You know how we always tell each other, and especially our children, that there’s no such thing as a stupid question? I have to think that the Sadducees were pushing the envelope on this one.
It wasn’t because they were stupid: actually, they were among the elite of Jerusalem society, well educated and socially ranked; they were not ignorant and they were not confused. They asked their question in order to try to make Jesus look stupid, look like a bumpkin from up-country Galilee, naïve and ill-informed, and gullible. They wanted to discredit him before any more people realized that he was for real, that he was, in fact, the one for which the world had been waiting. This exchange takes place, remember, during Holy Week, in the holy city. The Sadducees and their fellow elite people have seen the spectacle of Palm Sunday, and they are afraid of the damage that a popular religious movement might do, if it attracts any more attention from the Romans. Passover is upon them, and crowds are gathering. Things could so easily get out of hand if people insist on whispering one to another that Jesus is he, the Messiah, the one who will change everything. They don’t want him to change everything, because they are afraid of what might follow.
So the Sadducees are not trying to ask a serious question about the technicalities of levirate marriage or the afterlife – in fact, by definition, one who identified himself as a Sadducee did not believe in an afterlife. They didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body, nor in the survival of soul or spirit; for them, death was final, and with the body dies everything that has inhabited it – all thoughts, emotions, prayers and relationships. All relationships – which was exactly why they could be so cavalier and crass, so ridiculous and contemptuous of other people’s eternal concerns and questions. Because we do wonder, don’t we, how things will turn out with the relationships that we have left incomplete in this life, how they will be healed and reconciled and made whole in the next? The Sadducees denied having any such concerns, which is why they were able to ask their question in such a deliberately dense, intentionally insensitive, stupid way.
They had a lot in common with the people challenging the faith of the Thessalonians. We don’t hear directly from those folks; we only have Paul’s reassurance to the Thessalonians that these prophets of doom are wrong, that they are not to be trusted. The people who provoked the letter are spreading the message that not only was Jesus’ resurrection and ascension complete, but the second coming had also somehow slipped by them, the work of redemption was over and done with, and there would be no more. They didn’t deny the saving grace of God manifest in Jesus Christ; they just said that it was all in the past.
There would be no more resurrection, no more ascension, no more visitations by the living God, nothing to look forward to or hope for any more. Like the Sadducees, they had lost their faith that any good could befall them any more.
You have to wonder what had happened to these Sadducees, these Thessalonians, to make them so hard-hearted that they would not only give up all hope, but deny it to anyone else.
Paul told the Thessalonians, stand firm, hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, by letter or by word of mouth – that is, the traditions of the stories of Jesus told by his closest followers and friends, including stories like this one, when Jesus speaks to the doubts and derision of the Sadducees and affirms the hope of the resurrection, the life of God, the eternal, unending life of a loving God who is not done with us yet, because Jesus knows we need that hope.
We need it in a world that pauses at eleven o’clock of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to remember war, and which longs for peace. We ask the serious questions that the Sadducees will not ask: What will happen when we meet our enemies beyond the grave? Who will heal our divisions? How long will we wait for deliverance from death?
We need it in a world that is anxious about unfinished relationships, unfinished business, people we long to see again, people we dread to see again; we ask the serious, searching questions that the Sadducees will not ask: Will it be alright? Will we be alright?
We need it in a world where thousands, ten thousand and more, lost their lives last week in a single storm; where we worry about what we have contributed to climate change, how we can defray the damage we have done, and how we can help those who have already fallen victim. We need the hope of new life when we are faced with so much death.
We need it in a world that tells us, frankly, that we’re stupid for continuing to hope: where aggressive forms of atheism deride religion and accuse us of peddling deceitful doctrine, saccharine sugar pills, false hope, the opium of the masses.
You have to wonder what has happened to make the world so hard-hearted, so world-weary that it would simply give up.
The first letter of Peter advises, “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” Jesus was ready for the Sadducees, with arguments and ammunition from the Torah, their own chosen proof-texts: he confounded their questions with the reality of a living and lively God, a God who is always ready to do something new, as we were reminded this weekend at our diocesan convention, as the resurrection is witness.
We may not know exactly what the new thing will look like. We don’t have the answers to all the problems of war and peace and typhoon storms neatly packaged; we don’t have a YouTube video of life in heaven to show to those who question us; but we do have our faith, and we do have the traditions passed down by the apostles, and we do have the help of the living God, who is, after all, the God of the living, and who breathes among us with the Holy Spirit.
We have hope here, and we hear the Holy Spirit among us. Twice, in the last couple of months, people have reported walking into this church because God told them to come here. We are blessed and charged with being a cradle of hope, a haven for those asking difficult questions, with real and weighty concerns. Unlike the straw man schemings of the Sadducees, there are no stupid questions from those truly seeking truth.
We need to uphold one another in that hope and in that endeavour, coming together to pray and to witness to the goodness of God. You may not know to whom you are giving hope simply by your presence here in the house of God, here in the haven of prayer. People around you know that you pray; they rely on it, even if their hearts are too weary just now, too frightened or too scarred to pray for themselves. We gather not only for ourselves, but also for them, so that when God tells them to get to church, they know where to find a friend; so that we have a home to invite them into.
And we don’t need to know all the answers, but we do help one another with the questions. On Tuesday nights, we wrestle with Scripture and the questions it raises, or we hold up our questions in silent, centering prayer, and all are welcome to join us. We will question the traditions that we hold fast, and explore our faith, our church as we prepare for confirmations and receptions next spring. Every month, we witness to the hope that is in us for our communities, our neighbourhoods, our city and our world through our prayer walks: we are ready to defend that hope with prayer and with our presence. Coming together, we affirm one another’s hope, and we bear witness to the faith that God is living, and that God is continually doing new things. No matter what has happened to harden the heart of the world against hope, God continues to break open that shell of cynicism and surprise us with new life.
In the words of St Paul, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”