St Matthew’s, Bloomington– Luke 20:27–39
One of the first parish visitations I made after my consecration in March of 2011 was to St James’ in McLeansboro, which, if Illinois geography isn’t your strong suit, is a county seat town about 25 miles southeast of Mt Vernon. It’s main claim to fame is that it’s the hometown of Jerry Sloan, who was first a player and then an accomplished coach in the NBA. St James’ Church is a lovely structure that was consecrated in the 1870s by Bishop George Seymour, my predecessor ten times removed. On the occasion of my visitation, both the church and the nearby parish house were in excellent condition, quite attractive on a gorgeous spring day. The only fly in the ointment was that there were only four regular communicants left at St James’, and, over a potluck lunch in the parish house, they unanimously asked me to close the place down, which, with sadness, I did, and the Eucharist that morning was the last one celebrated in St James’ Church.
About a year ago, I went back to McLeansboro on a Sunday afternoon, and was met there by Fr Bill Howard, a lawyer-priest who lives in Mt Vernon and takes care of St John’s in Albion, which is the oldest church building in the diocese continuously in use. Our solemn duty that Sunday afternoon was to officially deconsecrate St James’ Church, remove it from my spiritual authority, and consign it to secular use. Except … it’s not actually being used, either religiously or secularly. So, the entire property was kind of an eyesore. The lovely grounds that I remembered from seven years before had “gone native.” The building was obviously slowly decaying. The interior was just dark, hollow, depressing.
When something is neglected, it decays. When order is not maintained, chaos takes over. Those of us who drive extensively, whether on city streets or interstate highways, are acutely aware of this. There’s always construction, road maintenance, going on somewhere. Except on very short trips around the neighborhood, construction is impossible to avoid. Roads have a life cycle, and, left to their own devices, potholes take over, and pretty soon there’s no road left.
This is what physicists call entropy, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Without intentional intervention, order surely and certainly disintegrates into chaos. This is a law of nature that we experience not only with abandoned churches and city streets, but in our own homes and gardens, the public places we inhabit every day—indeed, with our own bodies. Stop paying attention to personal hygiene for a few days, and everybody in your life is going to become very, very concerned!
Today we encounter one of the “parties” within the Judaism of Jesus’ time and place. We’re more familiar with the Pharisees—they show up in a lot of gospel stories—but today we meet one of their rival factions, the Sadducees. The Sadducees are best known for their denial of any notion of the resurrection of the dead, which is an idea that was not part of ancient Hebrew religion, but, by the time of Jesus, had acquired a prominent place within Jewish thought. They use Jesus, in effect, not to try to trip him up, as we are used to hearing about the scribes and Pharisees doing, but to score some cheap rhetorical points against their opponents. They pose what they think is an unanswerable conundrum, and Jesus’ inability to answer it will make the Pharisees’ heads explode. Suppose there’s a married man who dies before being able to father any children. According to the Law of Moses, this man’s brother would be obligated to try to impregnate his brother’s widow, and the resulting child would be deemed legally to be the offspring of the dead man. So, now suppose that the brother fails in this duty, not for lack of trying, necessarily, but … you know … just because. And then he dies. And then five more brothers all have a go at it, and each one dies without having given Brother #1 any posterity. In the resurrection—which, remember, the Sadducees believed was a hoax—in the resurrection, whose wife will this woman be, since all seven had been her husband? They think they have Jesus, and, by proxy, the Pharisees, painted into a corner, and are starting to high-five one another.
But Jesus has other ideas, and, like a savvy politician when being grilled by journalists looking for a story, refuses to accept the premise of their question, which is that institutions like marriage naturally survive into the social economy of the resurrection of the dead. Instead, Jesus responds that marriage is one example of one of countless human institutions that are necessary in this world precisely because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, because of entropy. Entropy decrees that all living organisms eventually fail in their efforts to maintain order in the face of chaos. This is the failure we call death. Because of entropy, because of death, there is a need for every species of life to perpetuate itself. Marriage is one “intervention” that human beings deploy to beat back entropy, by fostering the procreation and successful nurture of children to continue the human race.
But in the time of the resurrection, Jesus says, there is no marriage because, as he implies, there is no entropy. The need for marriage will no longer exist—just as there will be no highway maintenance crews, because highways, or whatever the heavenly equivalent for highways is—will not degrade. Without entropy, there can be no potholes!
Despite the underlying beliefs of the popular culture that surrounds us, human beings have no inherent hope of immortality, whether in some state that we call “heaven” or some condition or place that is … well … “not heaven.” We don’t all just automatically all have a “soul” that will, in some manner, survive the death of our bodies. The Christian hope is not the “immortality of the soul.” I really can’t stress that highly enough: the Christian hope is not in the immortality of the soul. Rather, the hope of Christians is in resurrection. Let me refer you to the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds on this point, neither of which mention immortality, and both of which mention resurrection. We may have “life after death” to look forward to, but it’s something more on the order of “life after life after death” that we ultimately believe in.
But that which even makes resurrection conceivable, is God’s inherent deathless nature. God is the only immortal being in the universe. God is the only one who is, by his very nature, exempt from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, immune to entropy. This is what Jesus is getting at in the second part of his answer to the Sadducees. He calls their attention to the incident when Moses encounters a burning bush on the slopes of Mt Sinai—a bush that is burning, but is never consumed. The voice coming from the bush says, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Present tense. I am their God. But Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of course, are long dead by the time of Moses. And if God is presumed to be the God, not of the dead, but of the living, then those three patriarchs must still somehow be alive, which proves the resurrection, and Jesus sends the Sadducees away with his own “gotcha” line: “You are quite wrong.” Now, to our ears, that may seem too clever by half, a bit of intellectual contortionism. But, in the thought world of that time and place, it was a genuine zinger. Jesus deftly deflected their supposed conundrum and sent the Sadducees packing.
There is much talk these days about sustainability—sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy, sustainable fishing, sustainable economic growth. These ideas, though, are ultimately just attempts to beat back entropy long enough for another generation to figure out how to do it again, and then again and again in each succeeding generation. But it is God’s deathless nature—revealed in raising Jesus from the dead—it is God’s deathless nature alone that defeats entropy. God’s deathless nature alone repeals the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The destiny of a redeemed universe is one of infinite sustainability. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.