Sermon for 3rd Sunday before Advent 2022, Canon Rachel

Click here to watch the whole service on our YouTube channel. (Sermon at 25:00)

Readings: Luke 20.27-38 and 2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-end.

In the name of God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.

I once heard the vicious rumour – and it is indeed a vicious one quite literally – that because of a law that was never repealed, it is perfectly acceptable for me to shoot, with a bow and arrow, were I to have one, a Scottish person. Apologies now to any Scots in the room or watching us online.

Now the rumour I heard was that this was in the border town of Berwick Upon Tweed – and that it was because the border had moved and the English and the Scots have been fighting for goodness knows how long.

When I started to try and find the root of what I had heard, I discovered that the place in question was in fact York.  That my legal rights concerning the murder of Scots would depend on my gender and the gender of my victim/quarry, on my citizenship of that City, on the time of day (only after sunset) – and the exact location – (only within the city walls).  Also if I take into consideration the reason York has hit the news most recently – I’d also need to worry about whether or not I could get a parking spot for my xenophobic death spree.

Of course – while the by-law in question may not have been repealed, and while it provides York Dungeons with comedy and drama for their visitors, that law, put in place at the time of Braveheart William Wallace’s ravaging of the North of England, has, in fact , been superseded by laws much friendlier to our Northern neighbours.

It turns out this morning’s Gospel is a bit like that.

The Sadducees ask Jesus a question.  The Sadducees are the priestly cast – but described in all the bible commentaries as more administrative than spiritual.  Like senior civil servants in 1960s spy movie or in Yes Minister – they were part of the governing classes –  like old school conservative politicians (though certainly not like the current bunch). The Sadducees were keepers of the status quo – their power and their role was invested in things staying the same – and they ask Jesus a question about the law of levirate marriage.

Now like the law on shooting a Scotsman with a bow and arrow in York – it turns out at the time of Jesus that this law has lapsed. It’s not a live issue. But the Sadducees seem to be having fun – ridiculing Jesus, laughing to themselves at their own cleverness – not really about marriage – but about resurrection. And belief in resurrection was very much a theological idea in evolution in Jesus’ time.  Our bible texts do not express a single and congruent view on the nature of life after death – but rather the developing understanding of it throughout the history of God’s people.

It’s a little bit like when people talk about an ideal of biblical marriage. Some might speak of this as though there is a single, virtuous, specific idea of marriage, expressed clearly and unequivocally throughout our scriptures.  I think what people often mean by this is they think God affirms their current view of their own relationship.  Of course the bible is full of horrific examples of marriage – polygamy, the bartering and abuse of slaves to produce heirs, abandonment, rejection and worse.

Of course there can be different views of what the bible says on this and many other subjects.  In his recent statement after the Lambeth Conference Archbishop Welby acknowledged that those who had come to accept and affirm same sex marriage were rooting their view just as deeply in their understanding of scripture and its truth as those who do not.  With deep study, engagement with and respect for the text all we can do is interpret – and to those interpretations we bring our own experience, prejudice and assumptions, joys and sorrows. 

But unless all we want to do is throw biblical stones at eachother for all eternity we need to take another step  – beyond our own experience, prejudice and assumptions – and that step has Jesus name on it.  Where our logic and reason and working out comes up short – we turn to Christ and a vision of the Kingdom to help us evolve.

The Sadducees think this law about marriage makes resurrection absurd, so there can be no life after death, because you can’t make the rules work practically for an afterlife.  The bureaucracy wont work. Computer says no.  For them marriage is about having an heir and a spare – having someone to pass your physical wealth on to – the propagation of the species and the guarantee of keeping wealth within the tribe and nation. There’s a logic there.  But it’s very contingent.  It’s very human. 

But God is not limited in what God does because humans are limited in their imagination.  As always we should be thinking about how much larger than our imagination God might be and what that might mean for us in life and in death when it is we who are made in God’s image and not God who is made in ours.

Jesus takes a mocking question seriously, and as always shows more respect to his questioners than we might think they deserve – and he makes two points.

One is that quite simply the resurrected life will be different. We see this when we experience Jesus own resurrection – that he is different. He is not recognised in the same way he was in his unresurrected life.  The life that is to come will not be the same.  Our relationships to one another, in marriage for example, will not be constrained or defined by the demands of the nation and economy to reproduce and pass on wealth.  Maybe those relationships will be something more closely aligned to God’s loving purposes for us all.

The second is that when we live in God, and God lives in us, that this is a friendship that cannot be severed by death. Our relationship with God is eternal.  The Sadducees have suggested that this idea of resurrection is new-fangled nonsense, without a basis in scripture – and Jesus comes back with scripture that they cannot dispute “even Moses showed…” he tells them – that the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – the God of Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, Rachel, Bilah, Zilpah and the rest (there we are with that biblical marriage thing again) this God is the God of the living and we live in and with God beyond the constraints of our own imaginations and the death that Christ will destroy.

When we are unsure of how to interpret scripture, and when we are perhaps too sure.  When we cannot see the assumptions that cloud our understanding, my prayer this week for us, for the Church of England and for the Universal church is that we will turn to Christ’s compassion and mercy.

This week the House of Bishops met to talk about the outcomes of the Living in Love and Faith process in preparation for the February 2023 meeting of the General Synod.  If you’ve never heard of this please go and have a look at the information on our website or the national website.  After several years of the Bishops being asked not to express any view in particular in public about the issues discussed in Living in Love and Faith (questions of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage)  – this week five Bishops, most publicly the Bishop of Oxford, have affirmed their support for gay marriage in the Church of England.  Bishop Stephen Croft has apologised for the harm the church has done to the LGBTQI community in the past, for how slow his own views have been to change and evolve – and has affirmed his understanding that this view is based not on fashion or culture but on scriptural understanding and understanding of God’s love in Jesus Christ for all people.   

As the Church moves forward in this process I am asking you as members of this church family, to always root our discussions on this issue together in our understanding of the nature of Christ who loved beyond life.  To know that our understanding of scripture has always evolved – and to be guided beyond the logic of Sadducees by the eternal, life giving and life sustaining love of Christ.

Amen.

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