View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin
Sunday, November 10, 2019 | 4:00 p.m.
The Life of God in Christ
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
We are reading today from Luke, but to help us understand, I want to turn for a moment to the Gospel according to John. On the night of his arrest, Jesus was with his disciples. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus gave many instructions to the disciples that night. Scholars call them the Farewell Discourses.
I turn to these teachings because I am looking for clues about what it means to be alive to God, something that Jesus touches on in our Gospel reading from Luke, when he says, “They are all still alive to God.”
In John, chapter 15, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. [God] removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit [God] prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been pruned [or cleansed] by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:1–5a).
I love this description of life and growth and fruitfulness that comes as a result of our connection to Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of John, Jesus often talks about abiding in God and God abiding in him.
Here, he invites his followers to enter into this close relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Shortly after this, he also speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, coming to the disciples to guide them after Jesus’ death.
Jesus says that we and he exist in each other in some way. “Abide in me, as I abide in you.” Perhaps it is his teachings that abide in us. After all he says that his words have already shaped us; they have pruned us and made us more fruitful.
A couple verses later he says that his words, taken into our lives, give us a kind of power: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
Somehow the life of God is in Christ, and that life of God is in Christ’s disciples.
I have to believe that Jesus knew all this when the Sadducees came to him with their latest trick question.
None of the Sadducees believed in resurrection, because it’s not mentioned in the Torah. It’s not mentioned in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy, and that was their scripture: The Torah, those five books.
The Pharisees did believe in resurrection, however, because they included in their holy scripture the prophets and the writings, like the psalms, for example (which are considered writings.)
The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee. In Philippians 3 he says, “I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5).
Paul was a Pharisee who believed in resurrection and who came to follow Jesus eventually.
But the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. They came to Jesus thinking that they would humiliate him with the legal complication and logical conundrum created by their scenario of a woman who married, sequentially, each of seven brothers. “Whose wife would she be in the resurrection?”
Their question was based on the social organization that was called for by Jewish law in a patriarchal system. Women were dependent on men, and their purpose was to bear children to carry on the family name and to build up the household.
The practice is outlined in Deuteronomy. “When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5–6).
If a man refused to do this, then his brother’s wife “shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, ‘This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ Throughout Israel his family shall be known as ‘the house of him whose sandal was pulled off’” (Deuteronomy 25:9–10).
The whole family would be put to shame if a brother didn’t fulfill his obligations to his brother’s widow. Without a husband or children, a woman in that society became lost. She had no place. She had no worth. In that society her worth came from the men to whom she was connected.
The story the Sadducees told was rather coldhearted, actually. Can you imagine a woman losing husband after husband, seven times? In the story of the Sadducees she was just another object used to make a point. There was no sense of compassion, perhaps because they themselves didn’t take their story seriously.
Jesus’ response to them was unexpected. When he was done talking, “some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ For they no longer dared to ask him another question” (Luke 20:39–40).
They no longer dared. That’s such strong language. Jesus exposed something about themselves that they had not even seen.
Jesus spoke to them, in response to their crazy story, speaking of worthiness. In this age, Jesus said, in this realm, in this time, people marry and are given in marriage. He affirmed what they told in their story: their worth came from their place in society, the value of their household, or, in the case of women, the value of their capacity to bear children to carry on the family name.
But, Jesus said, “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.”
There, in that age, there is no death and so no need for birth. All who are there are worthy in and of themselves. Their worth does not come from marriage or child birth. They are like angels, and they are all children of God.
Because Jesus is speaking to Sadducees, he teaches them from the books they find sacred. From Exodus, he takes the story of Moses at the burning bush to make his point.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and when he approached the bush, God spoke to him, saying, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
And because God says, I am their God now, and not I was their God when they were alive, Jesus interprets that God is saying they are all still alive. God was their God and God still is their God. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive, and they are still alive. The relationship with God does not end when this body completes its earthly purpose.
This is what brought me to the Gospel according to John. It got me thinking about life in this age and life in the age to come. Jesus uses this language here in Luke, when he speaks of “those who belong to this age [who] marry” and “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age” (Luke 20:34–35).
In John, Jesus uses similar words, though they are a bit disguised in translation. Jesus says in his farewell discourse, in his prayer to God, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him” (John 17:1–2).
These words, eternal life, in Greek are aionios zoe, which mean “the life of the age.” This is the same language Jesus is using in Luke. Zoe means life. If you know anybody named Zoe, that’s what their name comes from: Life. Aionios, the age, you can hear the word eon in there: eon, era, age. The life of that age, the age to come.
And what is the nature of this eternal life, this life of the age to come? Jesus describes it in his prayer to God. He says, “This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and [to know] Jesus Christ whom you sent” (John 17:3).
The first time I read that, I stopped in my tracks. I never heard anyone talk about that. “This is eternal life: to know God.” That is such an interesting way to think about what it is to be alive, to have life, to know God. But what is this “knowing God”?
I began to follow this thread back through the farewell discourses, and I followed it back to Jesus’ teaching about the vine: “I am the vine, you are the branches. . . . Abide in me as I abide in you.”
Is this what it is to know God? To have the awareness of God’s life in us, the vine grower animating the vine, pruning the vine, causing more fruit to grow? We, the branches, taking in the words of Jesus, imbibing and embodying the very Spirit of Jesus?
When Jesus describes the dead ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as being alive today, I think of his own resurrection and the proclamation of the angels at his tomb.
The angels at his tomb speak of Jesus to the women seeking him, “Why do you look for the living among the dead. He is not here. He has risen” (Luke 24:5).
Death to us may seem an end, but to God there is no end of life.
There is an end to unworthiness. There is an end to a sense that our value comes from social systems, from what we own or to whom we are connected. There is an end to levirate marriage in which women are merely a means to an end, child-bearers.
But to God there is no end of life. To God there is only eternal love and life, existence rooted in dignity and justice and relationship.
This love is now in this life. It began before the beginning of time, and it will continue on into the age to come.
Immediately before Jesus goes out, after his farewell discourses, to the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, he concludes his prayer to God like this:
“Righteous Father, even the world didn’t know you, but I’ve known you, and these believers know that you sent me. I’ve made your name known to them and will continue to make it known so that your love for me will be in them, and I myself will be in them.” (John 17:24–26, Common English Bible).
This is eternal life, life of the age to come: to know God, and to know God’s love in Jesus Christ. It’s for you, and for me, and for all creation. This love has no beginning and no end. It is eternal Love, eternal life. Thanks be to God. Amen.