22 Pentecost C/All Saints Sunday 2022
In his workingpreacher.org commentary, Kyle Brooks notes that some might compare the controversy in this week’s reading to the medieval question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Brooks does not reduce the debate to such triviality, but he doesn’t address the real and quite personal questions this text will raise for many of our listeners. For those in our pews and on our feeds who are widowed and/or divorced, this debate will have immediate resonance.
We can dispense with the notion that the wife might remain the property of a husband in the afterlife. We may return to that downstream, but for now, let us stipulate that this is not an issue worthy of our attention for the moment. Instead, the question that will ring through the minds of many is clear. In the next life, whatever it looks like, what will remain of and/or carry over from this life?
“Love you” and “forever” go together in our normal discourse like “peanut butter” and “jelly.” A large fraction of pop love songs would disappear if we did not have this notion of “eternal” love. Some religious traditions make this a part of their theological and moral foundations. The idea that marriages formed in this life endure beyond this life is common and treasured by many.
Even when the marriage ends in this life through divorce, the question still remains. That’s especially true for Christians. After all, Jesus is the one who emphasizes the “one flesh” nature of the marital bond. And he is the one who says that what God has put together no human being should put asunder. If one has forged multiple marriage bonds in this life, what part if any of those multiple bonds will remain and/or carry over into another life?
I am a widower. I have the great blessing of being married to two of the finest women ever to walk this earth. I am, of course, completely unbiased in that opinion (ha! Ha!). I should clarify that I have been married to these two women serially rather than concurrently. I believe and trust that the Holy Spirit has forged bonds in each of these marriages beyond human will and preference. If that is the case, to whom (if anyone) will I be “married” in the next and new life?
Therefore, the question from the Sadducees to Jesus may be one of the most contemporary questions possible for some in our pews (and pulpits). It is neither academic nor esoteric. The situation may seem comic in its exaggeration. But the question is serious in its implications.
“The sons of this age marry and give in marriage,” Jesus replies to the Sadducees, “but those who have been counted as worthy to obtain that age and to the resurrection from the dead shall neither marry nor give in marriage” (Luke 20:34b-35, my translation). Marrying and giving in marriage are both male activities in this context. Men marry women. Fathers give daughters. Those institutions will not continue in the age to come.
One reason for this change, of course, is that the need for procreation shall cease. “For neither shall they be able to die,” Jesus continues in verse thirty-six, “for they are like angels, and they are sons of God, being children of the resurrection” (my translation). As most commentators note, Jesus is not suggesting that people become “angels” when they die. The word is quite clear here. They become like angels since they are no longer subject to mortality.
More to the point, they are no longer offspring of human beings. That physical birth is not what begins and sustains their life in the age to come. Instead, they are “offspring of the resurrection.” It is the resurrection which gives them the life that is like that of the angels. That life is not rooted in human procreation. Nor is it rooted in a human “family unit.” Institutions of human family – whether biological or otherwise – do not have the same reality and force in the age to come.
I think this line of thinking can produce immense pain for those who have lost a spouse – either to death or through a painful divorce. It’s easy to hear in this analysis that our closest relationships in this life don’t matter much in the next life. Sometimes that sense leaches into our conversation in the here and now, with traumatizing consequences.
When my first spouse died, I was inconsolable. I mean that people found it hard to find the words to comfort me. And I was pissed off by most words of comfort. One well-meaning soul said to me, for example, that God needed my spouse. That’s why she died so young and so unexpectedly. I replied that as far as I could tell, I needed her more. You can imagine that it was an uncomfortable exchange for all. I experienced the comment as a way to diminish the importance of our relationship to one another. If only I could put my loss in that divine perspective, the argument ran, then I wouldn’t be so hard to console.
That’s the danger here, I think, for preachers. We can easily make these relationships into zero sum commodities. We can hear Jesus saying that being married is of value for this life. But it ceases to have value in the next and new life. The more we value our relationship with God in Christ for eternity, the less we must value our relationships and commitments in this life. If that’s how I must view my first marriage and my loss of my first spouse, then frankly I’m not very interested in the whole conversation.
This is the risk in any Christian conversation about this life and the next. We are so often tempted to make the next life “more” by describing this life as “less.” We are known historically (at least in White western Christianity) as describing this life as a “vale of tears.” We focus on how wonderful heaven will be in comparison. We describe the Resurrection as an escape hatch from this miserable existence and heaven as pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. We make the new life more by making this life less.
As we’ll discuss further this week, that’s not the New Testament view of the Resurrection and the New Life. For example, our connections and commitments in this life will not be discarded in the next and new life as unimportant. Instead, they will be fulfilled and transcended in the next and new life. Our ability to relate to one another as married people, for example, is possible because God has created us to not be alone (see Genesis 1-3). We Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ. Out of that connection arise our other experiences of Christian community.
When I think about the new and next life, I have a humorous image in my imagination. I can see my two spouses from our earthly life sitting together talking about me. They are laughing until they cry about my quirks and foibles. After all, who could understand one another better than two women who had been married to me? This sharing would have no malice in it. I will laugh as hard and enjoy the conversation just as much as they will. And we will have this conversation as siblings in Christ, living together in the eternal communion of the saints.
As N. T. Wright so often reminds us, in the Resurrection nothing good in this life will be lost. We don’t have to make the realities of this life less in order to experience the hope of the next and new life as more. All that is good about my marriages will be kept for the life to come – not because marriage is “forever,” but because God the Creator is faithful. That’s the real punchline of this story in Luke 20: “but [God] is not God of the dead but rather of the living, for to [God] all are living” (my translation). We may get the chance to discuss “Christian presentism” in a downstream post. But for now, let’s be clear that whatever gives life in this life will be part of the next and new life.
I’ve been asked many times, “Will I see my loved one in heaven?” That loved one may be a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a child, a friend, or a pet. I always answer with firm conviction, “Yes, you will. I am sure of that.” Part of the question, however, often is like this. “Will I have the same relationship with my loved one in the next and new life that I’ve had in this life?” Some hope the answer will be yes. Others pray the answer will be no.
I think Christian tradition tells us that our relationships of love in this life will endure into the next and new life. However, what is broken in those relationships will be healed or discarded. What is good in those relationships will remain and be enhanced. Our relationships will be more in the next and new life, not merely different. We will be in the communion of saints, connected with one another and all of the New Creation in the ways that the Creator intended for us from the beginning.
While this line of thought is not the center of the controversy in the Lukan account, I am certain it will be in the minds of many of our listeners. I think it’s pastorally necessary in many settings to offer this sort of conversation and counsel this week. And it can lead to a fruitful conversation about the nature of Resurrection and trust in the Communion of Saints.