Hespeler, 14 May, 2017 © Scott McAndless – Christian Family Sunday
2 Samuel 12:15b-23, Mark 12:18-27, Responsive: Selected
ou all know that today is Mother’s Day. But do you know why? You might think that this day came into existence because of the efforts of the greeting card industry or the florists or the chocolatiers who banded together and came up with the day to make lots of sales during what would otherwise be the very slow month of May, but that is not the case. The existence of Mother’s Day as we know it today is largely due to the efforts of one woman named Anna Jarvis.
Anna Jarvis was not a mother herself, but she (like everyone I guess) had a mother – a very extraordinary mother named Ann Reeves Jarvis who had done amazing things in working for peace during the American Civil War and for reconciliation afterwards. But Ann Reeves Jarvis, as is the way of all flesh, did eventually die and more than anything her daughter created Mother’s Day and lobbied to have it recognized out of a desire to keep the memory of her mother alive – a way to make sure that the woman she had lost never really went away.
And that was it, by the way. Anna Jarvis didn’t want it to be about anything else and she absolutely deplored everything that Mother’s Day became once she got it established. She deplored the commercialization of it and spent most of the rest of her life feuding with card companies and florists and chocolatiers. Though she never became a mother herself, people from all over the United States would send her presents every year for Mother’s Day and she refused every single one of them.
She became bitter and angry and, in the end, died in poverty and obscurity. It is hard when something that you created according to your o
wn vision goes in a direction that you never intend, but that is the
risk you always take when you create something new. It is too bad that this was
something that distressed her so, but I want to remember this woman’s vision
and her desire, in her own way, to keep her beloved mother alive even after
We have been talking about the afterlife here at St Andrew’s, and today I would like to ask a very important question that always arises when we think about the afterlife in the church. It is a question that I think would have been very much on the heart of Anna Jarvis. What about the people that we have lost and that we have loved, what about our mothers if we have lost them in this life? Will we get to see those people in the afterlife? And, if so, what will the reunion be like? I think that, in many ways, the question of what happens to our loved ones and whether we will see them again is actually more important to many of us that is the question of what will happen to ourselves. After all, we figure, what is the point of an afterlife if you don’t get to share it with the people that you love?
Interestingly enough, the Bible doesn’t really have a whole lot to say about this whole idea of being united with our loved ones after death. There are plenty of passages that offer various pictures and metaphors of what the afterlife might look like, but none of them describe that grand reunion. In the Biblical images, the redeemed people are much more focussed on offering their praise and worship up to God and there is no talk about them interacting with each other. But, of course, just because the Bible doesn’t talk about something happening in the afterlife doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen.
The closest that the Bible comes to talking about seeing the people who are important to us in this life again is in the rather strange passage we read in the gospel this morning where there is this odd exchange between Jesus and a group of people called Sadducees. Now, we don’t actually know a whole lot about what Sadducees were like in the time of Jesus. They were a religious group who were closely associated with the Jewish temple and priesthood and both of those things came to an end shortly after the time of Jesus when the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. Records and memories of the Sadducees were mostly lost.
But one thing we do know about the Sadducees is that they took the Jewish Bible – especially the first five books which were called the Books of Moses – very seriously. If the Bible, as they honoured it, didn’t explicitly say something, they didn’t believe it. Well, one of the things that the first five books of the Bible doesn’t talk about is any concept of the afterlife. So the Sadducees didn’t believe in the afterlife.
So the Sadducees come up to Jesus with a question about the afterlife. But they are not asking because they are actually puzzled about something and want Jesus help them with it. Their question is actually about trying to demonstrate to everyone how much more clever they are than Jesus – that they are right to not believe in the afterlife and Jesus is wrong.
So, in their question, they set up a situation in the afterlife that is frankly ridiculous. You see, there was this law in one of the Books of Moses regarding marriage. Marriage in ancient Israel wasn’t really about love; it was about property and keeping property and inheritance in the family. For that reason it was considered a catastrophe if a man failed to have a son to pass his property down to. So this law was created to make sure, if a man died before having a son, there would be a male heir. His younger brother had to marry his widow and get a son on her and that child would grow up to inherit the big brother’s name and property. I know it sounds pretty crazy to us (it is) but this was how they took care of their priorities in these matters.
