A PLACE WHERE DEATH SHALL BE NO MORE
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and … in my flesh I shall see God” – great words of hope from the Book of Job.
Job is the book of numerous big and unanswered questions, and yet in the midst of all the questions (roughly 250 of them), there is also this startling assertion: “I know that my redeemer lives!” The author seems to have no question about that.
In the midst of the disintegration of everything he valued and took for granted, at a time when you would think he would have long since abandoned his faith and perhaps even the idea that there is a God, Job insists upon the reality of God and the necessity of interpreting his life in the light of that belief. The Book of Job is itself a kind of parable, expressing belief in future vindication and the necessity of hope and trust in the face of adversity, even when God seems incomprehensible or absent. The book is not just about an individual named Job, it’s about life, and it’s about how we have to move beyond the conventional wisdom about God in order to experience God in a real way.
Faith is what comes through when you are really tested – that is when it becomes something real, something meaningful, and it is often not truly experienced until we face a situation that is “life or death.” A World War II veteran said: “I always considered myself a good Christian until I was captured, and then I learned what a fool I had been and what it really means to have faith.”
In the midst of the Second World War, young men who were often High School age when war began were forced to face their mortality and the possibility of losing everything they loved and believed in. I find it hard to imagine a scenario in which ONE person is shooting at me, let alone hundreds if not thousands at a time.
Sergeant Alvin McAnney wrote “They can laugh about foxhole religion but every front-line soldier embraces a little religion and is not ashamed to pray. When you face death hourly and daily you can’t help but believe in Divine Guidance. My faith in God has increased a thousand fold . . .” He wrote that from a battlefield in Luxembourg in the fall of 1944, just before he was killed in action (from Grace Under Fire: Letters of Faith in Times of War).
One of the major themes of scripture and indeed of most spiritual traditions is the promise of a life beyond this one – life beyond death – and of the importance of seeing life in that broader perspective. Jesus apparently spoke about that with a certainty that became authoritative, and therefore became something of a target for the know-it-alls, cynics and critics of his day.
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, the Buddhist master Sogyal Rinpoche writes: “All the greatest spiritual traditions of the world, including of course Christianity, have told us clearly that death is not the end . . . But despite their teachings, modern society is largely a spiritual desert where the majority imagine that this life is all that there is. Without any real or authentic faith in an afterlife, most people live lives deprived of any meaning.”
People want to know what’s on the other side; in fact, they are often quite desperate to know, especially when they’re up against disease, violence, threat of sudden death, or just the fact of the inevitability of death as they age and move toward that time of life.
Andrew Carroll is the founder of The Legacy Project, a national effort to collect American soldiers’ wartime letters. He has examined thousands of them. Summing up, Carroll says: “What really happens is, when you’re in a war zone, your mind concentrates on what’s truly meaningful and lasting in life. And what are those things? Faith and family. So it’s not really a question that you’re grasping onto something to help your own self-survival. It’s that the mind and soul are clear and they see with greater insight and purity what’s really meaningful in life.”
“… the mind and soul are clear and they see with greater insight and purity what’s really meaningful in life” – this could be a description of the mind of Christ, and a description of what happens to those who truly engage the Christian spiritual path.
People rightly have a lot of questions and sometimes some strange ideas about the life that Jesus proclaimed. Today’s Gospel, portraying an encounter between Jesus and the sophisticated Sadducees, suggests that sometimes the most intelligent people are absolutely clueless about things, and also points in the direction of imagining creative new possibilities and not being not stuck in old patterns.
The Sadducees put a hypothetical scenario before Jesus, to see if they can create an example so ridiculous that his teaching about resurrection would be seen to be flawed. They are not interested in engaging him with a view to possibly learning something new (they’re far too sophisticated to learn from someone like this); they simply want to ridicule him. What Jesus says to them suggests that they really didn’t the slightest idea of what he is talking about.
The Sufi mystic poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
(from Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks)
You have to get past a certain kind of thinking in order to get what Jesus is saying. As St Paul said, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12). As Rumi and many of the great spiritual teachers have said, there is a place beyond all these categories of thought and law and judgment and quantification – there is a place where who we are in essence is who we will be, a place where the confines of time and place become irrelevant. Whether that “place” is called Eden, Heaven, Bliss, Cloud Nine or Nirvana, that is the place Jesus is talking about.
