In today’s gospel reading, the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, confronted Jesus with the question of what life would be like if there truly was life after death. They wanted Him to assure them that the human laws, given by Moses, would also apply if there was life after death. In a powerful statement about the reality of the resurrected life, Jesus declared that it is absurd to compare physical life with the resurrected life:
“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.”
Paul's letters to the church at Thessalonica were devoted to addressing the issue of how to wait for the return of Christ. In this passage from the second letter, Paul confirmed the wisdom given in the passage from Luke, assuring the people that in the resurrection the faithful would be united with Christ: “As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed.”
Certainly, this letter addressed the doubts that many followers had about the return of Christ and the context of life in the resurrection. As time went on after the crucifixion and resurrection, the early Christians began to lose hope of the imminent return of Christ. They began to question the promise of their own resurrection to a new life. But Paul gave them this assurance: “God chose you as the first fruits for salvation, through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.”
Like many of Paul's letters, this one sought to give strength, comfort, and assurance to the new Christians who were challenged in their faith by both external persecutions and inner doubts.
Holding faith in the mystery and power of the resurrection is a challenge to all of us. We, like the early Christians, are tested and tried by both internal and external powers. The powers of death and evil are ever present. When we find our faith wanting, we have many verses of scripture that help us focus on the reality of the resurrection; both Christ's and our own. Unlike the first followers of Jesus, we have a deposit of faith through both the Old and New Testaments to strengthen and inspire us. Although the gospels and the epistles bring us encouragement, perhaps the most powerful affirmation of resurrection is taken from a book in the Hebrew scripture.
The book of Job is often recommended by pastors responding to situations that call for words of hope and inspiration. It is used to give people faith when it is impossible to understand or explain the mystery of suffering. What is so significant in this book is the exploration of the depth of faith in the midst of suffering.
The simple story is that Job was a righteous man who was "blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil." It is a difficult book because the story of Job becomes a contest between Satan and God for the soul of Job. Satan challenged God to abandon Job and see if Job would continue to be faithful to God. The book recited the many trials and tribulations Job suffered, including being taunted by his friends to forsake his faith in God. In the passage we read today, Job responded with perhaps the most well-known affirmation of faith in the resurrection:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has thus been destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.”
This powerful affirmation is well known to Episcopalians because of its use in the Book of Common Prayer. We hear the priest recite a paraphrase of that passage from Job as an anthem at the beginning of the Office of the Burial of the Dead: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.”
The other place in our culture where this passage has become widely known is in “The Messiah” by Handel. Perhaps many people think of that aria immediately upon hearing these powerful and moving words.
The question of what happens to us in the resurrection transcends time. Christians in all ages have posed similar questions to ministers and to themselves; just as the Sadducees confronted Jesus. In our technologically advanced scientific and medical world, the concept of a physical bodily resurrection is one dismissed by many.
Clearly belief in the resurrection of Christ is the central article of our faith. It is our foundational doctrine, which gives us the hope and the assurance that we too shall live in the resurrection of our own lives at our mortal death. When we come to that state of resurrection, we shall be united to Christ in a state for which we have no foreknowledge. Through our baptism and through taking communion, we affirm our belief in Christ's promise of a resurrected life.
We must not trouble ourselves, as the Sadducees did, about what laws would or would not apply in the resurrection. Like Job and countless faithful people throughout the ages, we must believe in the resurrection. We must believe that, in the mystery of the resurrection of Christ, we are promised a life in the resurrection with Him and with all of the saints and angels who have gone before us. This is Christ's promise to His followers throughout the generations.