Wednesday, June 17, 2009

He is God not of the dead, but of the living

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ For they no longer dared to ask him another question.

- Luke 20:27-40

Jesus is still disputing in the temple - open to questions and teaching. Sadducees were a powerful group in the temple life: a high priestly and landowning class which controlled the temple and the Jewish Council. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees rejected the notion of eternal life, resurrection of the dead. So, here they come to dispute with Jesus about this important theological issue.

What I enjoy about this "feisty" Jesus is precisely his brilliant oratorical capacities. Through the gospel of Luke we have witnessed his teachings and his parables in multitude: the phrases from these teachings have become part and parcel of every language into which these gospels have been translated and used in worship services. His brilliant teaching devices still serve their purpose - his parables are simple, yet profound; his teaching loving and direct. Here we have him dealing with more sophisticated folk, disputing issues and questions basically designed to trap him in one way or another. But here the Sadducees ask him a question designed to impute their own theological assumptions, and in the words of some of the scribes, Jesus "speaks well."

The notion that God is the God of the living and not the dead is an important one in the sense that we are to understand the communion of saints. For me, this issue comes up over and over again in different forms. It's an important spiritual notion to understand that the circle of love and relatedness is never broken between those who live in God. Our loved ones, dear friends, those whose memories we bless and are grateful for (as would be Jesus' audience for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) - all of these live in that communion of reality of the living God. We don't worship the dead, we don't love the dead. What we understand is that life in the Spirit continues. And we continue in relationship to a reality that transcends our notions of time.

This notion that God is the God of the living is crucial to the Eastern Christian understanding of "icon." Continuing from the ideas expressed in yesterday's passage, about how we each bear the image of God within us, we come to understand icon as conveying that which transcends the limits of time and death to bear an image with which we continue to have relationship. As we have a living relationship with Christ, so we continue to bear within us relations of love with those who may be deceased but continue to bear the fruits of beauty within us. Is there someone who was close to you who inspires you today to continue on with your life in some admirable fashion? Is there someone you have known, or have heard about, whose words or thoughts may appear to inspire you when you need it? If you look at a photograph of a deceased love one, do you think of your relationship as passed, or does it still live within you? The notion of icon carries with it the understanding of the timeless image we each carry within us, an image of God in whom we continue to have living relationships of love.

In this timeless place of relationship, we continue in a line of thought, belief and faith that hopefully bears us forward with love. We understand ourselves to be not simply a part of a community in which we worship, or we encounter people day to day, but a part of something that extends much more deeply within ourselves and much more profoundly into human spiritual history. At some level within ourselves we bear an image or "icon" which unites us within a relatedness of love with that which is Good, True and Beautiful, and within which we call for our own strengths and we share strength with others. In prayer, we come to access this relatedness and this depth. So, notions of our relatedness to those - like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - who live in God are centrally important to our own understanding of who we are and to the community to which we belong and whose values and inspiration we hopefully continue for others. The God of the living lives within us, and we are related in ways more profoundly life-giving than we understand. I believe this is part of the notion of life in abundance: do you have an image of someone whose life inspires you? Do you aspire to follow in the footsteps of someone who has lived the life of beauty and truth that is meaningful to your notions of God, and of what is good? In the God of the living, we are related and continue to have that relationship, that "icon" that gives that person a presence to us - a memory that is real and vital and living, not dead, that continues to inspire in love and relatedness.

Through our prayer lives, I believe, we have access to life in abundance through our relatedness to all that live in God. We should recall that we are a part of that relatedness ourselves and understand our part in its life, and the contributions we make in this context. We call on its strength as well when we need it, and we share that strength in relationship with others when we make contributions to this chain of all the living in God.

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