Not the God of the Dead

As far back as the burning bush — lush, green, and aflame, yet not consumed, with roots in holy ground on which a shoeless Moses kneels — in the voice of the “angel” who throughout the Old Testament is somehow another in God who speaks for God — we hear a gospel about the resurrection of the dead, from a God who speaks of things that are not as though they somehow are.

The Sadducees, who put their loaded question to Jesus in church today (the past became present, if you had ears to hear and eyes to see), not only deny the resurrection of the body but — quite a lot more — they deny the continued existence of the human person beyond death, of any human person after they “breath their last.”

The Sadducees are nihilists who believe that after death we return to the nothingness from which God calls us into existence.

They also only accept the Torah as authoritative, so Jesus answers them with the story of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3.

The voice of the angel, the angel whom the church tells us is Christ, speaks from the fiery bush and tells Moses that he is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

When Jesus repeats these words in today’s gospel, not from the midst of a fiery bush but in the flesh that Mary gave him, he adds “He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

There is a profound indication here that the resurrection is already a reality on Sinai some 1300 years before this moment with Jesus and the Sadducees, even if this seems to put the story of salvation out of order for us.

Ponder these word of John Henry Newman:

“Philosophers of old time thought the soul indeed might live for ever, but that the body perished at death; but Christ tells us otherwise, he tells us the body will live for ever. In the text he seems to intimate that it never really dies; that we lose sight indeed of what we are accustomed to see, but that God still sees the elements of it which are not exposed to our senses.

“God graciously called himself ‘the God of Abraham.’ He did not say the God of Abraham’s soul, but simply of ‘Abraham.’ He blest Abraham, and he gave him eternal life; not to his soul only, without his body, but to Abraham as one man.”

From Sinai to Tabor, moving ahead thirteen centuries, we see how the resurrection seems to break out of “the future” and appear before the cross when Jesus is transfigured and the disciples see Moses and Elijah talking with Christ on the holy mountain.

These figures are not projections of Peter’s imagination, not ‘mythology’ as he would later write (2 Peter 1:16–18).

No, the apostles were eyewitnesses to an event in history where two very dead men speak with Jesus about his “passover” which he would accomplish at Jerusalem, of his voluntary death for the life of the cosmos, his dying for the one human nature he shares with all persons, a human nature infected with death.

These three — Moses, Elijah and Jesus — do not communicate telepathically but speak to one another, and the disciples can hear them. The disciples can see them.

Humans cannot speak without tongues.

It’s so obvious that we miss what is taken for granted in the text: Moses and Elijah somehow continue to exist as embodied humans in the place where God dwells.

Again, has resurrection life broken out into the world before the Resurrection? It’s something to ponder.

Lazarus is another moment of this, if we truly allow ourselves to contemplate what Jesus says to Martha in John 11 when, with the stain and sting of tears still on our Lord’s face, he calls Lazarus forth from his tomb and grave clothes.

Remember his words to her? “I am resurrection and I am life.”

Lazarus has been dead for four days, one day longer than Jesus. If what happens to Lazarus is not resurrection, then what is it?

This leads me finally to the very strange report in Matthew 27:50–53.

Matthew has been recounting the horrific events of Good Friday, of the cruciform torture and death of Jesus.

We are told that at the moment of Jesus’ death, as he breathes his last, the veil of the temple is torn in two.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard a preacher or teacher claim that Matthew slips into poetry here, that the veil didn’t actually rip in two, opening to all human flesh the holy of holies.

Likewise, I’ve never heard someone preach that the earth didn’t really quake at the moment of Christ’s death, or that the rocks were not really split in two.

Yet I did learn a few years ago that there are some scholars who think that Matthew shifts gears from reporting when he gets to verse 51, that for three verses he slips into metaphor.

Now it is true that all of the events of the cross are multivalent and metaphorical but there’s no reason in the text to suggest that nothing happened in the temple or with the earth or (as we are about to examine) in the cemeteries around Jerusalem.

One of the most neglected set of verses in the entire Bible is Matthew 27:52–53. Here we learn that the tombs of many of the dead were opened and their *bodies* were raised from their tombs, and that they were seen walking around the holy city.

Matthew reports that *all* of this happens in the moment that Jesus breathes his last…three days before the Resurrection.

There’s something about the death of a Jesus, about the very moment of his death, as C.S. Lewis understood, that causes death to begin to work backwards.

“The witch would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

Not only do these persons in the vicinity of the cross rise bodily from their tombs in the *moment* of Christ’s death (see note at the end), it appears that the death of Jesus works its way back into the whole history of the house of Israel, and by Israel and the obedience of this one human, into all humanity.

As Updike writes in his masterful “Seven Stanzas at Easter”:

“Let us not mock God with metaphor,

Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,

Making of the event a parable,

a sign painted in the faded

Credulity of earlier ages:

Let us walk through the door.”

“The stone is rolled back,

not papier-mache,

Not a stone in a story,

But the vast rock of materiality

that in the slow grinding of

Time will eclipse for each of us

The wide light of day.”

Our God is not the God of the dead but the God of the living.

In Christ no one who dies stays dead.

And by Baptism those visible in the room today live the resurrection now. Our words, our acts, our presence can by the Spirit bring resurrection right into the room.

So, as Eugene Peterson says, let us leave this place and practice resurrection.

***Note: We know according to Matthew that those persons long dead who were raised bodily from their tombs loitered in the cemeteries in and around Jerusalem until Jesus began to appear to the women and disciples and then were seen by many. Perhaps it was important that Christ appear first as the first fruits of the resurrection of all flesh but these precious ones were raised in the moment of his last breath. I cherish those lines.***



Pastor | Contributor: Mockingbird, Sojourners, Huffington Post, Clarion Journal | Theologian l Author “Vulnerable God” (forthcoming, Baker Books)

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Kenneth Tanner

Pastor | Contributor: Mockingbird, Sojourners, Huffington Post, Clarion Journal | Theologian l Author “Vulnerable God” (forthcoming, Baker Books)