Welcome + Worship + Witness

Revd Jonathan Cain: Heirs and Grace

06 November 2016, Third Sunday before Advent
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Jonathan Cain
2 Thess. 2: 1-5 & 13-end; Lk. 20: 27-38

This week Rebecca and I have been very fortunate to spend a few days in Rome. The trip included a full day around the Vatican Museums – a truly inspiring and quite overwhelming experience.  Whilst it’s not possible to retain many details of individual exhibits in the vast collections, the visit did give a real sense of the persistence of the same big questions, and how civilisations down the ages have responded to them, and communicated them, through art and culture.  How can we make sense of the universe?  What does it mean to be human?  How do we experience and relate to the other?  What happens when we die?

Questions about this last question are at the heart of the question that the Sadducees ask Jesus in the Gospel passage this morning. The passage starts by introducing the Sadducees as those who say there is no resurrection, which is a clue to the diversity of doctrine and belief that existed in the Judaism of Jesus’ time – some Jewish groups believed in resurrection; the Sadducees did not. It is unlikely that the question asked here was an original one; more likely it was the question which the Sadducees had found most effective in promoting their particular doctrine and practice, and it was based upon the following command given in the law by God through Moses.  This is what the law says:

“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).

The purpose of this legislation, extrapolated to a quite ridiculous extent by the Sadducees question, was to assure that each family and tribe in Israel was perpetuated by the bearing of children. Other legislation assured that the inheritance of land would remain in the tribes and families.  This was practical law, given to assure the existence of future generations, and their economic viability; but the real significance of this particular piece of legislation lay in the Jewish understanding that the Messiah would be born of a woman (Genesis 3:15), from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:9-10), of the line of David (2 Samuel 7:8-16).  It was crucial for the tribes of Israel to perpetuate, for from such the Messiah would be born.

Heirs were important!

Jesus’ response to the Sadducees question comprises two parts. The first suggests that in the new age – that is the post-resurrection age, the age inaugurated by Jesus’ own resurrection – questions about marriage are no longer relevant.  In the context of the question posed by the Sadducees, it seems more probable that Jesus’ response is about child-bearing rather than marriage.  Heirs are not so important after all, because like angels and children of God, those in the resurrection age cannot die any more.  What is important is resurrection hope, which is a gift of God’s grace.

But if Jesus is not talking about marriage, what about relationships in the resurrection age? Well none of us knows exactly what the resurrection life will be like, but New Testament scholar, theologian and one-time bishop of Durham, Tom Wright offers the following reflection …

“[Jesus response to the Sadducees] does not mean that [in the resurrection] there will be no more joyful and intimate human relationships. The greatest of our present human delights is a mere signpost to the far greater, presently unimaginable joys of living in God’s new world.”

It is to the ‘presently unimaginable’ that the second part of Jesus’ response to the Sadducees relates. Here he affirms that the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses are not in fact dead, but in some sense still alive – not yet re-embodied, but alive with God, and awaiting the newly embodied resurrection life.  This was something that the Sadducees could not imagine, but this is exactly what Jesus’ disciples glimpse at the Transfiguration recorded earlier in Luke’s Gospel; Jesus with Moses and the Old Testament prophet Elijah, in glory.

Resurrection hope is of course a key article of faith. But faith is fragile, and sometimes faith is tested or in crisis.  We see something of this in the passage from 2 Thessalonians where the writer urges his readers “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed.”  We can’t be sure what particular crisis of faith prompted the letter but we, together with the first hearers are reminded by the writer that through God’s grace we have eternal comfort and good hope.

Of the many exhibits in the Vatican Museum, one struck me as a powerful witness to this comfort and hope; a painting of the Last Communion of St Jerome, by the Italian Baroque painter Domenichino. You may know that St Jerome was a fourth century scholar-priest and hero of the faith.  What struck me about this image was the simplicity and humanity of the action at the centre of the piece.  If you strip away the Rococo styling – including the red robe, a marker of Jerome’s identity as a cardinal, and the lion, a symbol of his tenacity as a defender of the faith – there is the semi-naked Jerome, his body contorted by age, his face turned heavenward, his posture open to receiving the sacrament of bread and wine.  The Eucharist, a sign and symbol of God’s grace.

So then, brothers and sisters, let us not be shaken in mind or alarmed. As we receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort our hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

Amen.