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November 10, 2019

Jesus debates the resurrection: “Resolved, the dead are raised.” Jesus argues the affirmative: yes, the dead are raised. His opponents are the Sadducees, who don’t believe that. 

For me, this reading brings back memories. My first sermon ever was on this text. It was November, 1980 at Christ Church, Hyde Park in Boston, my second year in seminary. I told them about my sister Caroline’s husband Robin, who was dying from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-nine. I dedicated my sermon to him, a month before he died. 

Let’s see how this debate unfolds. 

From their side, the Sadducees serve up a reductio absurdum. Are the dead raised? No, because that would lead to an absurd result. They tell their story of the unlucky widow who married, then buried, seven brothers in succession. If the dead are raised, she’ll find herself married to them all, which is crazy. Claim, evidence, warrant: they’ve met the burden of proof. 

The ball in his court, Jesus must offer a rebuttal. He might have countered that Jacob was married, at the same time, to Leah and her sister Rachel, and no one called that crazy. That argument would have been about two thousand years before its time, and Jesus doesn’t use it. Instead, he rebuts by dissolving his opponents’ premise. The Sadducees have assumed that marriages made in this life would continue in a new one. Not so, says Jesus Christ. “Those who are considered worthy of a place in the life to come neither marry nor are given in marriage.” That is to say the least an interesting disclosure and­­––voilà––by resolving the absurdity it meets the burden of rejoinder. 

Caroline grieved Robin’s death intensely, then married Jim and they have been happy now for almost forty years. I imagine they are glad not to have to worry or haggle over who will be married to whom in paradise. Deciding who will be buried next to whom is hard enough. 

Now Jesus serves another argument, which boils down to a logical proof built from premises in scripture his opponents would accept. How did God identify himself to Moses? Everybody knew the answer: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  Did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob die? They did. So here is the proof, dear Watson, a simple matter of deduction: 

God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
God is the God of the living, not the dead. 

Therefore: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who died, were raised.

For Luke and his early Christian readers, this little debate is merely academic. They all know what is coming. This is chapter twenty in Luke’s gospel. We are already in Jerusalem, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. That the dead are raised will very soon be seen in Jesus Easter morning. For “proof,” observation beats logic seven days a week.

In my student sermon at Christ Church, Hyde Park I also took the affirmative: yes, the dead are raised—Christ the first fruits, and we in him. For Christian faith, I said, this belief is of the essence, like hydrogen to water––to extract the belief is to dissolve the faith.

Thirty-nine years later that is still what I think and I have never been shy about saying so. When I heard of a priest, long gone, who had told his church he didn’t believe the dead are raised—not Christ, not us––I called it pastoral malpractice.

I am thinking of a day in my ministry here that I will not forget. 

It was August 30, 2016, a Tuesday morning. Three priests from this Cathedral, in vestments, stood together in a small front yard in Hillcrest waiting for an ambulance from Children’s Hospital. It carried a mother and father and their dying child, lovingly dressed in a beautiful christening gown, and on life support. The ambulance pulled in and we all went inside the house, with a nurse to help the baby boy. We baptized him with water and anointed him with holy oil: “Walter, you are sealed by the holy spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” We visited, enjoyed refreshments and took many pictures. Then the mother nodded to us and said “it’s time.” The nurse administered medicine for pain and began to disconnect the life support.

We prayed.

By your holy Incarnation, by your Cross and Passion, by your precious Death and Burial,
Good Lord deliver him.

By you glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the Coming of the Holy Spirit,
Good Lord deliver him. 

We turned to the child. 

Depart O Christian soul, out of this world; in the name of God the Father the Almighty who created you; in the name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; in the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace and your dwelling place in the paradise of God.

If I could not pray all that and mean it then I could not be priest. I would be depriving grieving parents of the beautiful hope that filled that August morning with the Holy Spirit. I would be withholding medicine that heals. As dean, I would not have hired a priest who disbelieved the resurrection. Were I a bishop, I would not ordain one. 

But let me also say this. 

I am a “Doctor of Theology.” In theology, as in medicine, there should be a rule to do no harm. So I would not expose a priest for disbelieving, nor fire one, much less try one as a heretic. Those kinds of things are a devil’s playground, and I try not to give the devil much to play with. With inquisitions the cure may be worse than the disease. 

Karl Barth agreed. Barth’s theological career stretched from the Wright Brothers almost to Apollo 11. In that era the Sadducees were called Bultmannians, after Rudolf Bultmann, the German theologian. Bultmann felt certain that science-minded modern people had outgrown belief in miracles, the Easter miracle included. No doubt, some think they have.

Rather than disavowing Christian faith, Bultmann set out to reinterpret it. Miracles were myths, so a theologian’s work was to “demythologize” their meaning. Demythologized, “Christ is risen” means the Lord is risen in our hearts, or minds, or ethical commitments. That interpretation spread through seminary faculties and, through their students, its influence in the church ran wide and deep. That long gone priest I mentioned was probably a Bultmannian. 

Barth was a fierce critic of that movement, bold in his faith that Christ was raised, and clear that on that fact our faith in Christ depends. What Barth wasn’t was a bouncer, pulling heretics off the dance floor and throwing them out of church, or pastorates, or seminary faculties.

Barth believed the best response to heresy is gospel. 

A concerned minister wrote Barth asking what should be done about Bultmann and his disciples. Knowing Barth’s reputation, the minister probably expected a get tough answer: expose them and expel them from church. If that’s what he wanted he was disappointed. Barth’s answer was this: “Do not do anything that might smack even a little of suppression or persecution.” Our opponents, he said, are “thirsty for martyrdom at the hands of irritated priests and fundamentalists.” For that drink, “they should be left thirsty.”

Instead, Barth said, spread out the food and drink of Psalm 23, verse 5. 

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over.

Isaiah also foretold a banquet the Lord of Hosts will make for all the people: a feast of fat things . . . full of marrow, of wines well aged. (Isaiah 25:6)

The gospel is a beggars’ banquet and the whole world is invited!

Beggars know a bread line from a feast. There is no need to rush or pressure anyone. Barth wrote: “Let them stew with themselves and others as long as they like in the juice of their [interpretations].” Given time, Bultmann’s followers will wake up and smell the coffee… and the roasted fat things. . . and the uncorked wines.

The old theologian was speaking from his long experience with students in classes, among whom there were usually some who had come in already trained to disbelieve the resurrection. He had seen what happens.

I am quoting: 

“After the ars amandi that now inspires them they will acquire a longing for a proper love story that has some sap to it.” 

Ars Amandi? “Stewing in juices,” I understand; “love story,” I get and “sap” I get. But what the heck is Ars Amandi?

I looked it up. I love Karl Barth!

Ars Amandi is a couples’ technique for stimulating sexual arousal by touching one another everywhere but where it would count the most. It is sex without ever reaching first base. 

“After the ars amandi that now inspires them they will acquire a longing for a proper love story that has some sap to it.”

So there you have it. 

It is written: “When the trumpet sounds the dead are raised incorruptible.” This resurrection is no ars amandi mind game. It is a full body, grand slam, home run.

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