Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
November 2, 2008
RESURRECTION: THE FINAL TRANSFORMATION
Texts: Matthew 22:23-33
Our children and youth are not shy about the topic of heaven. And at the time of death, when a loved one dies, there is a longing for some connection with the world to come. Will we see our loved ones again?
A young fellow in the congregation asked this question after his dog Riley died: In heaven if I throw a tennis ball in the air, will Riley catch it?
There are some questions we ask not just with our minds but with our hearts. Here is how Jurgen Moltmann asked the questions:
Is death the end of everything?
Where are the dead? What is their future?
Where are we going?
What do we expect?
Are we expected?
Is someone, something expecting us?
Jesus was not shy about talking about the world to come, about resurrection and the kingdom of heaven. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20). He told a parable about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. They both die. Lazarus goes to heaven to “rock his soul in the bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:19-31). And on the cross Jesus said to the thief beside him: “Today thou shalt dwell with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
In today’s text Jesus is confronted by the Sadducees on the question of resurrection. The Sadducees were a wealthy, conservative party within first-century Judaism. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead - - as opposed to the Pharisees who did. They also held that the holy scriptures were comprised only of the Torah, the first five books of Moses, and not the Prophets and Writings. So every theological point had to be debated on the basis of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
They came with a question, a trick question. It sounds a little like the kind teenagers might cook up when they hear the preacher is coming to talk with them about the Bible.
“Teacher,” they said, “Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.’ Now, there was a family of seven brothers; the first one married and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother.” (Let me interject, this practice was known as “levirate marriage.” It was established to help keep the family line going, and to provide an ongoing place in the family circle for the widow.)
So on with the story. The second brother also died childless, and so the widow was given to the third brother, who died childless, and so on until she had married all seven brothers. Then she herself died. (You’ve heard of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”? This one’s called “Seven Brothers and One Tired Woman.”)
So here’s the question they put to Jesus - - a hypothetical question about a doctrine in which they did not believe: “In the resurrection whose wife of the seven will she be?!”
Does that sound like a trick question? “Can God make a rock so big he cannot lift it?”
The former President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Duke McCall once told me of a telephone call he got one day while President. The man asked: “Am I married to my wife in this life only, or am I married in heaven too? The reason I ask,” he said, “is if it’s just for the rest of this life I think I can make it. If it’s for forever, I think I’ll end it right now.” I bet here are some wives who’ve wondered the same!
Jesus replied, sharply, directly, uncompromisingly, adamantly:
“You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” They knew Torah’s words, but not its deepest meaning, and they had already limited what God can do.
Then Jesus goes on:
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage,
but are like angels in heaven.
Jesus is trying to expand our notions of the world to come. In the resurrection we experience the final healing, the final wholeness, the final transformation. L. D. Johnson and his wife suffered the shattering death of their twenty-three-year-old daughter, Carole, in a fatal car crash on her way home for Christmas. Part of the grief in such a death is the loss of all the life that person had left to live. L. D. found consolation in this thought about her life in heaven: “What she was becoming she now is.”1
In the eternity of God we experience the final transformation. What we have been seeking to become, we are. Human conventions, institutions, arrangements no longer pertain. We do not marry. Women are not given in marriage by their fathers to their husbands. The confines of flesh fall away.
An early rabbinic text goes like this, sounding much like Jesus’ words today:
In the future world there is no eating or drinking, no begetting and propagation, neither trade nor traffic[!], neither envy nor enmity, nor conflict. Instead the righteous are there with their crowns on their heads and refresh themselves at the brilliance of the Shekinah [the glory of God].2
Jesus wants to expand our imagination about eternity and the world to come. In the eternity of God we will dwell in the love and light of God and dwell together in that holy love. Those whom you have loved on earth you will love with an even greater love, and all failed loves will find healing.
Then Jesus concluded his argument by quoting Torah, the part of the Bible the Sadducees held dear:
As for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
Not I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but I am! Am still, am now! Our God has the power to raise the dead to life. In this life, and in the life to come.
Is there anything that feels like good news to you in this text? When the staff and I studied this text this week we discovered how limited and limiting our old views of heaven were. Streets of gold?! Everybody on clouds playing harps?! Mark Twain once quipped that if harp playing were all that fun there’d be more people practicing the harp in this life.
