Sunday, November 04, 2007

Life Beyond Death

Luke 20:27-38
This is one of a number of 'controversy' stories in which Jesus' opponents appear to be trying to trap him. The Sadducees were a group of Jewish leaders who did not believe in the idea of life beyond death. They saw this, quite rightly, as a new idea imported into the Jewish religion from other world faiths. But, of course, that doesn't make it a wrong idea.

It rather depends what we mean by 'resurrection'. If we think it means rising to a new life just like the old one, in which we all live in little thatched cottages with roses round the door and get to be married to beautiful people, then we are in for a big disappointment. Such will be the fate of the ignorant men and women who become suicide bombers in the hope of a life of this-worldly bliss in Paradise. Jesus scotches this idea with his abrupt reply to the Sadduccees: 'The dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.'

But just because we can't take the idea of resurrection as literally as this, that doesn't mean it isn't true. Jesus points out that the Lord God cannot be God of the dead if they no longer exist, because to be 'God' implies that you have supreme power to make yourself known and you cannot reveal yourself to someone who isn't there any more. It follows that the Lord can only be God of what is, of what still exists. And God told Moses that he was the God of Moses' ancestors – so clearly they were still alive in him. That doesn't mean they were alive in the way that we experience life. But it does mean that no one who has ever existed is lost to God and forgotten simply because they have died. In some sense we live on, in God, and that means the Sadducees are wrong.

Today is Remembrance Sunday and later on we are going to spend more time reflecting on what it means to remember the fallen. For many people the idea of remembrance on Armistice Day means that, so long as we continue to honour their memory and remember what they did for us, the sacrifice of so many young people's lives in two world wars – and in other conflicts since – has not been for nothing. Of course, remembering their names by itself is not enough, we also have to honour their memory by honouring the principles they died to defend, such as freedom and democracy.

I think Jesus' understanding of resurrection has something in common with this idea of remembering, except that the spiritual understanding of remembrance is stronger still. It doesn't just mean keeping people's memories alive. It means making them – and what they stood for – real in the present moment. That's what Christians mean by remembering the death of Jesus in Holy Communion. As we break the bread and share the wine we not only recall what happened when Jesus died, we also make its meaning and power real for us now.

When Jesus talks about people continuing in live in God, he isn't just talking about God remembering them and honouring their memory. He is describing how God can make them real in the present by an eternal act of remembering.

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