Friday, November 08, 2013

Pentecost +25C

What actually matters in life?  What is it for you that, from the perspective of the end of your life, you would look back and say, 'that made it a life well-lived'?  Or, if you prefer to pose the question in terms of our Christian faith, what matters from the perspective of eternity?

I have been reflecting on this a bit since Synod, and the debate about human sexuality.  More to the point, I've been reflecting on some of the Archbishop's comments in his opening address.  You see, the actual motion Synod had to consider seemed fairly simple.  It asked us to recognise that there is diversity amongst Anglicans both in terms of our sexuality and in our theology about sexual identity.  Which is to say, there are gay and lesbian Anglicans as well as heterosexual Anglicans – there are Anglicans who are married, who are living with a partner or who have a partner outside marriage, and there are Anglicans who are celibate.  We come in all different shapes and sizes, and we also hold different views about what God thinks of that.  The second part of the motion was even more straightforward, because it asked us to acknowledge that if the Government legislated for some form of legal recognition for same sex relationships, then that wouldn't actually affect the status of marriage between a man and a woman.  In other words that there aren't any losers.  The Archbishop's view is that for the Church to give its blessing to a legal recognition for same sex unions can and will be seen as detrimental to our commitment to the sacrament and the canon of marriage within our own Anglican tradition.  I don't debate that, and he was forced to make a judgement in a highly-charged political environment, and I believe that we can all be grateful for the grace and the calm integrity with which the Archbishop conducts himself.  But the comment he made in his opening address was that for us to recognise a diversity of theologies about human sexuality was in effect to say that all theologies are equally valid, and he commented that in fact our sexuality is not what defines us before God.  It is not what matters about us in the perspective of eternity.  What we are, the Archbishop reminded us, is the sons and daughters of God, men and women made in God's image, broken by sin but reconciled to God and with the ability to be reconciled to one another in Christ.  I agreed, I said 'Amen' to that silently, but it still troubled me.  Because we dare not say to the person who is oppressed, well don't you worry about that, you are a child of God, then we are wrong because God's priority is for men and women to be free, and to know joy and flourishing.  And our own task as sons and daughters of God is to help with the setting free.

So the Sadducees come to Jesus with a trick question.  Two things you need to know by way of background are firstly that the Sadducees are the conservative party.  They believe in the old-time religion, the first five books of the Pentateuch, and they don't hold with the fancy new contemporary beliefs of the Pharisees – and of Jesus – about resurrection.  Nothing in the Pentateuch about resurrection, and Bible scholars believe it was an addition to the religion of Israel during the years of exile in Babylon and exposure to the beliefs of the Persian Empire.  The Sadducees are against all this postmodern stuff.  That's the first thing, and the second thing is the tradition of Levirate marriage, whereby a brother-in-law would be expected to marry his brother's widow if she was childless.  In the ancient world, before social security and pensions this did two things – it gave another chance for the dead man to produce heirs, and it offered some security for the woman.  The downside was that the woman herself was given about as much dignity or choice as a sack of potatoes.

So if all seven husbands die and the exhausted, still childless woman herself dies, if all this resurrection claptrap is true then whose wife is she in heaven?

So the Sadducees are going for the political jugular -- family values. It's a good choice, because everybody knows that family -- marriage and parenthood -- is the bedrock of society, the human institution with the clearest eternal importance. The Pharisees knew that – they knew that one of God's first commandments to humanity was to 'be fruitful and multiply'.  Even the Romans knew it -- central to the emperor Augustus's domestic policy was that marriage and childbearing should be encouraged to repopulate an empire decimated by war. The Sadducees had Jesus right where they wanted him.

