Rev. Stephen Fetter reflects on the nature of resurrection and our life after death—questions which faithful people have been pondering since biblical times.
My wife was a widow when we married. In the resurrection, will she still be married to me, or to her first husband, or both?
In this week’s passage that sort of question was posed as a trap for Jesus; his opponents wanted to expose the whole notion of resurrection as ridiculous. But I don’t think resurrection is ridiculous at all. And while I’m not wanting to embarrass Jesus in public, I do ponder what resurrection might be like for those of us who’ve been lucky enough to have more than one intimate relationship.
Once when I preached on this passage a woman got so upset with me that she left the church. I still don’t know whether she was upset that a minister might find himself in a polygamous relationship in the Here After, or whether something else was at stake!
I suspect if Jesus thought he was addressing someone for whom this was a real human concern he’d have been a lot more sensitive to the questioner’s feelings. Here, he knows that the asking is out to embarrass him, so he’s pretty terse. He basically swats those Sadducees away with scorn – how could they not understand that God’s resurrection is different from anything we now understand? How dare they confuse God’s new life with a simple-minded resuscitation of the old one?
Minus the scorn, however, this is actually kind of helpful. We don’t know what resurrected life will be like with any detail at all. Will we immediately arrive in Paradise? Will we wait till the end of the age to be resurrected? Will there be some kind of judgement? Will we re-connect with loved ones? How will God take seriously the very deep and lasting relationships that give shape to our lives in this existence? The Sadducees may have meant this as a trap to ridicule Jesus, but the questions they raise are questions that lots of faithful people have wondered both then and now. Christians throughout the ages have given contradictory answers to all those questions. I have to presume that if there were a simple straightforward way of knowing the "right" answers to those kinds of questions, Jesus would have given it, rather than responded the way he did.
But the story gives us a chance to reflect on all that we trust in about resurrection. The answers that make most sense of this to me are grounded in lots of different scriptures, not just in this particular story. The primary example of resurrection we find in our faith is Jesus’ own resurrection. And the stories we learn of that are confusing, but perhaps helpful: Jesus is not a ghost; he eats fish with his disciples, but can also inexplicably walk into locked rooms without a key. Jesus is recognizable, but sometimes not at first; he is the same as always and yet changed in ways we can’t fathom. Jesus bears the scars of his crucifixion; the cross has changed him and resurrection doesn’t undo the wounds or reset him to life as it was before that evil event. Jesus continues to be actively concerned and involved in the blessing of the world, and in calling people to work with him for the coming of the Kingdom.
Does any of that give us a clue to what resurrection will be like for us?
It doesn’t tell me whether I’ll be married; but it tells me that I’ll be held in the love of God that holds me now. It doesn’t tell me what I’ll look like; but it tells me that I will both be the same person I am now, and yet changed in ways I can’t now imagine. It doesn’t tell me what the afterlife looks like, but it tells me that the care and nurture of persons, attending to blessing and hope, and trusting that love is stronger than hatred or even death itself is worth trusting in.
If I can’t have all the details, I can at least trust in that much. And the Love that gives shape to our loves, that flows through the best of human relationships to bring healing and joy and delight, is the Love that accompanies us through the things we can’t understand, and brings new life that encompasses all that we have been, and all that we are, as well as all that we will be.
— Stephen Fetter is the minister at Forest Hill United Church, an intercultural congregation in Toronto. He’s also the coordinator of United-in-Learning, the General Council’s online continuing education program.