Matthew 22: 23-33
The great professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale and at UVa., Julian Hartt, was also a third-generation Methodist preacher who served country churches in the Midwest during the Depression. Julian told the story of one cold night on the plains when he was called to the house of a dying farmer. As he rode through the darkness to the man’s house, Julian was filled with dread. “What will I say to him? This man’s eternity may hang on what I say to him in his last moments on earth.” When Julian got to the house, he was ushered into the bedroom, and the dying man motioned for him to come to the bedside. “Preacher, there’s something I need to ask you,” the man gasped. “Yes, what is it?” Julian replied. “When I get to heaven, will my favorite hunting dog be there with me?” After the class had finished laughing, one of us asked, “What did you say to him?” Julian, who had the quickest mind and sharpest sense of humor I’ve ever known, answered, “I said the first thing that came into my mind. I said, ‘What makes you so sure that’s where you’re going?’”
The Bible has relatively little to say about the afterlife. In the Hebrew Bible, there is almost nothing. When people die, the Bible says “they died.” David “slept with his ancestors.” Abraham “was gathered to his people.” Hebrews generally did not believe in an afterlife: the Psalms refer to Sheol as the dwelling place of the dead – a shadowy place where the dead do not seem to have consciousness. In some contexts, Sheol is synonymous with “the grave.” Many modern Jews do not find belief in an afterlife a necessary component of their faith.
In the gospels, there is a raging debate between two religious factions over the existence of an afterlife. The Sadducees, who were the wealthy, politically connected party, rejected any belief in the afterlife because it was not mentioned in the first five books of the Bible. The Pharisees, who were more liberal and accepted as authoritative the writings of the prophets, believed in the resurrection of the dead at the coming of the Messiah and the end of the world. The gospel lesson this morning is an attempt by the Sadducees to trap Jesus by exposing the absurdity of belief in the resurrection: Deuteronomy 25 commanded a man to marry his brother’s widow if she had no children, so she would be cared for in her old age. What if seven brothers married a woman in succession, and there were no children? Whose wife would this poor woman be in the resurrection, the Sadducees ask, smirking?
In the resurrection: in the Bible, all human life is in a body. God created humans in bodies, and declared it good. Greeks, and other cultures, separated human existence into physical bodies and non-physical soul or mind or spirit. For Hebrews, there could be no life apart from having a body. So, in the books of Daniel and Ezekiel, when there begin to be glimmers of belief in life after death, the vision is not of disembodied ghosts floating on clouds, but of bodies that have come to life again. This is an enormously important concept, which, sadly, most Western Christians get utterly wrong: Biblical Christianity does not believe in the immortality of the soul – that human souls have an inherent right to live forever, somewhere. That is a Greek idea. Biblical Christianity has always proclaimed the inseparability of spiritual and physical life. Therefore, any life after death must be both physical and spiritual. Jesus can be touched after Easter, and he cooks and eats fish with the disciples on the lakeshore. Look at the words of the Apostles’ Creed (881 in The United Methodist Hymnal): “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
The New Testament understanding of life after death is best found in Paul’s first letters to the Corinthians and Thessalonians. At the end of the world, the dead will be raised – by God’s power, not by right. Life in the resurrection is in a body like that of the resurrected Jesus, who not only can be hugged and who eats, but who also passes through walls and appears and disappears.
Life in the resurrection, Jesus tells the Sadducees, is not life in this age cleaned up. In the Kingdom come in fullness and power, for example, women will not be property to be passed from one family member to another. The poor will no longer be at the bottom of the pile – in fact, Jesus says again and again, the poor will be exalted and the rich laid low. In the words of the slave spiritual,
I’ve got shoes, you’ve got shoes,
All God’s children got shoes,
When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes
Gonna walk all over God’s heaven.
Poor black slaves who had no shoes and could not roam wherever they wished understood that heaven would not repeat the earthly divisions people had created. On the other hand, the song continues to say,
Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t going there.
I don’t know about the hunting dog in Julian’s story, but Michael Vick’s dogs may be in heaven before him.
So, if the resurrection comes when Jesus returns, where are our dead loved ones right now? It helps me to understand what the word eternal means. Eternal doesn’t mean forever and ever. Eternal means outside of time. Time is a construct of Creation, and, as Einstein proved, is not constant. It speeds up, slows down, and sometimes, like during math class or a sermon, stops altogether. Sometimes it loops back upon itself – like when you smell Thanksgiving dinner and suddenly you are back at Thanksgiving at your grandparents’ when you were a child, or when you experience déjà vu. God is eternal – God stands outside of time, which is how God can be at the Creation and the end of the world and right here all at the same time. When we celebrate Holy Communion, listen for the point in the Eucharistic prayer when I say, and so, with all your people now on earth and with all the company of heaven, we praise your name and joint their unending hymn, Holy, holy, holy . . . When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we do so at the same eternal moment as Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room and St. Augustine and Luther and John Wesley and your great grandparents and all Christians on earth and with your great, great grandchildren. We step outside of time. At death, you and I step outside of time into eternity and we are at the resurrection and the Creation in the same moment.
At the end of the film Places in the Heart, the camera pans down a church pew as the characters of the film are sharing communion. A widow and her children, their blind boarder and black field hand pass the elements to each other. Then the camera pans to the widow’s dead husband, who passes the elements to the lynched young black boy who accidentally killed him. That’s a vision of the eternity we share at the Lord’s Table.
This morning, who else is in the pew with you? Who is kneeling with you at the rail today? You are sharing at the same table as your great-grandparents and your great grandchildren, with the apostles and saints and martyrs, and, most wonderfully, with Jesus. When you come forward this morning, name the saint you’re breaking bread with, and give thanks.