Saturday Night Theologian
1 November 2009

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9

Sunday is All Saints Day, the day on the Christian calendar when the faithful departed are remembered. In Mexico and elsewhere, including in many U.S. communities, those who have gone to be with the Lord are commemorated in a festival called Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. In contrast to the usually somber services that characterize many All Saints Day observances in the English-speaking world, Day of the Dead celebrations are just that: celebrations of life. Participants dress up in bright colors, light candles and lanterns, and cook food to share with their families, including--symbolically--those who have already died. This is a day to visit the cemeteries and recall the joy that those now dead brought to the lives of those still living. Today's reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the deuterocanonical books rarely if ever read in many Protestant churches, begins with this beautiful line: "The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them." What a contrast to the view that permeates all but the latest parts of the Hebrew Bible, which envisions the dead as living in Sheol, a place of darkness and dust, separated from both God and the living. The idea of the dead living on with God, often though not always associated with the idea of an eventual resurrection of the dead, is one that probably developed during the period of Greek domination over Israel (starting in 198 B.C.E.), or perhaps a few decades earlier during the late Persian period of Israel's history. Though it was a late bloomer, the idea caught on like wildfire, and it was widely accepted during the Maccabean period and into New Testament times. And why not? In place of a future about which little was known, but which was universally seen as decidedly inferior to the present life--whether involving loss of consciousness or a vague retention of some sort of bland existence beyond the grave--the idea that our loved ones, and eventually we ourselves, could look forward to a continued existence in the presence of God gave people hope and even joy in the face of the certainty of death. Ideas about what lies beyond the grave crystalized in the early centuries of Christianity into a clearly differentiated afterlife of reward (heaven) and punishment (hell), with perhaps a temporary stopping place designed by God for the cleansing of remaining sins (purgatory). In the light of scientific and medical advances of recent decades, many Christians are revisiting the question of the nature of the afterlife. Powerful telescopes aimed at the far reaches of the universe and geological analysis of the composition of the earth have forced believers to grapple with new, perhaps non-literal, concepts of heaven and hell. Some theologians and philosophers question the existences of hell, finding it inconsistent with their idea of a loving God, preferring instead the old Christian idea expressed by the third-century theologian Origen, who believed that in the end even the devil himself would be drawn back into communion with God. Others call into question the traditional equation eternal life with the resurrection of the physical body, opting instead for some sort of spiritual or psychical existence. Tales of beyond the grave and near-death experiences tantalize us with possible evidence of the afterlife, and the science of neurology tells us more and more about how the brain works and where some of our religious ideas may come from. The question of what becomes of people after they die is more than just an academic question for those who have lost loved ones or who are nearing the end of their own lives. Many answers are offered, but few if any are certain. Why, then, are Christians able to deal with the question of death with hope, and sometimes even with joy? Because we have faith that, whatever the specific details of the afterlife might be, those we love are not lost forever but exist in God's infinite wisdom and kindness.

Psalm 24 (first published 16 July 2006)

For several years a piece of legislation called the DREAM Act has been introduced in both houses of Congress, but its opponents have made sure that the act has never made it to the floor of either the House or the Senate for a vote. DREAM stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors--it's one of those acronyms that were chosen first, and later words that fit the acronym itself were tacked on--but it's really about the dream that the vast majority of young people living in our country have, the dream of growing up, getting a good education, and becoming productive citizens. The DREAM act allows children of undocumented aliens, who are undocumented themselves, to gain legal status, and eventually citizenship, by finishing high school, staying out of trouble, and attending college or joining the military. What law could be more fair than that? Who in the name of simple decency could oppose such a law? Apparently there are many members of Congress who oppose it, and they are supported by a large number of their constituents. What motivates people to oppose a law that would be so meaningful and give hope to so many deserving people? One word: xenophobia, the irrational fear or hatred of foreigners. The psalmist says, "The earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it." He didn't say, "All those who live north of an imaginary line in the dirt belong to God," nor did he say, "All those who were born in certain countries belong to God." No, all the earth belongs to God, as do all its inhabitants. The imaginary lines we draw in the dirt or on the surface of the water may help us subdivide the planet into manageable chunks of land, but we must never forget that they are human inventions, even human illusions. The border that separates the U.S. from Mexico, or Israel from Lebanon, or India from Pakistan is artificial. It does not divide one group of people who are favored by God from another group that is not. All the people of the earth have the right to a good education, to a home in the country of their choice, to a form of worship that is meaningful to them. The DREAM Act is a step in the direction of a more just, more merciful world. It is fully consistent with both the Christian faith and the sentiments of the psalmist. Those who advocate treating people from other countries as though their lives were less important than their own have failed to understand the teaching of scripture, and they stand against the idea that "the earth is the Lord's."

