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e-sermon: 3rd Sunday before Advent November 11, 2007

Posted by Andy in lectionary, theology.
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It is perhaps fitting that the first e-sermon of my “ad absurdum” blog is on a textbook example of the philosophical move reductio ad absurdum – where someone attempts to convince another that their belief is ridiculous by bringing out all its contradictions and exoticisms. This is precisely the move of the sadducees in today’s gospel.But let’s be good exegetes and set up some context first. The idea of the resurrection appears to have been a hot topic in Jesus’ time. Pharisees believed in it, and Sadducees didn’t. Hence Paul later divides his accusers in the sanhedrin by appealing to his resurrection belief (Acts 23.6). And it’s a fair question: the Old Testament isn’t clear about what happens after death. There is talk about going down into the grave, and there is talk of mediums bringing people up again from it. But the heavenly court referred to in the Old Testament (1 Kings 22.19-22; Job 1-3) isn’t for dead people, but angels and demons.

It’s a problem, and Jesus doesn’t make it much easier by explaining it all with the idea of angels, which were another bone of contention between Sadducess and Pharisees. And once again, we can see why: angels do indeed appear throughout the Old Testament, but usually either as a name for the presence of God (the “angel of the Lord”), occasionally as the personification of some disaster (2 Samuel 24.15-16), and sometimes as members of the court mentioned above. The inter-testamental literature had developed the idea a good deal, but then, the Sadducees were good Protestants, and didn’t read that kind of airport scripture.

Now we’re neither Sadducees nor Pharisees, and so we find both sides of the argument a little absurd. We enjoy agreeing with Jesus in pummelling the Sadducees for their foolishness in thinking that women’s liberation hasn’t reached God’s heaven. And if we believe in angels at all (and hey, lots of Christians don’t), most of us haven’t got them tied down in our worldview to such an extent that they explain anything to us. Jesus’ words don’t explain much to us.

New Testament interpreters after the great Bultmann like to “de-mythologise”: we’ll get hold of the ancient understanding of all the elements of the story that have fallen out of our world, and find corresponding thoughts to replace them. But if you try taking out the bits of this story that have fallen out, you’ll have very little left.

I mean, the Sadduccees attack the idea of people coming back to life after they die (which we don’t think they do), and ask a problem regarding who a woman belongs to (which we don’t think women ever do). Jesus tells them how wrong they are: people who come back to life are like angels (which we don’t get): after all God is the Jewish God, right? (well…) so they’re still alive, aren’t they? (err…)

It all comes apart.

So lets take a step back, and come at it one more time. The question of cosmology (what happens when we die?) doesn’t get us far. What is it that Jesus does?

Well, like a good philosopher, he doesn’t accept the terms of the reductio ad absurdum. If you believe that the resurrection is all about just starting off all over again, then that is indeed a little silly. We die, we are resurrected, and then send off a change of address slip to all our friends. It’s a boring vision, and has nothing to do with the Christian social dreaming we find in Revelation, in Mediaeval art, or in the visions of Revd Martin Luther King.

The resurrection is about transformation. The vital concerns of a husband or of a wife for their family are ignored. People are included in their relation to God: angels, believers, those who live to God. Because dead people don’t praise, as the Psalmist has said.

Jesus transfers the focus from cosmology to worship. There is nothing about the resurrection that is a matter of course. It is not a question of cosmology or our own assurance. Resurrection is about God, and the vindication of His son. Neither our goodness nor our insufficiencies can take away from that. When it is our hope, we long for glory, and the redemption of this world. It is the hope and joy of all humanity.

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