What's Coming

Jesus on marriage, the life of the world to come, and a put-down for the Sadducees on their own terms...

Proper 27c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold.

Advent, the season of expectation both for Christmas and second coming of our Lord, will soon be upon us. Every year, it seems, the readings appointed for the weeks before Advent always seem to take on an Advent air a bit early, as if the framers of the cycle of readings just couldn’t wait to launch into the new church year — just as the merchants of the secular world can’t seem to wait until Thanksgiving any more to start the Christmas push; they want to start before Hallowe’en!

This tendency to want to jump the gun, to over-anticipate, is nothing new. Whether a holiday, or a holy day, or the coming of the Lord, there will always be someone pushing the calendar impatiently, trying to reach out into the future and drag it into the present.

One of the reasons that Saint Paul has to write a second letter to the Thessalonians is on account of just this eager anticipation. Someone, somehow, is spreading the word — either by spirit or by word or by a letter (even a letter claiming to come from Saint Paul himself) — to the effect that the day of the Lord has already come. Paul is writing to calm the Thessalonians down with a virtual, “hold your horses.” He warns the Thessalonians not to be deceived, and assures them that the day of the Lord will not come before the antichrist is revealed — though he doesn’t use the word antichrist, referring instead to the “lawless one” who pretends to be a god and even seats himself in God’s temple and proclaims himself to be God — of course, that’s exactly who antichrist is! We tend to hear the “anti” in antichrist as meaning “against” — but the antichrist is not some powerful atheist opponent to God or to Christ, but someone who pretends to be Christ, who pretends to be God: a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or in this case, a lawless deceiver who present himself clothed as the Lamb of God. As is often true, the most dangerous villain is the one who looks like a hero.

Paul is concerned for his flock in Thessalonica, and even adds an impatient, “Don’t you remember I told you all this?” Perhaps they do, but perhaps they also remember something Paul it seems has forgotten — that in his First Letter to them he had talked about the coming of the Lord as very likely happening within their own lifetime, urging them to be prepared to be caught up into the clouds with the Lord at his coming, and to stay awake and be watchful for the day of the Lord, that will come like a thief in the night. So it may be that Paul is reaping what he sowed, and trying to put the proverbial toothpaste back into the tube, walking back his words — as politicians have to do from time to time in our own day — because he got them overexcited and over-expectant in his first letter, his second letter has to call them back and calm them down: like the posters in war-time England that said, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

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There is, it seems, an enthusiasm, an almost inescapable or uncontrollable desire to lay hold of the future and realize it in the present — like children who just can’t wait for Christmas morning to arrive. Give people the slightest hint or encouragement, and they will grab at it and run with it. On the other side, and we see some of them today, there are some people who have no use at all for such a future, who deny it or ignore it, or try to argue it away.

In today’s Gospel, some Sadducees come to Jesus with what they think is a foolproof argument against the life of the world to come, which they don’t believe in. They are among the fundamentalists of their day— they reject the “modern” ideas about resurrection. These notions have only begun to circulate since the Greeks and Romans came to dominate their land. The Law of Moses, as they read it, makes no mention of resurrection. There is no future life, there is no resurrection, no there is no kingdom of God awaiting the virtuous, no heaven. The dead are dead, and that’s it; all that survives when you die is your memory in others — their memory of you; the good are remembered with thanks, and their name endures, the wicked are cursed or forgotten. So the Sadducees believe.

So they try to trap Jesus with what they regard as the absurdity of this idea of the resurrection of the dead, by setting for him a puzzle based on one of the aspects of the law of Moses, an aspect that is very near and dear to their hearts. This is the law that requires a man’s brother to marry his widow if he dies childless — if he dies without children, his brother is to marry her. And the reason for this was precisely so that a memory of the deadman could continue, for the child born to his brother would not be reckoned as the brother’s son but as the son of the dead man. The biological father would be regarded, still, as an uncle. And so the dead man’s name would continue down through the generations.

This fits the Sadducee belief system perfectly: there is no afterlife or resurrection — only the memory passed down through your family, and so it is vital to continue that family, for the family name to continue on, for someone unfortunate enough to die childless; even — and I’m sure this has occurred to you — even to the extent of violating another portion of the Law that forbids a man to marry his brother’s wife. Moreover, the law requiring this exceptional and incestuous marriage also fits their agenda to find fault with Jesus. The Sadducees multiply the problem for him by imagining seven brothers, all of whom die after attempting to fulfill their responsibility. I suppose it’s no surprise that the woman died! The Sadducees set a problem for Jesus that they think is absurd — since the woman, again under the law of Moses, can only have one husband. Under the Jewish law a man can have many wives but a woman only one husband. And so, they are saying to Jesus, in this crazy “resurrection” you talk about how could she possibly have seven? They think they’ve got a “gotcha.”

