My first intimate experience of death came relatively late in life, age 21, at the death of my grandfather. A kind and faithful man, he was a saint in our lives, so much so that Jenny and I remembered his legacy when we named our first child “John” and called him “Jack.”
Saint John Sherouse of Palatka, FL died gently and content, at home, at the end of a long full life and a mere hours after his last grandchild arrived to his bedside for a final word of love. It was a good death by any standard. But it was still a loss. I’ll always remember coming to the house the morning of the funeral, my grandmother in her house dress at the carport door, where she hugged me and said, “I woke up this morning and remembered that part of me was gone.”
When someone dies, we know so well what is gone. Day by day, morning by morning, we awake with a start. We remember what is lost. But what’s left?
It’s a question at the heart of our faith, as it beats at the heart of the gospel: what’s left after death, grief, loss?
The question comes in our reading today, Luke 20:27-38. It’s a puzzling passage, and that seems to be exactly what Jesus’ questioners intend. This is a section of Luke’s gospel where everyone is trying to trap Jesus. We’ve followed along in recent weeks as he’s made his way to Jerusalem. In Luke 19, he arrives on Palm Sunday and promptly enters the Temple, turning things over and driving money-changers out and reclaiming it as a house of prayer for all people. “From that point on,” Luke describes, “the chief priests, the scribes and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him.” At the least they were seeking to trap him with questions first about his authority, then about paying taxes, and now about resurrection.
His interrogators this time are the Sadducees. Opponents of belief in the resurrection, they try to undermine it by citing this outlandish case: What would happen if someone following Moses’ call for Levirate marriage was married seven times? Whose wife would the woman be in the resurrection of all things? The Sadducees don’t really care. They just want to make nonsense of resurrection.
But we do really care, don’t we? Their far-fetched scenario actually speaks to some of our closely held wonderings. The death of a loved one, whether tragic and sudden or gentle and serene, usually provokes some of our deepest questions about our faith. What happens when we die? What comes of our human relationships? What’s left in death? And what’s left in the hoped for resurrection of all things?
Jesus doesn’t give a lot of specific detail. But he does give an overarching affirmation that God is the God of life. “To God,” Jesus says, “all of them are alive.” His teaching affirms at least two things for us today.
First, Jesus wants all of us listening in to know the reality of life to come. God is the God of those who are alive on earth struggling with the reality of death, as God is the God of those who have died and passed into life resurrected. And resurrected life is something even more than immortality. More than the spirit of a person persisting beyond the physical death of the body, Jesus affirms resurrection — that is, that the whole person will in some way beyond our knowing, in the mystery of God’s care, be united with God and alive. It’s not simply a spirit or soul, but the whole person, created, loved, redeemed by God in Christ. It’s a full-bodied hope of resurrection. First, Jesus wants us to know the hope of resurrected life to come.
And second, Jesus affirms that the resurrected life is different than life as we know it here and now. The Sadducees’ question assumes that resurrection life is an eternal state of life as we’ve known it, with the same traditions, same patterns, same questions. But Jesus insists that resurrection life is not merely an extension of this earthly life, but something different, something more.
Jesus affirms the reality of life to come. And Jesus affirms that this life is something more than life as we’ve known it. We echo these truths in our funeral services. Often I’ll proclaim our belief: “In death, life has not ended but changed.” It has changed in a way that gives a broader view of what life means.
The theologian Alyce McKenzie once knew a man who told his wife that he never wanted her to remarry if he died before she did. He passed away at age seventy-five and as you can imagine, she was lonely. After a couple of years, she came to Dr. McKenzie, her pastor, and told her she’d begun to enjoy the company of a man whose wife had died several years before. He had asked her to marry him but she had said, “My husband never wanted me to remarry.” Sensing she needed to hear a word of assurance, Alyce McKenzie said to this woman, “He loved you and didn’t like the thought of your being with someone else. But now I would imagine he has a different, broader perspective, beyond just this earthly life. And I would bet that his desire that you be happy would now be his primary focus.” (1)
Life does not end, but it changes. A broader perspective. A higher view. It’s what Christ promises for those who pass from death into life eternal with God. But it’s what Christ wants for each of us even now, amidst our grief, our questions, our wonderings. A broader perspective. A higher view. A life that has changed and been marked by the hope that comes from the God of the living.
Some of you know the work of Brandon Stanton, particularly his photo project “Humans of New York.” It started as an endeavor simply to take photos, akin to other projects he’d had like “Buildings of Chicago” and “Bridges of Philadelphia.” He started a Facebook folder, “Humans of New York.” But soon, as he asked people permission to take their photos, he found himself learning more about them and realizing he had a story project, not a photo project. The change in perspective happened when he photographed an older woman on a park bench who began to describe the recent death of her husband of 60 years. “When my husband was dying, I said: ‘Moe, how am I supposed to live without you?’ He told me: ‘Take the love you have for me and spread it around.’” (2) Stanton says he left that woman, rounded a corner, and sat down and wept at the beauty of what he’d heard. A higher view. A broader perspective. Something of life resurrected right here on earth.
It’s echoed in one of the most beautiful poems I’ve ever read — a poem so precise and piercing it’s become part of the traditional Jewish funeral liturgy. Written by Merrit Malloy, the poem is called “Epitaph,” and includes these words:
When I die
Give what’s left of me away
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother or sister
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
And give them
What you need to give to me.
You can love me most
Hands touch hands,
By letting bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die,
So, when what’s left of me
Give me away.
“Give what’s left away.” On the night he was handed over, just days after this teaching in the Temple, Jesus passed around common elements of bread and cup, and he said: “The same love I have for you, you can have for one another.” He said, “Here, take this, and then give it to another, hand to hand, body to body. As often as you do, you’ll be remembering me.”
God is the God of the living. Life doesn’t end, it changes. Resurrected life is not merely eternal and ethereal, but even here and now
Just so we could never forget it, Jesus even came back to remind us, so that any Sadducees trying to test him, along with any followers wondering about it all, would know the truth: that when it all seems over, what’s left is life.
- “Alive in God: Reflections on Luke 20:27-38” (November 3, 2013)