A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Pentecost 22 ~ Luke 20:27-38
Today I’m going to quickly do some unpacking and interpreting of the text and then I’m going to take us somewhere risky. And hopefully by the end you all won’t have your knickers in a knot! The text is actually pretty straightforward, but it rarely gets preached.
Luke 20:27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question.
The Sadducees were a group of religious leaders who had oversight of the Temple. They strictly adhered to only the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, known as the Torah, or the Pentateuch. That meant they didn’t hold the teachings of the prophets as authoritative, and that meant that they didn’t believe in the resurrection – which was, in Jesus’ time, a pretty widely accepted theological concept.
Luke 20 is a chapter in which all manner of religious authorities seem to line up to challenge Jesus’ theology, so it’s only natural that the Sadducees get their shot. And they fail. Spectacularly. They come at Jesus with a ridiculous challenge and he more or less just shrugs them off and dismisses the premise of their question.
They ask him about something called ‘levirate law’ which was the standard Jewish practice that if a woman was widowed it was the law that one of her husband’s brothers had to take her as a wife if she had not borne any children, because that would threaten the family line so children needed to be produced. And yes, I know that sounds horribly patriarchal and treats women as property, but that was the hard reality in those days. Women had few rights, and laws like this actually offered a measure of protection for a woman.
The Sadducees paint a picture of a woman who went through all seven brothers of a family and never produced a child with any of them.
If it was a musical it would be called ‘1 Bride for 7 Brothers’ – not very catchy!
I’m thinking if I’m brother number 4 or 5 or 6 I’m getting increasingly nervous – but nonetheless, that’s the hypothetical situation Jesus is challenged with. She had 7 husbands who all died. When she dies, whose wife will she be in heaven?
And so here’s the tender part. I need you to hear me out through the whole thing, and not tune out after the first part.
Jesus’ answer is that their question is ridiculous because the whole husband and wife thing doesn’t really exist in the afterlife.
Luke 20:35-36 (In the resurrection, people) neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
One of our common things to express and cling to when one of our loved ones dies is to say that we’ll see them again in heaven. Or when the second person of a couple dies we say things like “they’re finally together again.”
I don’t want to take that away from us.
Yes, absolutely, I believe we are reunited with our loved ones in the afterlife. But it’s not like it’s just a repeat of life here just with better lighting and bigger TV screens. The afterlife is, according to Jesus, something of another order entirely. Jesus says that resurrection life is qualitatively different than life here. He says we’re more like angels and children of God than we are like people who would enter into marriages.
Now, here’s the important part.
That doesn’t mean we stop being who we are. I don’t for a second think that we lose our identity and become a nameless, faceless, nondescript angel singing anonymously in the 42nd row of the celestial choir.
No, I firmly believe that the deepest and most important parts of who we are remain with us – but our entire realm and manner of existence is utterly transformed.
I hope that doesn’t poke too hard at some of your treasured ways of looking at things. And this is maybe the reason why this text doesn’t get preached very often. It’s not because it’s hard to understand; it’s because it pokes hard at what is called our embedded theology – how we’ve ‘always’ thought about something – and that can be very uncomfortable.
When you take your embedded theology (and we all have some) and put it up against things like how we do church, or how a church views something, we can have a recipe for huge conflict. That’s another reason why this passage rarely gets preached. It invites us to look hard at conflict, and wrestle with those things that provoke us.
And that tends to get our knickers in a knot.
And that tends to get preachers in trouble!
For example, let’s just quickly think about some hot button issues that have torn churches apart.
I’m thinking about stuff like interracial marriage, or allowing divorced people to be full members, or (gasp) the ordaining of women! We all shrug our shoulders because those things are non-issues for us. But once upon a time each of those issues was highly divisive and caused huge conflicts in churches.
What about things like the baptism of infants?
Or what’s going on with the bread and wine at communion?
Or how about kids taking part in communion. Many of you probably remember times when kids were sent out of church at communion time. Now we bring them back in just so they can participate. That’s a pretty significant theological shift – and it caused some pretty significant knicker twisting in its day.
But we’ve moved beyond all that, right?
We are an affirming congregation. That means we did some good, hard work on wading into LGBTQ+ issues and our deeply embedded theologies of sexual orientation and gender identities and had to come to terms with what our theological claims about God’s all-encompassing love had to say about views that we may have held for decades. There are fewer than 10% of United Church congregations who are fully affirming. For many, many people their deeply embedded theologies are very hard to challenge. It’s really hard to let go of something that you’ve always thought – until the love and light of God, and the teaching of Jesus, and the stirring of the Holy Spirit worked together to dislodge and transform you.