It is a place that doesn’t “make sense” within the existing categories of thought; it is a place that requires the engagement of our imaginations, our dreams, our hopes, our deepest yearnings.
Theologian Fr Richard Rohr suggests we have a choice: we “can (1) Do the old thing with the old mind (“conservatives”), (2) Do a new thing with the old mind (“liberals”), or (3) Do a new thing with a new mind.” He says, “Only the third way deserves to be called authentic religion. The other two stances often avoid the necessary dying to self which is called transformation. The new mind could be called the contemplative mind.”
This is at the heart of today’s Gospel – that willingness and ability to face deeply into what is, seeking the heart of life with a yearning that comes from the deepest and most genuine place within us.
It may seem somewhat ironic that I quote the voice of a Buddhist in order to make this point about Christ’s teaching. Nonetheless, as Sogyal Rinpoche says: “If our deepest desire is truly to live and go on living, why do we blindly insist that death is the end? Why not at least try and explore the possibility that there may be a life after? Why, if we are as pragmatic as we claim, don’t we begin to ask ourselves seriously: Where does our real future lie? After all, no one lives longer than a hundred years. And after that stretches the whole of eternity, unaccounted for …” (from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying).
Sadducees are never interested in exploring. They simply want to acquire and consolidate a certain status which seems very impressive at the time but is actually quite mundane and conventional. Such people often seem to get in the way of the really brilliant lights, such as Jesus.
At Remembrance Day we face into the reality of death, the dying, the loss, the grief, as we reflect back on the devastation and the sacrifice and the consequences of two world wars and countless other conflicts. But we do so in the light of faith – in the light of a profound witness and insight into the deeper nature of things, experienced and proclaimed not only by Jesus but by many people of faith over the centuries. Faith brings peace and joy and the freedom to truly live this life. The witness of scripture, in the writings of people like St. Luke, proclaim that to embrace Christ is to embrace life.
Most people simply avoid death, and as they age can become more and more ridiculous in their efforts to create the illusion that they are not aging – this is the modern way to eternal life: don’t get old! The Church is a place where we begin to experience resurrection, not by running away from and denying death, but by embracing our fragile mortality and opening ourselves in honesty and trust to what we most need. And the reassurance is “God is a God of life” – “God of the living” not the dead. To me, it’s those who avoid death who truly end up dead, because they refuse to be open to all aspects of life, and thus are closed to the possibilities that come from knowing God.
The Sadducees saw themselves as the intellectual arbiters of their day, pronouncing on matters of faith, eager to enlighten the ignorant and simple, concerned, no doubt, to prevent people from falling victim to charlatans, but also preventing people from breaking into the mind-blowing reality Jesus was not only talking about but offering.
Anglicans at times might be seen as practicing and promoting a sophisticated faith. We pride ourselves in having an informed faith, but a merely intellectual approach to these realities, a mere collection of facts, does not necessarily bring us any closer to Christ, and at times may give us more in common with the Sadducees, undermining Jesus in his effort to point us toward a higher reality. Often knowledge is more about control than about faith, and it can give the appearance of “true religion” for only so long, that is, until we encounter something overwhelming (which we all do) and then all the facts in the world simply collapse like a house of cards in the face of our essential vulnerability and need.
“God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” In the Eucharistic prayer today, we will recall that Jesus was “rejected by a world that could not bear the Gospel of life . . .” Jesus points the way past the petty conflicts which divide and undermine us, into a new realm of being he referred to as the Kingdom of God. In that realm, even categories like marriage are no longer defining.
“In the world, you will have tribulation,” Jesus said; “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.” When Job said “I KNOW that my redeemer lives . . .” he was speaking of the need to get past relating to God as merely a concept or set of doctrines, and he was speaking from a deeper place than his memory or intellect or his ego. It is in those moments of life when we are not in control, when circumstances seem to have overwhelmed us, when all that we have relied on and placed our trust in begins to disintegrate, that is when faith becomes something real and the essence of who we are begins to shine through; and it is then that we can become the light of the world, children of the Resurrection, peace-makers in the name of God. In the name of God, go and make peace in the world.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Job 19:23-27a “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For 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, a whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
Luke 20:27-38 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 anymore, 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.”