probably did. We, alas, have no clue. That is what happens when you read someone else’s mail.
Rather than get caught up in trying to unscramble this egg, I prefer to focus on the concluding verses 13-17. There Paul assures the Thessalonians that they have been elected by God for a better purpose than wrath and punishment. They have been called through the gospel “so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 14. The focus, then, is comfort for those who have been called. These are the persons to whom the letter is addressed. It is not appropriate to turn this letter of comfort for the elect into a threat against people to whom it was not even addressed.
Our gospel lesson relates an encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees. It is important to remember that, while the New Testament sometimes lumps the Pharisees and Sadducees together, they represent very different strains of Judaism. The Pharisees and Sadducees each had their own reasons for opposing Jesus. In the case of the Pharisees, the disputes were largely theological. They saw Jesus’ inclusion of “sinners” among his followers as undermining the Torah and the oral traditions designed to ensure strict obedience to its provisions. By contrast, the Sadducees were members and supporters of the priestly caste in charge of maintaining the sacrificial worship practices of the Jerusalem Temple. They were conservative insofar as they insisted on strict adherence to the ritual practices laid out in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures). They also rejected the oral legal traditions championed by the Pharisees as unwarranted innovations. Because there is no mention of the resurrection of the dead in the Pentateuch, they maintained that there would be no such resurrection. Nevertheless, the Sadducees were more liberal in their willingness to adopt Hellenistic lifestyles. They enjoyed support from the Roman occupation forces which, in turn, benefited from a substantial cut of Temple revenue. Thus, Jesus’ act of cleansing the Temple and disrupting the commercial transactions that made it a cash cow for Rome constituted a direct threat to their wellbeing. The Sadducees’ opposition to Jesus was thus politically and economically motivated. It was likely the Sadducees who engineered Jesus’ arrest and advocated for his execution. For a useful and concise discussion of the differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, see The Jewish Virtual Library.
If the representatives of the Sadducees thought that they could humiliate Jesus before his disciples and in the presence of the people with their clever hypothetical, they seriously underestimated him. Jesus dispenses with the hypothetical summarily by pointing out that those attaining resurrection from death are “equal to angels and are children of God.” We should not read too much into this response. It is not intended to do much of anything but let the Sadducees know that their hypothetical is silly (though for thoughtful believers in the resurrection, it might raise serious concerns as noted in my introductory remarks). The real meat of Jesus’ response to the Sadducees is in his citation to God’s self identification as the God of the patriarchs. If the books the Sadducees acknowledge as holy are from the distant past and the people with whom their God identifies are all dead, it follows that their faith is also a dead relic of the past. In fact, however, God is alive and so are all who put their trust in him. No doubt the scribes (associated with the Pharisees) got a chuckle out of seeing their rival Sadducees trounced by the backwoods preacher from Nazareth. The laughter will be short lived. Their turn comes in verses 41-47.