Last week, I went to Saskatchewan to see my family. While there, I took some time to drive to the edge of my old home-town to pay my respects at my parents’ graves. That’s a strange expression: “to pay one’s respects.” These days we only use it about death. Once people said it for all kinds of visits. Now, paying one’s respects is pretty much about cemeteries, or visiting families at a funeral. There I was, in a empty graveyard beside the trees. I could see my breath in the air and hear the big trucks whistling by on the highway. In my case, “paying respects” meant rooting through little skiffs of snow and pushing aside dead leaves in a half-dozen places, until finally I found the brass plaques in the ground that have my parents’ names on them.
It felt good to make that visit. But really, who was it for? Someone could easily point out that now my parents are gone they don’t need my respect. Dead is dead, they could tell me. Your parents are gone. It’s nice you did that, but that visit had far more to do with you feeling good about being a dutiful son, than about them.
Some Sadducees, those who claim that there is no resurrection, came to Jesus one day and asked him a question. Teacher, they said, we have a problem for you. Then they went into a long story about a woman who married seven brothers in a row, all of whom died. So, they asked him. You can just imagine them smirking. Shrugging their shoulders at Jesus. You tell us, whose wife will this poor woman be in the resurrection?
The point isn’t the story, which is kind of weird. The point for the Saduccees was, “dead is dead.” Jesus was one of those Jews who taught that there was a resurrection. What, is this woman going to have seven husbands, they asked? They were trying to trap Jesus into admitting the whole idea is ridiculous.
We don’t realize what a “hot-button” issue resurrection was back then. As much as climate crisis is today, the resurrection was what a number of first-century Jews argued about. The group that came to see Jesus didn’t like resurrection. They thought it was silly. But Jesus and the Pharisees took the other side: at the end of time, God wouldn’t have any trouble scuffing through piles of snow or pushing aside leaves. God can find the faithful no matter how much snow is on the ground. That’s what Jesus taught, and the other Pharisees too. The faithful dead would be raised.
On this issue, we who claim to follow Jesus, who call ourselves Christians, are probably more like Jesus’ opponents. “What do Christians believe happens to you when you die?” I’ll ask that to my classes sometimes at Concordia. Sometimes the Jewish and Muslim students know the answer better than the ones who actually go to a Christian church. The Christian kids will say things like: “Christians believe our spirit goes to heaven to be with God.” Or: “our soul spends eternal life in heaven.” Floating on clouds or something like that. When they say that, I show them what Jesus said, and what Paul writes in the New Testament. There’s nothing about souls. When we say the Apostles’ Creed later on in the service, notice the words: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of …the soul? No. Some kind of disembodied spirit that floats around? No. Immediately going to heaven through some kind of shining tunnel? Not at all. We believe, we say every church service, in the resurrection of the body.” At the last day. When the reign of God changes everything, and everyone.
I’m not saying I personally have any idea what happens to us! But I do know what the Bible says. And it doesn’t say much about individual post-life spiritual existence. The scriptures tell us there will be a whole new, physical, world. There, truth and justice and love will reign, and all of the awful things that can happen to people here just don’t. There will come a time, it says, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and wars will cease, and hatreds will stop. It will be a time where there will never be another Krystallnacht, the sad anniversary of which we marked yesterday. It will be a place where every child will grow up without fear, healthy and happy. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And that place, the Bible insists, will be very real. And physical.
Again, who knows? The Bible was struggling to put hope to words. Paul says we’re baptized into Christ’s death, so that just as Jesus rose, someday we will too. That starts, he insisted, right now.
I really like the resurrection of the dead way of looking at life after life for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s organic. Jesus and the Pharisees taught that ALL creation would be renewed. Not just human beings. ALL creation: plants, animals, trees, air, water. I think that’s a message we need to hear. We don’t need a faith that tells us we can ignore what’s happening to our planet because, after all, humanity’s real nature is spiritual and all this physicial stuff is just distraction. Physical resurrection doesn’t privilege human beings. Jesus said that what he called “the children of the resurrection” will ALWAYS be physical, in some way at least. If we really believed that this place, this earth, is where we will always be, maybe we would take better care of it. Maybe we’d honour those trees and plants and animals and water right now, because they are co-heirs with us of what is coming.
Secondly, I think the resurrection of the dead gets another idea right, and that is relationality. By that I mean that the usual Christian idea of dying and going to heaven is pretty individualistic. It’s more than a little selfish. But the Biblical idea of post-life life is radically corporate, and mutual. Just like we are in constant relationship right now with other human beings, and with the natural world, so we will be forever. We were created into relationships. And that’s how we hope to be RE-created. There will be a city, says the book of Revelation, and a river will run through it. Its gates will be open. And it will have trees.
Lately I’ve been watching the Netflix series “The Good Place”. It’s fascinating that in a world that insists it’s not very religious, there’s a hit TV series about what happens to us when we die. But the take-away message of “The Good Place” is really about life NOW. Not life after death. The characters, whose names are Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani, struggle to change and to be better. When they do that, they’re doing what we all need to do. They’re learning what it means to be better people. Better human beings, less selfish, and more loving.
Whenever I go to that cemetery in Saskatchewan to visit my parents’ graves, it’s a bit disconcerting. Even though I’ve been there a dozen times its always hard to get oriented. It always takes me a while to find them. This time I took Christmas holly. I banged the ice out from the frozen flower containers and put in the holly. Then I stood around for a while, and thought about my parents. To the Sadducees who came to test him, Jesus said: the children of the resurrection cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God. I started getting cold, and my step-mother was waiting. So I said a sort of prayer, and climbed back in the car.
In “The Good Place,” the real message is that what will endure beyond the tomb is mostly who we’ve become because of how we treat each other. Jesus said the same thing. What happens after death might be a mystery. But whatever your beliefs, practicing the discipline of how to act with love, and faithfulness, and justice is a start. And caring for each other and the planet like our future depends on it, seems exactly the best place to begin.