A homily preached by Graham Low at the Eucharist on 2 June 2021 at 10 a.m. at St Mary’s.
In the weeks after the death of Princess Diana books of condolence were opened everywhere. Huge numbers of people contributed. A rather confusing picture of what people across the nation thought about life after death emerged. A very common view was that in her earthly life she was an angelic figure, perhaps in disguise, and that she was now a proper one.
There is no Biblical warrant for such a view. Perhaps the closest we get is in today’s gospel, where Jesus is being challenged by the Sadducees, a conservative and priestly Jewish aristocracy. They did not believe in the resurrection, thinking that it was an idea found in what they saw as dubious Old Testament books such as Daniel. They suspected the view of the Pharisees, who were positive about resurrection and influenced the thinking of ordinary people. Sadducees saw resurrection as politically challenging because it could mean that martyrs would have a glorious future waiting for them. They thought that people who dare to do risky things, especially politically, because they believed they had a bright future, could be attracted even to martyrdom. Such potentially troublesome people were a threat to the Sadducees, and indeed still are very unpopular among those who rule.
In today’s passage Jesus is challenged by the Sadducees to see if he is on the same side as the revolutionary Pharisees, using a hypothetical and rather absurd story. They say that if a woman marries seven times, then at the resurrection she will have seven husbands. Whose wife will the woman be? For them this proposition makes the whole idea of resurrection impossible to conceive.
Jesus rebukes them, telling them that they neither know their Bibles nor the power of God. He makes two points: first, resurrection does not mean mere resuscitation, returning to the same kind of physical life as before. Instead there will be transformation into a different form of bodily life.
A common popular view these days is that resurrection means that we shall live after death as a disembodied spirit in heaven, where angels are also to be found. This is not what the New Testament writers have to say about resurrection. The Jewish view was that resurrection meant a new embodied life, at some future date, after whatever kind of life beyond death God’s people were enjoying. After resurrection and beyond death they will not marry, there will be no need to have children; they will have a new bodily form. Jesus’ teaching implies that resurrection will not simply reproduce our present human state. There will be a re-embodied existence which is recognizably human, but a great change will have happened, about which we can only speculate.
Jesus goes on to argue with the Sadducees by mentioning an Old Testament text about Moses. When God met Moses at the burning bush, he said that he is God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus goes on to add that He is God not of the dead but of the living.
Down the ages many people of faith have understood these words to indicate that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive in some way, and that they have been, or will be raised from the dead by some means at some time. And there continues to be a strong belief that resurrection is about the reversal of death, the gift of a new body to enjoy life in God’s new world.
I think that the force of Jesus’ argument here is that it is about God. If God is truly God, then as the God of the living he will not allow his care and concern for human beings to be destroyed by death.
All of us are interested, concerned, and, to a degree, puzzled about life after death. We wonder if there is one at all and, if so, what form will it take. This passage gives us plenty to reflect upon. And it offers us great hope and reassurance.
I end by mentioning Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians in which he quotes Isaiah 64 by saying that the life of the heavenly places will be greater than any conception we may have in this life: “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”.