Jesus rounds on them and he accuses them of trying to put the life of the world in terms of the life of this world. They try to imagine in the life of the world to come something which belongs only to this world — and that is marriage. Now, don’t get me or Jesus wrong about this. Marriage is a wonderful thing, and the love that spouses share can be blessed and beautiful. But marriage, as good as it is, is only a shadow of the all-encompassing love of God that those who are blessed to come to the resurrection will share. The life of the world to come is not just a repetition or continuation of this life, but a transformation of this life into something so beautiful, so surpassing of any joy we can possibly experience here on earth, that all of our former joys — as wonderful as they are, as good as they are — will seem like a snapshot compared to the real thing.

All that being said — which is quite a bit! — Jesus doesn’t stop there, with the teaching that marriage is a state of this life, not the next. For in the next life people do not have to marry and have children because they do not die! In the life of the world to come, life is everlasting. He doesn’t let the Sadducees off the hook at this point, even though he could stop there. He doesn’t let them off on their terms. They want to claim that there is nothing in the law of Moses about resurrection? Jesus says to them, au contraire! You want Moses, I’ll give you Moses.

Jesus goes right back to the beginning, to the book of Exodus, to Moses’ call from God, the moment at which Moses encounters God in that bush that burned but was not consumed (itself an image of the eternal being of God and of God’s kingdom) and the voice of God calling to Moses out of the bush: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” In this passage the eternal God identifies himself by the name I AM — and so if he is the God of the three patriarchs who died centuries before Moses, then they must still be present to God — that is, they are still alive. For God does not say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” but “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Somehow those patriarchs are still alive, still worshiping God, in God’s presence. So Jesus confounds the Sadducees with their own authority: with the writings of Moses himself, which they’ve heard read year after year, and yet it hasn’t sunk in; and it testifies that God lives, and that the patriarchs are alive to God.

I’m sorry that our Gospel reading stops with that verse; because the text continues, “Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ For they no longer dared to ask him any questions.” Snap!

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The hardest thing, it seems, is to live in the present as the present, respectful of the past, and hopeful for the future. So many seem stuck either trying to relive past glories or joys and thrusting them into the future, or pulling the future closer to us than it really it is. Sufficient to the day is both the good and the evil thereof. Our call as Christians is to rest in the confidence of God, who is everlasting, who is at all times and in all places, past, present and to come; to rest in the confidence of Job — to know that our Redeemer lives, and that our redemption awaits us — and moreover that it is something that we will behold with our newly awakened eyes in the resurrection. With that kind of hope, standing firm and holding fast to what we have learned through the traditions and creeds of the church, handed down to us from the days of Jesus, we continue to trust that at the last he will stand upon the earth, and our eyes shall see — and what is future now will be now then.+

Wedding Banquet

Saint James Fordham • All Saints Sunday 2011
The angel said to me, Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.

There is an old tradition that on the night before a marriage, the future bride and groom are separately wined and dined by their friends at bachelor or bachelorette parties — with perhaps more emphasis on the wining than the dining! Well, All Saints Day is the day on which the church celebrates the marriage supper of the Lamb. And since the marriage supper is yet to begin — we’ve received the invitation but it isn’t dated; we’ve just been told to be ready and alert — in one sense the church’s whole vigil here on earth is like a long bachelor or bachelorette party as we anticipate the great day to come. We who have yet to cross over to the life of the world to come, we in what is called the Church Militant (as opposed to the Church Triumphant), we who feebly struggle while they in glory shine, we, Christ’s body still at work, remember and give thanks for those who rest from their labors.

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Now one of the things about the parties surrounding weddings, is that the guests usually bring gifts for the new bride and groom. But what can we possibly bring as a gift for someone who has everything already! For the wedding we are talking about is the wedding of Christ and the Church, the wedding supper of the Lamb! And if anyone ever deserved the title The Man Who Has Everything, it is Jesus Christ, the one who draws the whole world to himself.

The answer is that Jesus wants one other gift, one thing we possess but which we can hold back if we will, or choose to let go of and give to him. And that is ourselves. We can choose to keep to ourselves, or we can choose to give ourselves to the one who gave us everything; we can give our selves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable and holy sacrifice.

The Saints in glory, both the big famous saints with churches named after them, whose likenesses are enshrined in stained glass and icons, (or on the wall outside the parish office!), and the less well-known saints with likenesses preserved on our own little remembrance board there under the altar, the saints are those who gave themselves to God. And their example can help us to be as generous with ourselves as they were with themselves. The wonderful thing about the communion of saints — and I mean all of the saints, living and dead, including us here as much as the saints in glory — the wonderful thing about the communion of saints is that we help each other become gifts to God. We bear each other up when we are tempted to slide back and away from our best efforts to serve our Lord.

