Nov. 10, 2013
2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17
Years ago I knew people who claimed with pride to be on Richard Nixon’s enemies’ list. We could laugh about it, because, other than our beleaguered and slightly paranoid 37th President, such lists seemed far out of character with American life.
But it strikes me now, in these rather dark days after 9/11, that feeling beleaguered and paranoid has become part of the character of life, here in America and just about everywhere else. I’m not talking about partisan politics, nor the Bill of Rights, nor even about the NSA listening in on all of our phone calls. What I am talking about is the pervasiveness of the feeling – the world over – that we must be afraid – that we have got to ramp up our security – that the barbarians are not only at the gate but they seem to have snuck into our backyards while our heads were turned. Of course, bad things do happen, in random and terrifying ways, and this fear has seemed to seep into the very air we breathe, the water we drink, the conversations we have with friends and strangers. This really is not just about the US – this is a global phenomenon. What nation do you think has the most comprehensive system of surveillance? Of spying on everyone, friend and foe? It is Great Britain, which “is estimated to have more closed circuit tv cameras than any other country, including China. They are found in every store, railway station, school or bus – one for every 11 people[i]…” Security cameras seem to be, perversely, a bit like the saints of God: you can meet them in school or in lanes or at tea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea … but, do they really make us feel any safer? Or does having them make us want more of them?
It’s the comprehensiveness of it all – the global character of it – that gives us a clue, I think, to the empire of fear and dominance we read about in the Gospel. The Roman Empire is not in the background of the story, but the foreground, as people who read the Bible closely point out to us. For example, Luke begins his story of the birth of Jesus by telling us, “In the days of Caesar Augustus a decree went out that all the world should be taxed.” Front and center. Caesar Augustus. The Empire and its demands reached into every corner of the known world, no matter how dusty, no matter how poor.
The Gospel of Luke is curious: at times, it seems to be eager to point out that this new religion of Christianity can co-habit accommodatingly within the Empire. Luke picks up on sayings of Jesus like “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” But if Luke reminds his readers, and us, that the people were under the thumb of the imperial domination system, it is really to shout from the rooftops that that kingdom of death did not, and would never, have the last word over their lives, over their communities, indeed, over the whole world. Our God, Luke remembers Jesus saying, is not of the dead but of the living, for to God, all children of the resurrection are alive.
In this story today, Jesus does seem to get into an obscure doctrinal debate among two “parties” of Judaism: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were out of the mainstream of the Judaism of Jesus’ day; they chose to follow only the Torah – the first five books of the Bible. The mainstream of Judaism included the psalms and the writings of the prophets as sacred as well – writings that took in a much larger view of the world and of God’s activity in it. Mainstream Judaism understood death and resurrection. They had lived through terrible times, through the exile in Babylon and the return to a destroyed Jerusalem. The prophets helped them understand God’s actions in history and their own, human failures with in God’s history. The psalms gave them songs to sing – songs of anguish and lament, but songs of praise for all of God’s generosity and mercy. Mainstream Judaism knew what it meant to break that old Torah covenant, to walk in the valley of the shadow of death, and yet, by God’s most gracious, loving and forgiving hand, to be brought back to life.
So Jesus gets into a debate with the Sadducees not about the legal points of marriage but about their understanding of the future, and of how God works in this world. If there is no resurrection, as the Sadducees say, then death wins. There is no justice, only vengeance. The Roman Empire wins. The surveillance cameras win. It is a tit-for-tat endless cycle. God’s justice supersedes what humans impose, out of fear or need for control. God’s justice takes every human hope, and exceeds them with mercy and abundance.
The story of this encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees, as written down by Luke near the end of the
But if Jesus and his followers understood whose world this really was, whose justice truly reigned, then death and its domination system would never win. If Jesus and his followers understood resurrection as the restoration of God’s justice, of God’s abundance, of God’s mercy, then that was what it meant to say that God was the God of the living.
It is very tempting to buy the world’s line: there is not enough to go around. You are not safe enough, you don’t have enough money, things will never work out, death is the end. There aren’t enough people in our pews, and we can’t pay our bills. But people who believe in the resurrection know better. We know that God is not God of our debt or our death, but a God who gives us, and the generations who come after us, a living hope.