November 10, 2019
Alan L. Hayes
Luke 20:27-40: on the resurrection, and “he is God not of the dead, but of the living”
The gospel reading
For most of the middle chapters of the gospel of Luke, we find Jesus being questioned by his critics, who are trying to find errors in his teaching. They want to show him up by stumping him. The dispute that we heard today from chapter 20 is the last of these disputes. The critics come up with the weightiest objection they can think of against Jesus’ teaching. But the answer that Jesus gives them totally confounds them. At the end of this discussion, Luke says that Jesus’ critics didn’t dare to ask him another question.
The story goes like this. Jesus has been preaching the resurrection of the dead, which was a belief of the school of Jewish thinkers called the Pharisees. But another Jewish school of thought, identified with the group called the Sadducees, rejected the idea of the resurrection of the dead . That’s partly because the resurrection of the dead appears most clearly in the Old Testament peophets like Ezekiel, but the Sadducees rejected the authority of the books of the prophets. They only accepted the authority of the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, the books of Moses.
So the debaters ask a question about the resurrection of the dead which they themselves don’t believe in; they aren’t asking for his wisdom on the matter; they just want to trick him. They want to show the absurdity of belief in the resurrection of the dead. Their question is based on the fact that according to the law of Moses, if a married couple has no children, and the husband dies, the husband’s brother needs to marry the widow, so that children can be born and the line can be carried on. But imagine, they say, that the husband died, and then his brother married the widow and he died without any children, and then another brother married the widow and he died without any children, and in the end the woman had seven dead husbands and no child — when she died, who would be her husband?
The question itself is a bit silly, but underneath it is the much more important question as to whether the dead are resurrected to new life.
First, Jesus takes care of the silly question. The whole point of the question is that the woman is marrying a succession of men in order to have a child. But after people die, they don’t have children. When we’re resurrected, Jesus says, we’ll be like angels. There will be no more sexual generation. None of the seven husbands is going to be a father after they’re dead!
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He moves on to the fatal premise of the Sadducees, that there is no resurrection of the dead. And, from the authority of the Scriptures that they all accept, he shows that they’re wrong. And he won’t use Ezekiel or the other later writings as a text; he will use the book of Exodus, which is a book that the Saduccees accept. And he isn’t just going to use an obscure text; he’s going to use one of the most important texts in the Bible, the story where God definitively reveals Godself to Moses.
This is the story where Moses comes across a bush that burns but doesn’t burn up, and God speaks to him, and in their conversation, God reveals his name and his true identity. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus points out how vital this connection is, the connection between God and the patriarchs of Israel. If there is no Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, there is no God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If Abraham were to disappear forever, the God of Abraham would therefore disappear forever as well. Abraham, Jesus says, is a child of God, just as we are children of God, and since God is eternal, the children of God are eternal.
To put it another way, God is love, and God’s love for God’s people burns forever. Therefore God doesn’t let God’s people disappear into nonexistence. God’s people are alive, alive in God’s heart, alive in the resurrection. Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, as Paul says, not even death. So Jesus concludes by saying, God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.
And the Sadduccees can think of nothing more to say. They are totally dumbfounded.
And for us, the profound consolation and comfort is that we too, called to be children of the everlasting God, have the firm and steadfast hope of eternal life in the resurrection of the dead.
Scripture says that God gives us ways of recognizing that the dead are alive in God, and maybe the most important way is remembrance, telling stories of what has been and who has been alive. “The past is never dead; it isn’t even the past.” In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses says, “Take care lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they slip from your mind; … make them known to your children and your children’s children.” The phrase we connect with Remembrance Day, “Lest we forget,” comes ultimately from Deuteronomy. Commemorating Remembrance Day is one of the ways we remember.
As we celebrate Remembrance Day, we remember the dead, so that they remain alive in our hearts, and so that we can affirm that they are alive to God as well. We base our remembrance on the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, that those who have died remain alive to God, as we ourselves will always be as well.
In past years on Remembrance Day I’ve spoken a lot of the terrible sufferings on the battlefields and in the trenches of World War I and other wars, and the self-sacrificing faithfulness of so many, and the acts of friendship and generosity and bravery that brought so many sparks of love and human sympathy to the cruel and inhuman theatre of war.
But there are stories to tell and valour to remember off the battlefield as well.
I spent most of the past week in the archives of the Anglican Church of Canada researching a Canadian missionary named Reg Westgate. In 1903 he was sponsored by an Anglican missionary society to go to German East Africa to an area that is now in the heart of Tanzania. He laboured for many years, learning the Ngogo language as well as Swahili, translating Scriptures, teaching English, converting chiefs and people, training catechists, giving medical care, establishing a theological school. All of that stopped when World War I broke out, and the German authorities ordered him to remain in his mission compound. As the fighting began to draw near to their remote location, he and the other missionaries and many of their African assistants were arrested and marched 300 miles to a prisoner of war camp at Tabora. Many of the African Christian converts suffered beatings, even executions, though some saved their lives by handing over their possessions to their captors, or denouncing other people. Westgate himself was denounced for treason, and was court martialed, and confined for periods at a time to solitary confinement. He never knew why he wasn’t executed. Finally after seventeen months the Belgian army liberated the area, and he was free, though his health was broken and he suffered lifelong medical problems.
His story reminds us that the two world wars were indeed world wars, and although we often think of the battlefields of Europe when we think of World War I, there is death and suffering and sacrifice and bravery in all parts of Africa, the middle East, India, China, and elsewhere. In hearing one story, we realize how many millions of other stories there are of equal force. On this day, there are so, so many to remember, more than can possibly be known to us, but they are known to others, and they remain in the heart of God.
Here’s another story of a non-combatant, this one from World War II. Jim was in the Merchant Navy, where the death rate over the term of the war was 27%. He was part of a system for transporting millions of tons a year of food and fuel and other necessities to England, and for transporting war materiel. Jim made two difficult runs between England and Canada, and on the third, in February 1942, his ship the Harlesden was shelled by a German destroyer called the Gneisenau. Jim was among the survivors who were picked up. Jim was shipped to a German prisoner of war camp called Marlag-Milag, near Bremen, where 5000 merchant seamen spent the next three years. They were kept alive by supplies from the British Red Cross and the Canadian Red Cross, but when he came out, Jim was so frail and sickly that he wasn’t expected to live. I’m glad he did get out, because after the war he married and brought forth my wife! In fact, he lived to be 103, and he died this past July 1st, surrounded by his children and grandchildren who owe their very existence to a German ship’s captain who refused to let the British sailors drown.
Our stories on Remembrance Day are so very double-edged. There was hardly ever a war more stupid than World War I, a war that arose more or less by accident and miscalculation, a war that had nothing to prove and that failed to make the world a better place. And there was hardly ever a world more brutal, one that caused such widespread needless suffering and damage. But there is something about war that can also bring out the best in humanity, their sympathy and compassion, as with the German ship’s captain, their loyalty and sacrifice, their bravery, their moral commitments, their faith in God. We remember these children of God today, and we remember that our God is the God not of the dead, but of the living. For the assurance that dead is not the last word, and that it has been swallowed up in victory, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, thanks be to God!