So these Sadducees come up to Jesus with a ridiculous application of this law. There are seven brothers who, because of this law, are all required to marry the same woman – the widow of the oldest brother. It is, of course, something that would never actually happen, but they don’t care about that. It is enough for them that the law means that it is possible. And if it is possible, they are trying to prove, that means that the very idea of an afterlife is impossible because, in their minds, a woman cannot have an independent existence. She must be under the authority of some man. She must be married to someone and since one woman cannot be married to several men at once (even though, of course, the opposite was allowed) their conclusion is that the afterlife itself must be impossible.
And I realize that the case that these Sadducees present is so absurd in many ways and is, even worse, steeped in patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes that we would find unacceptable, but I would like you to give their argument some consideration because there is something to it. They are pointing out that there is a bit of a problem with that idea of reunification in the afterlife as we usually think of it. The problem is that our relationships in this world are not static. They are in fact, constantly changing. In some cases the changes may be quite extreme like when someone (as a result of death or divorce) is married to completely different people at different times in their life.
But even when it is not as extreme as that, there are still constant and more subtle changes. Consider, for example, your relationship with someone like your mother. You have one relationship with her when you are an infant and are totally dependent on her, another when you an adolescent and trying to establish your independence and then you relate to her quite differently when you are an adult and maybe a parent yourself. There is not just one relationship but a constantly changing story that includes many ups and downs and various emotions. The relationship is so conditioned by where you are in your life and where she is in hers. So when you see her in the afterlife – in a place where time and phase of life don’t mean anything, how exactly are you supposed to reconnect with your mother maybe especially if you have gone through a lot since she passed on and you are no longer the person you were then.
So, as much as I hate to say it, I think that the Sadducees do have a bit of a point. It doesn’t make sense that the relationships we have here – relationships that are so defined by time and changeable circumstance and stage of life could just continue on in a place where none of those things exist. I can’t have, all in the same eternal moment, the same relationship that I had with my mother at all the different phases in my life. So maybe we do need to ask Jesus, together with the Sadducees, whether a reunion in the afterlife is really possible.
But, of course, Jesus has an answer for them, and what an answer it is! “Is not this the reason you are wrong,” he says, “that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” He tells us a number of important things about the afterlife here. He tells us first of all, the most important truth about it: that the afterlife is an existence completely unlike our present lives. There is really nothing in this life that can relate to it and we don’t really have the minds to grasp it or the words to describe it. The Sadducees have misunderstood because they have tried to define something that cannot be defined in human terms. That is their first mistake but it won’t be their last.
Secondly, Jesus makes it clear that we will not relate to people there in the same way that we do here. There will be no marriage, he says, not because he has anything against marriage but because that kind of earthly relationship has no meaning there. But it is not just marriage that he rules out, but also other human forms of relation. Note how he says it, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” He is speaking in terms of how marriage took place in that world where one party (the man) married while the other (the woman) was given in marriage. This practice marked the fundamental difference between the genders, that men were free but that women were pieces of property that were to be given, taken and traded. But Jesus says, thankfully, that such distinctions (which were fundamental to everything in their world) have no meaning in heaven.
How then is this an answer to the Sadducees’ question? Jesus is arguing that it is possible for there to be a grand reunion in heaven with our lost ones, that such a thing doesn’t have to end up creating endless difficulties because relationship is not limited there in the ways that it is limited here. I guess it’s not quite something we can understand here and now, but it is, I hope a great comfort.
But Jesus doesn’t just leave it there. He gives the Sadducees and us the ultimate proof of the truth of the afterlife. “Have you not read in the book of Moses,” he says, “how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” Here Jesus anchors the proof of the afterlife not in our desires to be reunited but in the nature of Godself. The thing, Jesus says, that proves that the great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, have entered into the afterlife is not found in their relationship with each other, not in their relationship to us, but only in their relationship with God. God is their God and God is, by nature, the God of the living. This makes it possible for them to have life even though they have died.
It is heartbreakingly sad to lose the people we love. We mourn for them, we miss them, and we know that we will never be fully complete without them. We can know that we will see them again, despite whatever complications that might cause, because we know the power of God, who has demonstrated he is able to raise the dead, will overcome any obstacle ever to be raised in all the universe. The God of the living is our God and theirs, and so we know we can have hope.