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.’
I have to confess something about the title of this sermon. I stole the phrase “Christian Navel-Gazing” from a friend of mine, who is also a Presbyterian minister. He and I were talking one day about the various things that we pastors and even church members spend our time doing, and as he listed things that he had been doing like refereeing arguments about ordination standards, and debates about predestination, and teaching classes about creationism vs. evolution, he said, “It’s all just Christian navel-gazing!” The image there is a hard one to pass over. That phrase began as a description of some in Eastern Orthodox Church who would meditate by gazing intently at their own navel. It later morphed into a pejorative term describing those who would become enraptured by the self-absorbed pursuit of one thing to the exclusion of all else. So, what my pastor friend was saying is that sometimes we Christians tend to get so wrapped up in a few hot-button arguments that we lose our focus on the things that Jesus really called us to be and do. You can ponder that if you wish, and you might agree with him. I would, however, caution you against spending too much time thinking about it.
In our New Testament reading for this morning, we encounter a few navel-gazers. They are the Sadducees, who question Jesus about his seemingly literal understanding of what happens to us when we die. You see, the Sadducees were known for denying any possibility of life after death, any kind of existence beyond this present world of our physical selves. Jesus, of course, was known to teach the exact opposite, frequently using phrases like “the Kingdom of Heaven” to describe a higher, spiritual existence, a new life in which our physical bodies are left behind. It wasn’t a completely new notion, but to the Sadducees it was ridiculous. They were undoubtedly poking a bit of fun at Jesus as they asked him a question meant to entrap him. “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.” The Sadducees here are extending Jesus’ teaching to a very literal and seemingly ridiculous conclusion, and it’s meant to show how silly his understanding of the afterlife really is.
Unfortunately for the Sadducees, Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He answers the question simply, by describing how heaven and earth are not the same. The ways of God are not the ways of humanity. God’s judgments are not our judgments. Things do not work in heaven the way that they work on earth. And yes, in heaven even the lowliest of society would be considered “like angels, and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” That’s good news, by the way. Jesus’ answer leaves plenty of room for mystery, for the unknown, for a non-answer to the question. When the Sadducees press him for details about what his “heaven” is like, he gives little. It’s like he’s simply saying that it’s a God thing, and maybe we aren’t supposed to understand it.
Of course, that doesn’t stop us from trying. In true navel-gazing fashion, Christians across the ages have contemplated the details of the hereafter, injecting the excruciating minutiae of human imagination into the issue. In the Middle Ages Christians were known to debate things like, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and “Do your hair and nails grow after the resurrection?” It reminds me of something A.J. asked me the other day: “Daddy, if you break your arm in heaven, can you still move it?” I told him I didn’t know, by the way, but that if heaven is what we think heaven is, then there won’t be any broken arms in the first place. But I digress, and yes, I gaze at my own navel.
There’s something more important than the details. Christian theologian Reinhold Neibuhr once famously said, “I refuse to conjecture on the furniture of heaven, or the temperature of hell.” That is to say, the Bible gives very few specific details about life after death, and when we talk about what happens to us when we die, we must be careful not to say more than God himself has said on the subject. As hard as it may be, we must learn to accept that there is more mystery than certainty in the Bible when it comes to answering this question. Perhaps the longest and most specific conversation about the topic occurs in John’s Gospel, where Jesus reassures his frightened disciples that in his Father’s house are many dwelling places (John 14:1-7). “I am going there to prepare a place for you and I will come again and take you unto myself, that where I am there you may be also.” This language the Jesus uses, describing the afterlife as “many dwelling places,” at least indicates that we would do poorly to think about “heaven” as one specific place and instead think of it as a state of being with God. By inference, of course, hell would be the state of being far away from God, a condition quite possible to attain right here on earth. But that’s another sermon.
Later in John’s Gospel, the risen Christ appears to his disciples. He comes to them when they are locked in an upper room, filled with fear and uncertainty about the future. They are in a room and the door is locked, yet Jesus enters and says to them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19-28). The point of that story is that Jesus was there for them, even as they faced an uncertain future. And if he was there for them, risen and offering peace, then he will be there for us, and we will know him face-to-face. What we have in the New Testament are not so much literal details as imaginative imagery. We have not descriptions but promises, promises of a risen life in Christ and with Christ. What we will look like, what those we have loved and lost will look like, we cannot say or know.
So, while sparse on the details, the Bible (and Jesus) gives us a fundamental claim that lies at the center of the Christian faith: the belief in resurrection. Christian faith is at its heart a resurrection faith. It is based on the profound conviction that when God raised Christ from the dead, death was finally, ultimately, and completely defeated. We heard this in our Old Testament reading last week, which reads:
He will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
We also hear it most often at Christian funerals, which oftentimes include a reading from 1 Corinthians 15, in which the Apostle Paul describes life-after-death using the imagery of a seed. The body is but a bare seed, he says, and “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” Then in one of the most eloquent passages of the entire Bible, Paul writes:
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed… Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
You can imagine the specifics of what that’s like if you wish, but the overwhelming message of scripture doesn’t give us specific details. What it gives us is simple a mystery, and a promise… but what a mystery! And what a promise!
The late Christian theologian Henri Nouwen, in his book, Our Greatest Gift, lays out two choices that are before us. The first is to live as if this life is all that we have and death is far away and we need not talk about it. The second is to claim what he calls “our divine childhood.” As 1 John puts it so clearly, “See what love the Father has for us that we should be called children of God, and so we are. We are God’s children.” And if you are a child of God, if you know that promise, then you can be assured that God will not abandon you to the cold silence of death at the end of your earthly life. Instead, you will come to behold all of God’s glory and all of God’s love. And you will come to see it face-to-face in a way that we cannot now imagine.
Nouwen then tells the story of a set of twins not yet born, still living in their mother’s womb, behind their mother’s navel. They are brother and sister, pondering the uncertainty that awaits them. The sister says, “You know, brother, I believe there is going to be life after birth.” The brother says, “Why, that’s the most ridiculous idea I have ever heard.” But the girl insists, saying, “There must be something else—a place with light and freedom to move,” but she couldn’t convince her brother. Then she said hesitantly, “You are not going to believe what I am going to say now either. But I will tell you what else I believe. I believe there is a mother.”
“Well, you have never seen a mother, and neither have I,” the brother announces. “This place is all that we have.” The sister says, “But don’t you feel a presence there? Don’t you feel the squeezes and intimations of something else now and again? I think those are there to get us ready for another place. A place far more beautiful than this. A place where we will see our mother face to face.”
That’s the promise, the reality that awaits us. And you need not look very far to see it. There are lots of places you might look, but I usually prefer the words of 1 John 3:2, which reads,
“Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we will be has not yet been revealed.
What we do know is this: when he is revealed,
we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
So may it be! Thanks be to God! Amen.