So Jesus does two things.  Firstly he uses a passage from the Pentateuch – the books of the Torah that the Sadducees themselves approve of – to back up his view that God will raise the righteous at the end of the age.  Well as exegesis goes it isn't especially convincing, but of course resurrection can't be proved.  Israel's belief in resurrection had come about in new circumstances, during a period of great suffering.  The Pharisees – who we can think of as the forerunners of today's rabbis – had looked at what was happening around them in the world -- the righteous suffered, and the wicked seemed to prosper -- and they knew that a just God wouldn't let this be the final word. They concluded that God would raise the dead. The righteous would receive their reward, and perhaps the wicked would be raised to receive punishment.

So resurrection was radical theology that came out of a radical challenge – but then Jesus, far from trying to justify or prove that his radical theology was actually conservative, ups the stakes by being even more radical –

Marriage isn't the main thing, he says.  It isn't important in the perspective of eternity.  It doesn't define you in God's eyes.  Jesus must have been listening to the Archbishop.  Or the other way around …

This is still a radical, even a disturbing thing to say.  For a start the Sadducees' trick question is also a real question for many Christian couples.  Is this life together all we have?  Will we still be married, will we still even know each other in eternity?  What if one partner gets remarried after the other dies? 

When women and men marry, it changes who they are at a fundamental level.  It is a foundational relationship through which married people actually grow into their own truest, God-given identity.  The Church talks of marriage as a covenant based on God's covenant relationship with us – it's that important because in marriage you give your partner all that you are, and you receive all that they are, and you entrust one another for who you will become.  Marriage is also important at a societal and a cultural level.  In many cultures marriage is one of things that define who you are as a responsible adult - alongside things like raising children and working and paying taxes.  Marriage even establishes who is trustworthy, who is responsible.  Single people, childless people, gay and lesbian people experience themselves, very often, as locked out of the ways by which our society confers normality and acceptance.  Just at the level of today's Gospel story, we need to pause and consider the social and cultural cost for the woman who, despite seven husbands, remains childless.  She is denied the means of social approval and respectability, and in the value system of her own culture she has lived a life that is of less worth.  This does matter, in the perspective of eternity.

No, says Jesus, you are not married in heaven.  Your God-given identity and vocation is not about being married – or single – or straight or gay.  Who you are is a child of God, broken and sinful and loved.  Your real life, your full life is about experiencing the fullness of God's blessings and learning to love the people around you - without reservation – as your response to the love you yourself have experienced.  This is true, Jesus and the Archbishop are right.

But there is more, and we need to remember Jesus' consistent teaching that God's priority is for human wholeness.  If you are fortunate to have been brought up in a loving family, if you are fortunate to have a loving marriage, then in marriage and in your family life you grow in love – which is to say you grow in the likeness of Christ.  Your marriage is your vocation because it is what has been given to you as the way of becoming who God created you to be.  Another thing – amongst the much that we don't know about resurrection, heaven, eternity – whatever you wish to call it – is one thing that we do know, and this is that eternity is about love.  It is necessarily about relationship, about your relationship with God, and so there is every reason to believe, also about your relationship with the people God has given you to love.  Far from not knowing those in whose love you have come to the fullness of your own God-given identity, I would say that in the perspective of eternity your relationships will come to their fulfilment and their greatest joy.

So that's the first thing, and the second thing is this.  That if in this life there has been the pain of incomplete relationships, of children lost or unborn, of a love that somehow seems to be denied the blessing of social approval or that even in our supposedly accepting and advanced society can't quite be celebrated or spoken of openly – then that matters and that pain is part of what is transformed in eternity.  For gay and lesbian Anglicans who can't quite be open about admitting to having partners – strange how the Church is fifty years behind the rest of society on so much of what matters – then that knowledge of not quite being accepted for who God created you to be matters, and that pain is part of what is transformed in eternity.  I don't know about gay marriage, I think we need to wait and see how the debates work out, but I can tell you this as a priest, that it is a sadness to me that so many good Christians feel they are not welcomed by the Church, and it is a sadness to me that I am not permitted to bless a gay relationship.

You might not be married in heaven.  But you are brought to the completion of joy and love, and that is what matters.