Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

If you’re a teacher or you know someone who is a good teacher, you’ll appreciate this story.  There was a priest who, for many years, made it his policy to refer the theological questions of six-year-olds to his wife.  Since she taught young children, he thought she had a much better grasp than he did on how to address the questions children asked. One day, a first-grader brought a drawing of a skeleton into class where his wife taught English as a second language to foreign-born students. The title across the top of the drawing read “Inside of Me.” It was designed to show that everyone has a skeleton inside of them. The child unfolded it proudly and showed it to the class. One little girl who was from India was astounded at the thought that she and others had this scary-looking thing inside of her, so she pressed the issue a bit farther. “Even you have one of these inside you, Mrs. K?”  “Yes,” the teacher replied, “I have one too.” The next question was the theological one. “Does God have one inside him?” asked the girl? Now in a class made up of children from different countries, cultures, and religious backgrounds, you can imagine that this question had the potential for major theological debate. But, as usual, the wife’s expertise in six-year-old theology saved the day. “If God needs a skeleton,” she replied, “I’m sure God has one.” “God has everything he needs.” And that satisfied the little girl.

Asking questions is an essential part of learning. That’s the truth behind the statement, “The only dumb question is the one you don’t ask.” But, part of the magic of questions is that their answers can sometimes catch us off guard and teach us things by not answering our question in the way we expect.  That’s exactly what happens when we look at the questions posed to Jesus this morning.

The Sadducees were the oldest and most conservative of the major religious groups of Jesus’ day. And one of their big disagreements with other groups was over the fairly new notion that there would be a personal resurrection after death. The Sadducees denied this. One of their reasons, they said, was that the resurrection just didn’t make sense. They said that if you simply looked at what was being said about a personal resurrection, there was no way to understand it well enough to merit believing it. That’s what’s behind this elaborate story and the question “Whose wife will she be?”  After all, they argued, if the idea of resurrection doesn’t let you figure out something as simple as who is married to whom, then there just has to be something wrong with the whole idea. That’s an interesting way of approaching a difficult question. So much so that we still ask questions like it today. We don’t usually ask them with the goal of discrediting the doctrine of the resurrection, but we do ask them just the same. Because, like the Sadducees, we ask questions out of our desire to hear what WE want to hear rather than out of a true desire to hear what God wants to say.

We wonder whether, in heaven, after the resurrection, babies who died as babies will still be babies – probably because we want to hear that they’ll be grown and know the experience of self-awareness.  We want to know whether those who die at a great age will still be of great age – probably because we want them to know the feeling of youth again. We also wonder whether we will recognize one another – probably because on some level we want to make sure we’ll never be alone . . . even in heaven.  And, no doubt, there are those who still ask some variations and versions of “whose wife will she be?” or “whose husband will he be?” – which could be connected with the issue of who we want to not be alone with.

This search for answers is both ancient and completely contemporary. Crystal balls, mediums, books about near-death experiences, psychics, new age theologians, and a goodly number of offbeat versions of the Christian faith, have all promised, and continue to promise, this sort of “inside” knowledge about life after death. They all say, in one way or another, “We know what it’s like. We know the answers. We know the secrets.” And wouldn’t it be nice to know? To have our questions answered? Our doubts removed. Our uncertainties put to rest?

For that reason, it’s important to pay attention to what Jesus has to say in response to this question. And what Jesus has to say is, I think, a lot like what that teacher told her children. He says that the woman in the story is not going to be anybody’s wife. He says that the question actually misses the point. Because, Jesus says, in the resurrection, things are going to be different.  And people are going to be different.  And they’re going to be different in ways that you probably can’t understand right now.  In effect, Jesus says, don’t worry about it . . . God will take care of you. Have faith.

Now, is that a very satisfying answer? Not if you’re determined to get the kind of answer you want and not the one that God gives. We don’t know what the angels are like, so we don’t know what it means, really, to say we will be like angels. We don’t know what it looks like to be “children of the resurrection,” so that doesn’t help much, either.  Jesus simply isn’t going to elaborate on it.  And based on his answer, it would seem that he doesn’t particularly want us to spend a lot of time asking, either. “God will handle it,” Jesus says. That’s as much as we’re going to get. It’s like wondering if God has a skeleton.  Well, if God needs one, I’m sure God has a skeleton. Do you really need to know?

This is one of the reasons why I just go nuts when I hear people claiming to have answers to questions like “What will the resurrection be like?”.  People who claim to have deciphered the scriptures and gained some “inside information” about God’s plan for us. Because what this dialogue between Jesus and the Sadducees points out, and what is really important for us to consider today, is that our hope does not come from knowing how old we will be, or who will be married to whom, or whether our bodily imperfections will be made perfect, or what language we will speak. Our hope does not come from knowing details about what a resurrected life will be like.  Our hope comes from knowing Jesus, knowing the story of Jesus’ life, hearing the message of Jesus’ ministry and from that, having hope in the power and the love and grace of God to give us a life in this world and the next where we are at home in God’s presence both now and forever. Because not only do we not know any of the details of the life to come, we’re never going to know any of those details as long as we’re on this side of the journey.

So, what we are called to is not knowledge. We are not called to certainty – at least not the kind of certainty that is rooted in answered questions. What we are called to is hope — real, dynamic, living hope, based on a faith that is rooted in our encounter with Christ and in our trust in God. We’re given no specifics, no answers, no solutions, no picture postcards.  Instead, we’re called simply to surrender our questions and our difficulties and our logical puzzles and to trust that God will handle things better than we can imagine; and that God’s love and mercy and care for us will be enough. It will be sufficient. In fact, it will be more than sufficient. Because Jesus assures us that God’s love for us will never leave us.  We are to remember that when we die, and when those we love die, that God’s love for us does not die. A love that has already carried us through so much, a love that has already been so gracious to us. A love that will continue and that will grow.  And that love is what we have to rely on.

This doesn’t exactly answer the questions of the Sadducees.  Nor does it answer our own burning questions. We still don’t know whose wife will be whose, or how old we will be, or whom we will recognize, or anything like that. Instead, we are given an opportunity to trust.  And, perhaps more importantly, we are given an opportunity in the here and now to know what it’s like to live in hope – a hope that is greater than all of our questions. A hope that is rooted in a relationship with God in Christ. . . who will never abandon us.