Scripture: Luke 20:27-38
When I was getting my undergraduate degree in education, one of my field placements had me chaperoning a most unusual field trip. The class was an elective for juniors and seniors called local history, and the field trip was to the cemetery. In Evansville, IN the most prevalent public green space in the growing city during the mid-1800s was Oak Hill Cemetery. It was a common practice on beautiful days to stroll the graveyard, paying respects to loved ones, and enjoying the sunshine. Because of this, the prominent families in town built incredible monuments and structures on the hill. If people were going to be walking through the cemetery they wanted to make sure their family names were the most impressive. This was not uncommon. In fact most old American cities have a similar cemetery that was almost made to explored.
Perhaps this is why so many tombstones contain an epitaph, a saying printed on the marker that records the deceased wisdom, wit, or sarcasm for generations. For instance, famed talk show host and game show creator Merv Griffin had “I will not be right back after this message” on his tombstone. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield continued is self-depreciating humor all the way to the grave. He still doesn’t get any respect as his epitaph reads “There goes the neighborhood.” Early 20th century writer and satirist Dorothy Parker was cremated and where her ashes are interred it reads “Please pardon my dust.” When I was in my early twenties and attended a meeting, I had never given any thought to an epitaph. After all that is not something on the mind of most twenty-somethings. However, at this particular meeting they did an ice breaker. Since it was around Halloween, the ice breaker question was “what do you want your epitaph to be?” Thankfully I was not first so I started thinking about it. Because this was a Christian gathering, I could not just go with a bible verse. That is what everyone was doing, and I wanted to be original. I did though want an epitaph that was based in my faith and was suitably epic. Right before it was my turn I got it. When it came to me I introduced myself and then stated my chosen epitaph: “Death is just the beginning.”
That is not a direct scriptural quote, but it is a deeply biblical message. It is one reflected in this morning’s scripture. This morning’s scripture is one of those parts of the bible that is not the easiest to understand. In fact there is more than one theological misunderstanding that arises from this scripture. It begins with what really sounds like a riddle, but it ends with Jesus giving us a glimpse of what eternity is going to be like.
To get a good idea of what exactly is happening in this scripture we need some cultural context. The Sadducees, which in Luke’s gospel are only mentioned in this one place, were a Jewish sect. There is not a lot known about the Sadducees, but one of the best known elements is that they tended to de-emphasize the supernatural. There was a big debate during the time of Jesus as to what happened after we die. From the gospels we know that Jesus taught there will be a resurrection. The Sadducees, disagreed with that. They thought death is the end, and our best chance to live on is in memories and through our descendants. In this morning’s question they ask Jesus this riddle of sorts in hopes to trap him.
Their riddle is a set up from the beginning. The idea was to create a situation so absurd that it makes the concept of resurrection look ridiculous. The Sadducee’s set up relies on an Old Testament law stating that if a man died his brother was to marry the widow. If the brother then fathered a son, he was to name the child after his dead brother so that the brother’s name and legacy would live on. In this hypothetical scenario there a child is never born, so the woman keeps going from brother to brother. Since a child is never born to continue a family line, they all have an equal claim to being married to her. Essentially the Sadducees are practicing the logical fallacy of appealing to ridicule. Instead of trying to debate the essence of the question they created an absurd situation that opens up the idea or resurrection to be mocked and made light of. No doubt the Sadducees are hoping they will be able to pick apart the answer Jesus gives as a way to completely discredit him.
It does not work of course. Time and time again in the gospels people try to corner or trick Jesus in what they think are clever challenges. Every time it does not work, because every time Jesus speaks with authority. Every time Jesus cuts through their riddle and cute tricks with the power of truth. The same thing happens here. Jesus also talks about a topic that gets very little mention in the bible. One of the fundamental beliefs we have as Christians is that death is just the beginning. We believe in eternal life, but we have very little idea what that looks like. So we tend to latch on to the few clues we get like this morning’s scripture. The problem though is with so little details we can make some wrong assumptions.
There are a couple of beliefs that are not supported by Christian tradition or doctrine that find their origins in this scripture. For instance, I have been privileged to officiate a number of funerals. It is not uncommon at these gatherings to hear some well-wisher say “heaven’s gained another angel.” Now I realize that for some people this is more of an expression and less of a theological statement. However, there is this idea floating out there people become angels when they die, and that idea may have its origins in verse 36 of this morning’s scripture. Jesus said that those who will take part in the age to come will like the angels. However, Christian tradition understands that to mean that we will be eternal like the angels are, not that we literally become angels. People and angels are different created beings made by God for different purposes.
Another wayward belief from this scripture arises from what Jesus said about how in the coming age people will not be married or given to marriage. This has led to a belief that somehow in heaven we will not recognize one another. This assumption rises from the idea that for people not to be married they must not realize or remember who their spouse was. However, that is not quite what is stated here. The way that we relate to one another will change. Verse 36 states “They are God’s children since they are children of the resurrection.” In the life to come our relationship to each other will first and foremost be based on being God’s children. That will be our primary familial relationship. However, that gives us no reason to assume that we will not be able to recognize others.
The riddle that the Sadducees pose to Jesus was based on faulty assumptions that they had made. The assumed they knew how things would work, but Jesus quickly put them straight. In the same way, some of the beliefs that are floating around out there about what comes next are also based off of assumptions and guesses.
I get the temptation to make these assumptions. We want to know what awaits us, so we take the small tidbits we get in the scripture and we run a little too far with them. I am reminded of an old story. The story goes that after a long and wonderful life Louise passed away. Louise was a bit of a planner, given her advance age, she knew this day was inevitable so she had planned her own funeral arrangements in exact detail. One of those details was incredibly important to Louise, so important in fact it was the very first thing she listed and insisted upon. She wanted to be buried with a fork. The funeral home director complied with this wish, but was very confused by it. So he sought out Louise’s family to find out why. With a knowing smile they shared the reason. Louise loved to bake, and she loved to surprise people with what she made. She was very fond of reminding people at the end of the meal to save their forks because “a surprise was coming and the best was yet to come.” She knew that she was in for a great surprise and she knew the best was coming, that is why Louise was buried with a fork.
We can read the few clues in scripture and we can offer up conjecture, but the truth of the matter is when we all get to heaven, we have little idea what to expect. However, we should all consider saving our forks because even though it will be a surprise, we can be confident that death is just the beginning and the best is still coming.
Truly death is just the beginning, but eternal life does not begin with our death. It began with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, when he defeated death once and for all and won the victory. Because of that singular event, we still live even though we die. We can claim an eternal life that goes on with Christ in the presence of our heavenly father forever and ever and ever, world without end. Eternal life is just that, eternal. That is why Christians never need to say good bye to one another. When we part company with another believer, we can know that we will eventually see them again. For those who are in Christ there are no forever good byes, there are just “see you laters.”
Odds are on this day, all of miss someone. That’s normal and grief is normal. However, thanks to the mighty works of Jesus Christ hope is also normal in the face of death. As Jesus said in this morning’s scripture, “[God] is not a God pf the dead, but of the living for to him all are alive.” For those who have been saved we have eternal life. That life does not end when our heart stops beating. Death is just the beginning. As this scripture makes clear, those who died in Christ are part of God’s family. Friends, here and now, we are also part of God’s family. There will be a day when we all get to heaven, and have the best family reunion ever. When we all get to haven what a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!
Brothers and sisters in Christ, may we claim that. May we find courage and hope in that eternal truth. May we save our forks, because I assure you death is just the beginning and the best is yet to come.