In 1988 our denomination took the position that one’s sexual orientation had no bearing on one’s membership in the church, and therefore, since any member can discern and pursue a call to ministry that means a person’s sexual orientation has no bearing on whether they can be ordained or commissioned. Some people left the church over that stance (although far fewer than are usually thought to have left).
In 1986 we offered an apology to Indigenous people for our colonial past (and present!), and in 1998 we apologized for our part in the residential school program. These have been important steps toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. And here at Faith United we include a recognition of traditional territories as we begin worship each week, striving to do our part in the work of reconciliation. I don’t know if we lost any members over those things, but I do know that in too many churches members grumble about ‘having to do that territory recognition thing’ every Sunday. Some insist on only once a month. Some won’t allow it at all.
So while this scripture passage is narrowly about a weak challenge to the theological concept of resurrection it’s more deeply about how big issues that seriously challenge the way we think and the way we live are an important and unavoidable part of being a person of faith.
If you come to church and give yourself authentically to a life of journeying ever deeper into the Way of Jesus, then I guarantee you that sooner or later, and repeatedly, you’re gonna get your knickers in a knot.
And sometimes you’ll wrestle and work through it and move deeper.
And sometimes, sadly, it’ll be too much. People leave churches over issues all the time. That doesn’t mean we should avoid those issues and never rock the boat.
Sometimes knickers need twisting! And some more than others.
Jesus didn’t convert those Sadducees that day. They went away unmoved. And he ended up crucified. The stakes in theological arguments are sometimes very high.
But high ideals are worth fighting for.
Surely, on Remembrance Sunday, we can see that.
So far, the only issues I’ve raised today are those that we’ve already wrestled with and are pretty settled about. That lets us feel smug and superior and oh-so-more-enlightened than those other churches.
Shall I twist your knickers?
If we hold to the theological position that we are called by Jesus to love our neighbour, and to treat everyone with dignity and respect, and to never ‘other’ someone by diminishing who they are or what their reality is but instead to be all about ‘one-anothering’ – loving people without exception – then we need to be open to being called on it when we don’t love that way.
It’s easy to confront those actions and attitudes that are overtly unloving, and generally we all do a very good job at that. We strive to be loving, and accepting, and inclusive. We really do. And I would be pretty shocked if I heard a report of how someone from here purposely ‘othered’ someone or some group. And I haven’t heard any such stories, so I’m not trying to address some incident. I’m just talking theologically.
The struggle we in the United Church face, especially because we’re generally so conscious about ‘one-anothering’ and loving people – is the issue of those embedded ways we ‘other’ people without even realizing it.
And so, to knot some knickers, I’d rewrite the first verse of today’s scripture passage.
Luke 20:27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection…
What if instead I said:
Some Christians, who say there is no white privilege…
Shockingly, there are far too many stories of outright racism in our denomination.
Stories of ministers who don’t get interviews because of their skin colour, or even because of the ethnic look of their name – or those who get frequent complaints because of their accent.
Stories of congregants of colour who are ignored at coffee time.
Stories of ‘othering’ because ‘they’ are not like ‘us’ and ‘they’ ought to change who they are so they can fit in to the way ‘we’ do things.
We saw how Jesus handled the Sadducees about the resurrection question.
How would Jesus respond to people who claimed that white privilege isn’t real, and even if it is, well, surely ‘we’ don’t have it or wield it?
I suspect Jesus would say something about there being a log in our eye while we’re pointing out the speck in other people’s eyes.
Are your knickers twisting yet?
What if I poked around about environmental issues – the vehicles we drive – the way we consume?
Or about Indigenous land claims?
Or about ableism?
Every one of these things is a theological issue because at the heart of each of them is the issue of how we treat one another, how we see one another, how we value one another – or not.
Remembrance Sunday reminds us that values are worth fighting for, and sacrificing for.
As people of faith we don’t get to sit on the sidelines and let someone else take a stand on all these things.
We are called into the fray.
Being a person of faith is hard!
I don’t want you to go away today poked and angry.
I want you to feel convicted to take this faith thing and apply it deeply to every aspect of your life and your worldview.
Jesus says that God is God of the living – that God is with us in the here and now – that God is present in every single moment of our living, and every single situation, and choice, that we find ourselves in.
Faith is not just something you do on Sunday morning (or Sunday night!).
Faith defines who you are, and whose you are – and you are a child of God, a lover of others – and that truly makes all the difference in the world.
If we have courage enough to unknot our knickers and risk going there.