I want to start today by giving you a vocabulary word: eschatology – the study of last things. Some of you may be well-versed in what the Church means by eschatology, and for others this is probably the first time you have encountered this word, and the full range of ideas that stands behind it. Traditionally in the Church eschatology is that part of theological study concerned with what has been referred to as ‘the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell’, and focuses on the destiny of humankind.
And the end of the Season after Pentecost (where we are now) and the start of Advent (the season that will begin the new Church year in just a few weeks) are very much the time when our Scripture readings reflect the four last things, the end of life as we know it now, and the hope that God offers us in Christ. Two years ago when I was on sabbatical it was just at this season, and
I decided it was a good time to do some further reading about Christian eschatology, and if this sermon sparks any questions and you would like to do any further reading or talk with me about it, I would be more than happy to do that.
I think we who live in this part of the Northern hemisphere know instinctively that November and December lead us to consider our human destiny and the destiny of the created world as we see the leaves fall away from the trees, the plants and flowers in the gardens die back, the days darken and shorten as the earth rotates farther away from the sun, and as we feel the cold come upon us. We’ve also just gone through Hallowe’en and All Saints’ Day, a time when we stand between life in this age and life in the age to come and – at least as Christians – know ourselves to be surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses we call the Communion of Saints. Such reflection is neither morbid nor depressing, because our faith tells us that death is not the end; that there is indeed more to come; and that you might almost say that God has saved the best for last; that there is hope.
So with this in mind, let’s look at today’s Gospel. Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem – the seat and focus of Jewish
worship and faithfulness. It is early in the week after his dramatic entrance into Jerusalem after his long and winding journey from Galilee – what we know as Palm Sunday – and Jesus goes head-to-head with a number of different groups and religious
leaders. In this passage a particular religious party within Judaism – the Sadducees – are trying to trap Jesus into saying something ridiculous about the doctrine of resurrection. The Sadducees did not believe in the idea of resurrection because it could not be proved in the first five books of the Old Testament.
Other Jews, including the Pharisees and Jesus, understood that resurrection – the restoration to life of God’s righteous ones at the end of the present age – was very much part of God’s promise and plan; a vindication and triumph of life over death, and God’s justice over those who ignored, subverted, or otherwise sneered at God’s values and purposes.
The Sadducees tried to mock the whole idea of resurrection by posing to Jesus a situation in which a woman’s husband died, leaving her childless. According to Jewish law and custom, it would then be the duty of the husband’s brother to marry the woman, so that by proxy, his brother would have children and the man’s name continue into posterity. But in the story the Sadducees tell there are seven brothers; all seven marry the woman; all seven die childless; so – in the resurrection, whose wife
will she be? That’s the trap, or so they thought.
What Jesus goes on to say is that in the resurrection marriage and intimate physical relations as we know them now will cease to exist; the Sadducees have the wrong idea about resurrection. And then Jesus goes back to the Book of Exodus – a source the Sadducees do trust – and reminds them of Moses’ experience with the Lord in the burning bush: the Lord is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – the God of the living, not the dead.
But in our own way, we Christians – particularly over the last hundred years or so – have had our understanding of resurrection, and also heaven and hell, pulled out of shape in ways that don’t line up with Jesus’ own resurrection or what Paul talks about in much of the New Testament. When the Bible talks about resurrection it’s not a metaphor, and it’s not about us having an immortal soul disconnected from our physical reality that we no longer need. Resurrection is the transformation of our whole physical, spiritual,
psychological and emotional selves into what St. Paul calls a “spiritual body” – not a ghost or a disembodied spirit, but a spiritual body. So far, only one person has experienced this and has this type of spiritual body: Jesus; he has shown us the way, has made it clear what resurrection will be like for the rest of us.
And along with our resurrected spiritual bodies, the world itself – the whole created order – will be made new (“incorruptible” is Paul’s word), so that creation and our role in it will be as God had always intended life to be: full of goodness and justice, peace and well-being, a harmonious creation without violence, destruction, sin and death. Jesus has initiated for us the fulfillment of all things; his death and resurrection are the foretaste of our hope – we who are his followers, we who have been baptized into Christ’s resurrection as much as we have been baptized into his death.
Well that all sounds very appealing, and very challenging; but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered – and we actually don’t have time to answer them all here, but I will briefly sketch out the Church’s understanding of the four Last Things and how they fit in with
Christian hope. Remember, the four Last Things are death, judgment, heaven and hell –
Death, of course, comes to everyone, whether you are full of faith and in love and charity with your neighbors or not. But as Christians we believe that Jesus took on the powers of sin and death in the Crucifixion and destroyed their ultimate authority.
Therefore, death does not have the last word with us, either; our physical remains are committed to the ground or the sea – some part of God’s creation – while that part of us which carries our personality and our consciousness goes to a good place of rest and peace while we wait for what is yet to come. That’s what Jesus was referring to when he said to one of the thieves who was crucified with him: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
But that’s not the end of the story; that’s not nearly enough hope. Because God made the world and called it good, God will one day redeem and restore and transform all creation, including us – our physicality and our consciousness will be resurrected into a new spiritual body. If you are having a hard time wrapping your mind around that idea - that somehow the “atoms of us” will not be lost to God - and it seems like a science fiction story, then it may be wise to remember that some of the most profound truths and realities are best spoken about in the language of science fiction and poetry.
This redemption, then, doesn’t happen until after the return of Christ, what is sometimes referred to as the Second Coming. Jesus will return to earth as Lord and Sovereign, or in the words of the Nicene Creed “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” It is then that judgment will take place, that the truth of human motives and loyalties and behavior will be revealed by God, and only after that will the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of heaven, be fully realized on earth, with God’s creatures and God’s people, living in the ways that God designed.
And hell? For those at judgment day who look cannot look on the face of God’s goodness and loving-kindness without turning
away, without repenting for and letting go of the evil they have done, who cannot receive the Lord’s forgiveness with joy, then they have made their own choice, they have brought judgment upon themselves, and evil will be punished and dealt with.
These are the classic outlines of the four Last Things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – and this is the over-arching Christian hope. There is much that we cannot say, because we can only speculate in the most hazy way about most of the details, but the bottom line of hope is that God holds us in life, through death, and out the other side into God’s future – holds us together, body and soul, humans and the whole created order. We can trust God in this because of Jesus’ resurrection – he who is the first-born of all of us his brothers and sisters, he who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
And in the words of St. Paul to the Church at Thessolonika: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 10, 2013