So when thoughts of heaven and eternal life come, let your deepest and highest thoughts and your most beautiful hopes lead you.
Wendell Berry in his poem “Testament” writes:
Dear relatives and friends, when my last breath
Grows large and free in air, don’t call it death....
Say that I have found
A good solution, and am on my way
To the roots. And say that I have left my native clay
At last, to be a traveler; that too will be so.
Traveler to where? Say you do not know.
But do not let your ignorance
Of my spirit’s whereabouts dismay
You, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say
Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure
How did Paul put it? “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Corinthians 2:9).
Let your highest and best imagination figure your hope.
John Donne, poet and preacher of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, was given this vision of the world to come. He was sick with an illness he thought might end his life, and this is what he saw, he wrote:
All humanity is of one author and is of one volume... when one man
[woman] dies, one chapter is not torn out the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators: some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice: but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for the library where every book shall he open to one another.4
“Translated into a better language.” As beautiful as the original language of our bodies, minds, spirits is, you will be more beautiful still. The seventh-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughn wrote words our choir will sing today about the final transformation of heaven, the final healing:
Leave then thy foolish ranges, for none can thee secure
But one who never changes, thy God, thy life, thy cure.
Why am I talking so much about this; about this distant hope? Because it is not distant. The eternal realm even now mingles with our own. There are those “thin places” where eternity and time come close, where the lives of those we have loved seem very present. We carry them along with us. They carry us along with them.
There was a closing scene in the movie from the 1980s where in a small country church in Texas during a communion service one Sunday people who have died suddenly appear and sit in their familiar pews.
I see them now in this sanctuary: beloved brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers, mothers, children, friends sitting with us again.
George Biggers there.
Patsy Minton there.
Bill Johnston there.
Susan McDonald there.
Manning Dyer there.
Scott Lindsey there.
Vic Riggsbee way back at the back.
Jack Tate there.
Juanita Tobias there.
I asked a new church member recently where he sat. He said, “On Juanita Tobias’ row.”
I can see them all, in their pews, in classrooms. Lea Harrison teaching her sewing class downstairs, bringing flowers from her yard. Holly Triplett teaching children. I see them all, their unrepeatable smiles, the way they looked, the turn of their love, the way their hands help yours. Still with us in the communion of saints.
I love how the Apostles’ Creed ends: “I believe in ... the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
And one more thing. Our dreams of heaven are not for that world only; they shape our life here on earth, the way we live now. What you cannot imagine for heaven you cannot imagine for earth. And what you cannot imagine on earth you cannot achieve.
In our church covenant we say that we believe that we are “participants in God’s kingdom on earth.” Yes, on earth. This is a powerful and healthy correction to religion become too other-worldly. But Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” As it is; as it is. The world to come is our blueprint for this world.
This was the thrust of James Forbes’ sermon to us on Founder’s Day. Remember the picture in Revelation of the New Jerusalem where the tree of life bears healing leaves which are for the healing of nations? This is God’s call and invitation to us now, to be healing leaves.
The vision of the world to come informed and animated the prophetic mission of Martin Luther King. On April 3 at 9:30 p.m. in Memphis, the night before his assassination, Dr. King addressed the crowd and gave his “Mountain-top” speech:
I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead.
But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain top.... He’s allowed me to go to the mountain top. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality. With this faith I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope from a mountain of despair.... With this faith we will be able to achieve a new day, when all God’s children, black and white, Jews, Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we are free at last.”5
Here is the final transformation, the final healing: Freedom!
∙ Freedom from sickness and sin and sorrow.
∙ Freedom from bigotry and every wall of religion, race, gender, sexuality and class that divides and diminishes us.
∙ Freedom from the habits of our minds which keep us bound - - locked in rooms with open doors.
∙ Freedom from every failure and incapacity of love where we now dwell together in God’s perfect love.
Freedom, this is the air we breathe of heaven - - and the holy breath God brings to earth.
1L. D. Johnson, The Morning After Death (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1978).
2As cited in Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21-28 (Minneapolis: Augsbury Fortress Press, 2005), p. 71.
3Collected Poems (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), p. 163.
4Devotions upon Emergent Conditions.
5As cited in Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), pp. 485-6.