Sermon from 7 November:

Luke 6:20-31

Luke 20:27-38

I used to have a little motivational sign that read, “Success is the best revenge.” It suggested that whatever anyone else might say about you, you can be proud to have done well. Jesus suggests in the beatitudes that really, “righteousness” is the best revenge. “Happy are the righteous,” because their rewards are still coming. That’s a question for you on All Saints’ Sunday: who showed you what righteousness is? Who has been a saint for you to follow?

“Righteous” is a tricky word. It can easily mean “self-righteous,” that condescending sense of moral superiority. Jesus is not talking about this. He goes on to point out that the measure of your righteousness is your enemies – how do you treat them? How do we treat those with whom we disagree? Those who may have it in for us? That’s your character. How did your “saint” treat their enemies? Those without power over them? May we all be so righteous.

So how is righteousness a blessing? What deep happiness is there in righteousness? Jesus promises that “a great reward is kept for you in heaven.” Is this too “pie in the sky”? Is the implication that you shouldn’t complain now, because God will make it better later on? That idea is easy for people in power to misuse, the idea that you have to obey me so you can have flowers and rainbows later. The word ‘later’ is what’s wrong here. You’re not just trading this life for a better future one; it’s deeper than that.

The Sadducees get that point wrong. They ask this loaded question about the resurrection: if people are resurrected, how will the different layers of human relationships work? For instance, this woman who was married seven times: whose wife will she be then? That question is built on the idea of the resurrection as being like this life, only more so. That’s great for imagining, and it does lots of service at funerals, but it’s ultimately far from the point. Jesus insists on the resurrection, or what we call heaven, as being a very different kind of “place.” It’s not a place at all, it’s a spiritual reality unlike this world.

It’s hard for us to hear Jesus say that there will be no marriage at the resurrection. We often want heaven to fulfill a wish of seeing our loved ones again. But as an aside, that’s based on a modern idea of marriage, namely that we marry each other (ideally) because we’re in love, and we share our life together. In Jesus’ time, marriage was more of an economic relationship, based on rearing children, merging family fortunes, and darn the husband’s socks. Moses’ law was very important in this earlier world, because it protected women and property by providing someone to take over if the man died. The implication of the law was that there was no resurrection to redeem or continue the woman’s relationship with her husband, so someone had to take care of her right now.

Jesus pushes past this idea. Marriage in that sense is part of this world, and the resurrection follows a logic other than this world’s. That is, it’s not based on economic advantage and protection. It’s a reality that isn’t run by defense and retribution. So there’s no need to protect a woman as property, making sure she gets inherited within the family. Human relationships are no longer exclusive. It’s not that the woman is not special anymore, but she’s no one’s “possession.”

And now we’re in the 21st century, and of course women aren’t possessions (not that we do marriage perfectly now, either). But neither Jesus nor the Sadducees are really talking about marriage. They’re talking about the resurrection – heaven, if you will – where things are as they should be. Jesus uses the language of inversion: “Blessed are you who are weeping, because you’ll laugh. Woe to you people who are full, because you’ll be hungry.” But it’s not as if heaven is just where you’ll get your “just reward,” because that’s as simplistic as treating it like more of the same as this life.

Heaven lives by a different logic than “the world as it is” – a logic of mutual help without obligation, of justice without retribution. This is a reality where you don’t need legal requirements to make people be good. It’s where righteousness is a way of life, not “the law of the land.” And that’s Jesus’ great happiness: God’s ways plant joy in your heart, as if God were already in control, and living that way brings God’s reality (heaven, the resurrection, the kingdom of God, whatever you call it) more into being. It creates heaven here.

That’s ultimately what Jesus is saying about heaven: it’s a present reality, not just “out there, sometime.” It comes into this life. The spiritual reality of the resurrection is the depth of this life, where we already exist in God’s reality that is always here with us. Righteousness means living in God’s reality now, being fed by God’s provision and led by God’s light. Just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were. Just as Jesus is, into and through death. Just as your saint was. All of these are alive to God’s reality.

We let the saints guide us because they showed us how heaven comes into the world. We see God’s realm in their lives. How has your saint taught you about living in God’s joy? About doing to others as you’d have them do? Where has God redeemed your saint’s failings? What new space is opened up in your life by that? How can you open heaven for someone else this week? May you live by righteousness today and always.