In our opening hymn we remembered the saints of God, “who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name O Jesus, be forever blest!” Because today is the Sunday after All Saints Day, it’s appropriate for us to stop and remember all the saints of God who no longer walk this earth, including those who have impacted our own lives in powerful ways. Each of us can name a saint of God, whose life has exemplified the grace, mercy and love of God.
Therefore, I would like to remember the Rev. LLoyd Saatjian, who served for many years as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara. LLoyd died in July of 2009, but in life he was my colleague in ministry, friend, and mentor. He encouraged me to become a leader in the local faith community and stood by me when I experienced difficulties in my ministry in Santa Barbara. After I left that pastorate, he continued to stand with me, helping me to consider what my call to ministry might look like as I moved into the future. Perhaps the most powerful memory I have of LLoyd was his willingness to make space in the worship of service at First Methodist for me to pin Brett with his God and Country award at a time when I was between churches. LLoyd is one of God’s saints who in life stood strong in his confession of faith and in his love for all God’s people, and who now rests from life’s labors. Having shared my memory of LLoyd, who is it that you would name today as a saint of God?
As we remember God’s saints, we come to hear the message of the Gospel, which declares to us that our God is “God not of the dead, but of the living.” This powerful statement comes to us from out of a conversation between Jesus and a group of Sadducees. If you remember the discussion from Ron Allen’s lectures, the Sadducees were religiously and socially conservative, and didn’t believe in the resurrection. They also controlled the priesthood and the Temple, and their Scripture was limited to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. When they looked into their Bible, they claimed not to find the resurrection, but they were also of the mind that this doctrine, which Jesus shared with the Pharisees, wasn’t all that reasonable either. I mean, imagine what would happen if a woman who had married seven brothers and hadn’t produced a child for any of them? If there is a resurrection, then to whom would she be married? In his response to their question Jesus suggested that maybe we’re not married in the next life, but more importantly, Jesus offers an answer out of the very text of Scripture that they affirmed as being authoritative. He reminded them that when God appears to Moses in the Burning Bush, God claims to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, if God is the God of these three patriarchs, then surely "he is God not of the dead, but of the living."
The debate over the resurrection continues to this very day. Although many find it a compelling doctrine, there are many others who find it rather unscientific. Instead of focusing on offering a defense of the doctrine of the resurrection, however, I’d like to consider how the message of resurrection affects the way we live our lives in the present.
1. THE PURPOSE OF LIFE?
As you read this text and hear Jesus speak of the resurrection, what does that mean to your daily life? That question came up several years ago when I was invited to speak about the beliefs of Mainline Protestants to a class studying World Religions at San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara. That wasn’t an easy assignment, since we’re a fairly diverse group. But, I did my best, and when I told the group that most Mainline Protestants are moderate to liberal in their theology, someone asked me about salvation. I told them that there are many Mainline Protestants that believe that the only way of salvation is a direct confession of faith in Jesus as savior. There are others, I told them, who are universalists. That is, these Christians believe that in the end God will reconcile all of humanity to God’s self. Now, this answer didn’t sit well with everyone, including one student who asked me: Why then are we even alive? That is, if God saves everyone in the end, then what is our purpose in life?
This student, who was more conservative in her theology, believed that we’re on the earth to be tested. Either we pass the test, which involves confessing Jesus as savior, or we don’t. If we don’t pass the test then surely there has to be some sort of punishment. I mean, if everyone passes then what’s the purpose in life? In fact, if everyone makes it into heaven and there’s no punishment in the offing, then why even bother being good? So what should conclude? If God is going to save everyone anyway, then maybe we can follow the way of the Epicureans, and “eat, drink, and be merry!
2. RESURRECTION LIVING
What then is the purpose of life? I believe that our text has the answer, and that answer is found in the resurrection. Although the resurrection from the dead remains a mystery to us, because it’s not something we can test scientifically, it continues to stand at the center of the Christian confession of faith. I say that the resurrection is a mystery, even though we’ve all heard stories of people coming back to life and telling about a white light and maybe even seeing loved ones who have already died. Some find these stories compelling, and others don’t, but in the end, we must receive the message of resurrection in faith. As we receive this message, we can find strength in Jesus’ words: God is a God of the Living and not the Dead. Although this message offers hope that there is more to our existence than this life, we must ask the question – does the resurrection have anything to say about life here in this time and this place?
When Jesus answers the Sadducees’s challenge by reminding them that God is the “God of the living and not the dead,” he was saying that life is important to God. That is, God values life, all life, and therefore, we should value life as well. Even if death is a natural part of our existence in this world, God doesn’t rejoice in death and neither should we. If we’re called to embrace the principle of resurrection living, then we should begin to live out the values of resurrection in the present.
To give you an example of what I mean, listen to what Garrison Keillor said at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco sometime after 9/11.
. . . if we want to really understand the truth of this event, we should look to all the men and women who saw that death was near, who called home on their cell phones. And not to express anger or fear or bitterness but, simply, to say "I love you, take care of the children, have a good life." In a moment of great clarity at the end, they called amidst smoke, and confusion and panic to give us their benediction. And we should accept it. Love each other, take care of the children, have a good life. And give thanks to the Lord with our whole heart for his steadfast love and faithfulness and beseech him that we may have a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and dignity and that in every place men and women should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument. Amen. [Garrison Keillor quoted in "The Most Important Things," by Russell Peterman, The Wellspring: The Newsletter of Sandy Springs Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 3 (October, 2001): 4.]
I do think that this is a good description of resurrection living. It answers the question – why are we alive? It’s about living in relationship with God and with our neighbor. It’s a reminder that as the people of God we should value life so much that we don’t think about getting revenge, but instead we would embrace each other and give thanks for the opportunity to be alive, even in the presence of death.
Now, we live in a time of great uncertainty, and many are asking why we’re even alive. What’s the purpose? We seem to be struggling with marriages, jobs, families, and we ask: What do these things mean? Jesus says to us as we ask these questions: Our God is God not of the dead but of the living!
The prophet Haggai spoke to people asking very similar questions after they returned from exile in Babylon. As they looked around they saw that their Temple was gone, and the foundation stones for the new temple, which had been sitting there for years, suggested this temple wouldn’t be nearly as grand as the one the Babylonians destroyed. They wondered – so, what's the point? What they had known before, was now gone. But Haggai responded: Remember, what you build now is a foretaste of what is to come. Take courage and start to build. God said to the Judeans, Take courage and work on the Temple "for I am with you." Yes, remember the promises I made to your ancestors when they came out of Egypt. "My spirit abides among you; do not fear" (Haggai 2).
What does it mean to experience resurrection living? It means that when we’re in the presence of God we don’t have to live in fear and in regret. Indeed, by embracing the resurrection we’re free to love and to live boldly before God.