Ultimately all of us come to the wedding banquet carrying some of our brothers and sisters and being carried by others of them. No one gets in empty-handed! We are called and invited to the wedding, and we are to come bearing love for one another, which ofttimes means literally bearing each other up. The only wedding invitation we will have to show at the door to heaven is each other. No one gets in unaccompanied.

Remember the stern question that God asked the first murderer, and his cavalier response: Where is your brother? and Am I my brother’s keeper? Think of the sadness that pierced the heart of God when he heard those words in answer to the question, and left unsaid the response, “Of course you are." We are responsible to and for each other, connected through the bond of our common humanity. That bond is stronger than mere nationality or culture, and is fundamental and basic to our very being as human beings.

The weight of each other, as we bear each other and each other’s burden — as indeed Christ bears us — is the gentle and easy yoke of Christ. All of us are brothers and sisters in him, because it is through him that we become children of God.

What form that family will take, what we will become when we arrive, remains to be seen — it is not yet revealed. All of the blessedness that Jesus describes in the beatitudes is sometimes only perceived in that retrospective glance. In the present, most of those things are not pleasant while they are being endured! The road of sainthood is hard, no doubt about it. Being persecuted for righteousness sake is no bed of roses. It is only once we have arrived at the goal of the heavenly call — only when we look back to see our lives laid out in testimony, that we will see what a journey we have taken.

And more importantly, who has been with us and bearing us up along the way. What unknown hands lift burdens from our backs? What unknown saints walk at our sides and help us over obstacles of which we may not even be aware? Only when we’ve reached the goal will we be able to look back and see.

And what we will see will be worthy of the vision of Saint John the Divine. All the church through time and space, all the prophets and apostles and martyrs, all the saints in their festal company, and all the holy people of God will be displayed as a huge inverted wedge of souls and saints carrying and being carried by one another, an inverted pyramid that focuses its sharp, heavy point on a man nailed to a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem — who bears it all, with arms outstretched.

Though that weight pushed him down to the very depths when he descended to the dead, yet the power of God working in him raised him up again, and the power of God working through him can and will push that whole great pyramid of charity right on up and out of time and space and into eternity. And the first shall be last: the first fruits of the resurrection, Jesus the Bridegroom, is behind us urging us on, bearing us forward, ushering us into the banqueting hall.

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God is full of surprises. We thought we were coming to the wedding banquet as servants, then found we were no longer servants, but friends. Then we were surprised to find that the bridegroom would act as usher. But a far greater surprise awaits us. We had just settled into the notion that we were to be guests at the banquet, friends of the bridegroom. But it turns out that we are much more even than wedding guests. All this blessed company — ironically blessed in poverty, meekness, thirst for righteousness, hunger for mercy and peace, and even under persecution — all this company of blessedness will gather at the banquet, as more than guests: we are the Bride herself.

We, in company with all those who have gone before, the apostles, prophets, and martyrs, all the holy people of God, the blessed company of all faithful people, the saints militant and triumphant are the Bride!

This is the mystery we celebrate today. We and all our beloved ones, together with the unnumbered saints who have gone before us, participate in God’s great saving act in Jesus Christ our Lord. We as the Church in the communion of saints are eternally united to him by his gracious gift of himself once offered for us all — for what God has joined together shall never be put asunder. And so, to our Lord and God — and loving Spouse — let us with grateful hearts ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forevermore.+

Union Troubles

SJF • Proper 16b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus asked the Twelve, Do you also wish to go away? Peter answered him, Lord, to whom can we go?+

Has anybody here ever played the board game Scrabble? One thing that often happens in a Scrabble game is that somebody will put down their letter tiles to spell a word that no one else recognizes. And one of the players will challenge the spelling — especially if it’s a triple word score with lots of Z’s and X’s. Someone will pipe up, “That’s not how it’s spelled!” or “That’s a proper name!” or “There’s no such word as that!” And when this happens, the person who advanced the word will either say, “Yes it is” or “No it isn’t” according to the challenge. In short, there is a division of opinion.

And according to the rules of Scrabble, there is only one way to solve the problem: the dictionary! Pages will be flipped, and if the word isn’t in the dictionary, or if it is spelled differently, or if it turns out to be a proper name — well, then the player must pick up his or her tiles off the board, and lose the points. Or if they are vindicated and the word is correct, they get to smile a little grin of self-satisfaction to tote up that score. But however it turns out, once the dictionary is appealed to, a decision is reached. The dictionary is the court of last appeal and final arbiter.

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Today is one of those unusual days in which all three of our Scripture readings point to the same theme: fittingly, the theme of unity versus division. In the reading from Joshua we witness an ancient covenant liturgy, as Joshua, the successor to Moses, challenges the tribes of Israel to make a choice between following the Lord as a unified people or going after other gods as a scattered collection of tribes each following its own god.

