Preached on Sunday, 06.11.16
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
In what tense do you live? Our readings this morning offer us a choice of tenses, all of which can grab our attention – even perhaps our loyalty.
Haggai, whose words (it must be said) do not often detain us, speaks of the past: of its glories, and of how to recover them. His was the voice of a people who thought they had lost everything, that everything had gone, whose only light was in the past. He calls them to look at the temple and contrast how it looked to them in the present with how they remembered it looking in the past. And he tells them that the past can yet be recovered, and they will be important once again. It is for them a promise of resurrection, revivification; they and their temple will be brought back to the life they once had.
It is all, as is quite common in the thinking of the Hebrew scriptures, expressed in material terms. They will know that they have been revived because the gold and silver of the surrounding nations will be theirs – it will fill their coffers, adorn their place of worship. They were ‘the people’ before, and they will be ‘the people’ once again.
And, in all sorts of ways, we can be drawn into this way of thinking – the thinking that tells us that our future is in the past, that it’s all about recovering where we once were, how we used to be regarded. Just as the people of Israel looked at the hard times that had come to afflict their temple, we can look at the position of the church in our society today – and compare it rather unfavourably with its position once upon a time.
And when we do that we are drawn to the same kind of conclusion that Haggai reaches – that our future lies in the past and in its recovery. All we have to do is do what used to be done, and the position of the church (and of those who attend it) will be recovered, restored. And our coffers will be filled once again with the tribute of a grateful world. Splendour will once again be ours – indeed the latter splendour will be greater than the former.
And then, perhaps, we stop and we wonder and we think: is that true? And do we even want it to be true? Do we want a church that has power and authority, a church that can lord it over the world, demand tribute from the world? Do we want a church that is once again, as in the past, riven by the temptation to corruption that always comes with power and authority?
Paul sets out to deal with the opposite temptation. His readers in Thessalonika are not being ruled by or drawn by the past – they are being taken over by an obsession with the future, with the second coming of Christ. And Paul thinks this is altogether a bad idea – because, while the Thessalonians are hanging about staring up at the sky, looking for signs and wonders, everything around them is falling to pieces, going to the dogs.
Why repair the roof when the world’s about to end? Why pay the bills? Why go to work? Why grow crops? Why go to school? Why learn? Why teach? Why bother?
So Paul is concerned. Hang on a minute, he says, who told you you could abandon all the normal, everyday aspects of life? You have work to do, he tells them; he tells them to remember all the things he has told them in the past – and to put his words into action.
Following Christ is not, he tells them, about standing around ‘being holy’, it’s not about the songs you sing, or even about the prayers you pray, it’s not about what I suppose today would be called, in an undefined kind of a way, ‘spirituality’ (which has grown in popularity even as Christianity has slipped down the charts). It’s about living – and it’s about life. So, says Paul, get on and live it.
So, when we turn to Luke’s account of Jesus, we find ourselves again in a dispute about how life is to be lived – and how death is to be understood. And there is a temptation to understand their argument as being about the future – about what happens when you die – but it’s not really about that at all.
The argument is a kind of artificial construct, of course; it’s an extreme example to make a debating point. If, in the society of that day, a married man died, it was the duty of his brother to marry his widow – to take her in, to look after her. Because otherwise the widow would have no place in the society, no standing, no source of income – she would be abandoned.
So here we have a widow who, presumably, puts something in what the husband of the day eats – because she goes through a whole family of seven brothers. And the question is (and it’s a question posed as a way to mock the notion of resurrection): whose wife will she be in heaven? And I don’t know if Jesus’ answer reassures you or not: heaven is a place where there is no marriage.
It is, of course, typical of the way Jesus argues in the gospels that he sidesteps the argument, refuses to give the answers to which his interrogators are trying to lead him; he refuses to give the simplistic answer that would allow them to say ‘gottcha!’.
But Jesus’ answer allows us to grab on to the question of the tense within which we live our lives. And the key is the phrase with which we began: ‘he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive’.
If we had only heard the beginning of that phrase, ‘he is not God of the dead, but of the living’, we might have begun to be concerned. It might have challenged everything we thought we knew about the Christian faith. But then we get to, ‘for to him all of them are alive’. And in that little phrase is the faith in which we meet, the faith in which we live.
Our faith, according to Jesus, is not dependent on what we say, or do, or see – it’s about what and how God sees. And the key to this is that the God we worship is eternal. Sometimes we talk of eternity, or hear people talking of eternity, as if it’s really, really long. ‘It took an eternity to get here!’ No, it didn’t! It just took longer than you expected.
Eternity does not last a long time; ‘eternity’ is the opposite of ‘time’. The eternal God, says Jesus, sees everyone as alive, see everyone in an eternal present – because in eternity there is no past, and no future. So don’t qualify eternity by adding other words like ‘for all eternity’ – there is no ‘bit’ of eternity; to say ‘all’ is like saying something is ‘very’ unique. It’s either unique or it’s not; it’s either eternal or it’s not. For God, we do not exist ‘now and always’ but we exist ‘always now’ – the eternal present.
At this time of year we think of the communion of saints – 1st November is ‘All Saints Day’. And traditionally that has taken us into a commemoration of those in the past – either the well-known saints of the church, or those saints known only to us – the people from our own past who have influenced us, inspired us, encouraged us, loved us.
But Jesus challenges us to think of them not as living in our past but as living in God’s present. Because, he says, ‘to him all of them are alive’.
And so he challenges us to think again about resurrection – that central tenet of our faith and our understanding. The Sadducees couldn’t get their heads around the idea and, unlike the Pharisees, believed that we have this life and this life only – what you see is what you get, and what you get is what you see.
Jesus takes them on in an argument that is not about us; it’s an argument about God. He says that, because God is eternal, all God surveys is eternal – all are alive, all share in God’s eternity, because they have shared in God’s creation. God is the God, says Paul, in whom we live and move and have our being.
So, to repeat, it’s not about what we do – it’s about what God does.
Resurrection is not only an act of God, it is intrinsic to our understanding of the being of God. If God is eternal then so are we – because, says Jesus, God sees us in no tense but the present. We are not in the past to God nor, indeed, in the future. As Jesus said on another occasion, ‘before Abraham was, I am’.
So in what tense do we think we live? In what tense do we find our meaning? Do we live, as perhaps this season of remembrance encourages us to do, in the past? And does that tendency increase the older we are? Or do we spend our time planning for or even worrying about the future? Jesus and Paul want us to avoid both of those. ‘Take no thought for tomorrow,’ Jesus says.
The only time in which we can exist is the present; we can take no breath other than the breath we breathe at this moment. We can think no thought other than the thought in our head now. The present is what we have, what we’re given. The past may educate us, or even inspire us; the future may beckon us or challenge us. But our living is not accomplished in either past or future; our living is undertaken one breath at a time.
We live our life within the being of God – and God’s eternity, by God’s will, is where we belong. The communion of saints, who accompany us, whose company we keep, are not there to hold us back or limit our understanding or narrow our horizons; they are there to point us to our existence with them in God’s present. And once we get hold of that idea, we are released to live with imagination and adventure and generosity and spirit – because the resurrection of which Jesus speaks is already a reality for us, and for all.
What perhaps the Sadducees failed to grasp, and what can sometimes escape our attention as well, is that Jesus’ announcement of resurrection was meant for them too – even though they doubted its existence. Resurrection, eternal life, is not their or our achievement or reward; it is God’s gift, God’s nature, God’s being – and our only glory.
The readings during the service were