What we are for

Frances writes on next weekend’s Bible readings :-

We have got so used to thinking of our Christian faith in a myriad of different ways: the Jesus of social action; of the great doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation that we forget that the thing that confirmed the disciples in their belief in Christ, and turned them from fearful run-aways was the resurrection of the Lord. For Peter and the other Apostles, as for Paul, it was their knowledge that he had come back from the dead, defying death itself, the final enemy, that confirmed all else that they knew and believed about Jesus. One of the few things that is consistent in the gospels and the earliest Pauline letters is that Jesus was arrested, tried and put to death by his enemies and rose to life again on the third day and that in so doing he affirmed the eternal destiny of all believers. Our 2nd Pauline Letter to the Thessalonians, (2 Thess 2:16-3:5) was specifically written to bolster the hopes of Christians undergoing persecution and is full of this certainty of resurrection life. It speaks of the inexhaustible comfort and sure hope sent to strengthen the believers despite their troubles. Paul sees enemies of the faith quite simply as bigoted and evil people, those without faith and therefore damned, doomed to lie under the curse of death which afflicts the human race. Yet Paul was utterly convicted of the divine help and the eternal promise held out to believers: the Lord is faithful, and he will give you strength and guard you from the evil one.

 

My guess is that the centrality of this belief for the earliest Christians is rather less prominent for most of us today, though it certainly wasn’t for our medieval forefathers. For hundreds of years Jews like the rest of the human race held no belief in resurrection from the dead. Death was the final end of everyone, the individual was blotted out. All a person could do was marry and beget sons to ensure the continuity of race and clan. Even when in the centuries just before Christ the Jews looked for the messiah he was perceived in purely material terms, mostly as a great warrior leader whose triumphant armies would destroy the invaders which so often plagued and enslaved Israel. But around the 2nd century BC ideas of post mortem immortality, life with God began to affect mainstream Judaism, as we see from our reading from 2 Maccabees (7:1-2, 9-14). Here, in this passage we see martyrs prepared to die for their faith in the God of Israel. Contrary to earlier beliefs that this life was all there was; these people were willing to suffer torture and martyrdom in the defence of their faith against a foreign tyrant who ordained that all in his newly conquered territories should worship his pagan gods. The life that Judaism taught was so finite and so precious, the gift of God himself to his chosen might be jettisoned in defence of the creator and sustainer God in the certainty that this life with all its wonders was not all there was but that the human being retained meaning and identity after death in life with God. Suddenly the fear of annihilation that hung over all could be conquered by God’s promise of eternal life. True to their beliefs the Maccabean martyrs went confidently to their deaths, spurred on by their mother. Now freed from the earth-bound shackles that had dominated their lives for generations they sacrificed their lives in the certainty that their enemies, non believers in resurrection would be blotted out eternally whilst they remained, fixed in God. Clearly not all in Judaism shared their immortal hopes, as we see in our gospel from Luke (20:27-38). Sadducees were the religious fundamentalists of their age who held that the law revealed by Moses was incapable of any development. They did not accept even the interpretations of scripture so common among Pharisees and Rabbis and certainly would have had no truck with Jesus’ teaching either, which is why we witness their confrontation with him as they attempted to ridicule his teaching about eternal life with God. We see there how earthbound they were in their insistence on applying ancient teaching on brothers marrying widows of deceased brothers to provide them with heirs and support in later life. In an ancient society without social security this was one way of helping the potentially destitute.

The problem of the Sadducees was that they assumed Jesus’ radical teaching about his own and our eternal relationship with the Father was just fantasy. Being earthbound, they claimed was something we will be stuck with eternally, so that heaven, life with God – if such a possibility existed, which they denied, would be filled with petty wrangling over who a woman belonged to, whose ‘property’ she was. Jesus insisted in response that God the Father is not God of the dead but of the living; for to him all men are alive. Death sees the possibility of our throwing off our present lives, but not for nothing, but rather for full, permanent and rich life with God himself.

As we remember and pray for the dead this month, these readings give us, along with our fellow believers in the resurrection down through the centuries, time to pause, not simply to pray for our loved and departed relatives and friends, but also to ponder the rich life they now share with God and to recast our own hearts and minds within a resurrection framework as we look towards the eternal life we too are promised with God. For us who inevitably are so caught up in the daily hassle of keeping everything together, of managing our lives and dealing with all our very earthly hopes and fears, this is an opportunity to focus on what we are really intended for – sharers in the life of God himself, for glory.

 

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