Then Paul’s letter to the Ephesians describes the unity of husband and wife in terms that reflect Christ’s love for the church. And the Gospel shows the disciples wavering in their faithfulness to Jesus, as he concludes his teaching on the bread of heaven — a teaching so difficult for some of them to understand that many of them turned back and forsook him, and one would go on to betray him.

In each of these passages the tension between unity and division is placed before us. And in each of these passages we are presented with a clear message that true unity cannot come from within the group of individuals. There must be some external and overarching power and grace to bring true and lasting unity to a divided group — or a couple — of people.

In short, people cannot achieve unity on their own, any more than Scrabble players can settle their disagreements over how to spell a word on their own, just by arguing back and forth. Scrabble players need a dictionary. And the people of God need God — whether the tribes of Israel, or a married couple, or the church of Christ itself. Without God at the center, any human institution will fall apart.

And we’ve seen it happen, haven’t we? If you know your scripture, you know that the tribes of Israel did fall apart, each going after its own gods, within just a few generations of Joshua’s effort to call them to a unified covenant with the Lord. And Joshua knew it, too, that the people could not serve the Lord, the holy one; he knew that the people would soon be tempted to follow the local gods of the local people among whom they lived: tame gods made of cast metal or stone, gods who would do nothing for them but who would ask nothing of them. And so the history of ancient Israel went, from division through fragmentation, and finally into dissolution and captivity.

We’ve seen what happens in marriages that try to survive just on the strength of the couple themselves, marriages that lack the holy quality that Saint Paul describes, the self-giving holiness that mirrors the very love of God, the mysterious love of Christ for the church. For although Saint Paul starts with the old pagan answer to all marriage problems: wives, obey your husbands, note that he doesn’t stop there. Simple one-sided obedience was the way to keep peace in the old days, before Christ came: wives were viewed primarily as first-class servants in the husband’s household, without personal freedom of self-determination, and peace was maintained through submission, because the wife had no other choice.

But Paul affirms that things have changed since Christ has come: now the husband is a subject too, a subject of Christ, and called upon to obey the law of love and sacrifice which alone makes him worthy of being a Christian husband: loving his wife as himself; loving his wife, the most intimate neighbor, as himself, according to Christ’s teaching. In this dance of loving and mutual obedience, with God in Christ as the true master of the dance, a marriage can survive and flourish. Without that love, without Christ’s presence, no marriage will ever be more than a marriage of convenience — or inconvenience, as the case may be.

Finally, we have also seen how the church itself can fall apart when it loses its focus on God and turns in upon itself, placing new idols on the throne of God. Like all institutions, the church can fall into the habit of exalting the particular and peculiar personality of its human leaders over against the universal and eternal personhood of our Lord and God. It is no irony that the Western church began to crumble, in a slow slide leading to the Reformation and the collapse of the Roman Church, just at the time the pope began to assert his supremacy as Christ’s personal representative on earth. And it is no wonder that many parishes and congregations have split and divided, or wandered off into schism, when they have focused all their attention on their priest or pastor instead of turning together towards God, the giver of every perfect gift.

And I don’t mean that just in terms of personal dynamics; I mean it physically. Upon my arrival in this church almost exactly ten years ago, I restored the ancient tradition of joining with you and together facing east towards the rising sun at the heart of the Eucharistic feast — as your leader — but also first and foremost as one of you. We are not turned in upon ourselves, We all of us turn together to face the altar, all of us are on the same side of the table — just like at the Last Supper! And if you don’t believe me, there it is [in the stained glass window on the north wall.]

We are not turned in upon ourselves, but all of us together turned towards the One who is, as the Psalmist says, “our Lord, our good above all other… our portion and our cup who upholds our lot.”

It is no accident that the Christian churches have suffered the greatest division and loss in membership since they foolishly decided in the 1960s that priests should face their congregations across the altar. This change transformed the worshiping church from a grand procession moving forward together in unity into a closed circle focused on itself. Or even worse, it focused the congregation’s attention on the priest behind the altar, who was cast in the role of a performer to be reacted to, rather than as the leader of a grand parade in which all are invited to join. But I’m glad to say the tide is turning, and many parishes such as ours are rediscovering that the church had it right for 1900 years after all, and that all of us together turning in our focus on the transcendent Lord of glory, joined in turning our gaze upward and beyond our own preoccupations, is the best way to find our true unity under one Lord and one God.

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Scrabble players know they need a dictionary. Joshua knew that he and his household would only find their identity in serving the One Lord, the God of Israel. Paul knew that a marriage that did not have Christ and his love at its heart would not survive. Peter and the apostles knew that only Jesus had the words of eternal life, that he was the holy one of God. And so it is that we too know that our true unity is to be found, not in pastors, priests, bishops or popes, nor even in ourselves as a gathering, but here at this altar where we gather, in Jesus Christ our portion and our cup, our good above all other, our Blessed Lord, who lives and reigns with his Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.+