2009 Update: Despite the heroic efforts of many members of Congress and many advocates for social justice, the DREAM Act is still not the law of the land. However, hope is stronger than ever that it will pass during the current legislative session. The bill has been reintroduced in both the House and the Senate, and advocates believe it will be passed by both houses and signed into law by President Obama sometime in 2010. May it be so.

Revelation 21:1-6a

The Book of Revelation had a rocky path into the New Testament canon. Written to provide comfort to Christians who were undergoing or threatened with persecution by the Roman Empire, it was accepted on that basis by many churches (some of which also accepted another apocalyptic work, the so-called Apocalypse of Peter). After the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, however, its strong anti-Roman rhetoric appeared antiquated, even objectionable, to many. It was often rejected by churches in the East, though most churches in the West came to accept it. Eventually most churches throughout Christendom, with the exception of those in Syriac-speaking lands, accepted Revelation as canonical, but its readings were rarely if ever used in many lectionaries. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, the book had a powerful opponent in Martin Luther, who wished it relegated to secondary status, along with books like James and the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament (the Apocrypha). The church as a whole declined to accept Luther's judgment, but preaching from Revelation was still a rarity until the late nineteenth century, when a British preacher names John Nelson Darby developed an approach to the study of the Bible known as Dispensationalism, in which the book of Revelation played a central role. The excesses of Dispensationalism turned many traditional Christians off, however, further relegating Revelation to a sort of secondary status within the canon. I find the book of Revelation fascinating from a social-historical point of view, and read alongside other contemporary apocalypses, it sheds important light on the lives of the early church. Its use of symbolic language is also very interesting, especially when seen in the light of larger studies of the use of metaphors and symbols in other literary works. However, the nonliteral nature of much of the book continues to make it inaccessible to many would-be readers. An exception to this generalization is chapter 21. The language continues to be metaphorical, but at least the overall message is clear, if not the details. The author, John (probably not the same as the author of the gospel by that name), envisions a new heaven and a new earth, even a new, heavenly Jerusalem that descends to earth. This is a message of hope for the future, in the present life and in the life beyond. It presents God on the throne of the universe, presiding over both heaven and earth, and it proclaims that all that is and was and will be is within the scope and sovereignty of God. Christians may argue over the meaning of the book of Revelation and over the nature of the afterlife, but all people of faith can be comforted by the realization that God is still at work making all things new, and nothing in time or space is beyond the reach of this loving God.

John 11:32-44

The story of the raising of Lazarus is one of the most heartrending stories in the whole Bible. It describes with passion the loss that one feels in the face of death, and it shows the depths of compassion that people can feel for loved ones who are coping with loss. In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, especially Mark, Jesus' display of emotion in this story is unique in the Gospel of John, which otherwise presents Jesus as a sort of divine avatar, a divine being encased in a human body moving through the world and largely unaffected by it. Only in this chapter do Jesus' human emotions show--would a god weep?--and the reader is reminded that Jesus' human interactions in this life were real and meaningful. The story is often associated with the notion of the bodily resurrection of the dead, which traditional Christian dogma (and the traditional creeds, most pointedly the Apostle's Creed) proclaims is the destiny for all the faithful dead. Perhaps, but I think there's another way to look at this story. In contrast to Jesus' resurrected body, which is alluded to in the closing chapters of the gospel, Lazarus's body is of the same sort as that of every other living human. Lazarus cannot appear and disappear at will. He cannot pass through locked doors. His body does not bear permanent signs of trauma that do not heal. In short, Lazarus's body is an ordinary, run of the mill human body, just like everyone else's. There is a difference, however, not in the body itself but in the person who inhabits the body. Lazarus has passed through death and returned to life. No, it is not everlasting life, for Lazarus will surely die again, next time for good. But it is eternal life, in the sense described frequently in the Gospel of John: a life that has had a transformative encounter with the divine in Christ. When people have this encounter, their lives are never the same. Lazarus is a case in point. He saw life differently, because he had encountered the reality of death. He saw death differently, because through the power of God he had transcended it. He saw those around him differently, because he had learned something about the seed of eternality that lies within each of us. He saw the world differently, because he understood that life and death are limitations on human beings, not on God. The story of Lazarus is a story about the struggle to discover ultimate meaning, and it is a story about a divine encounter that makes that discovery possible. Perhaps most importantly, it is a story that reminds us of one of the main themes of the Gospel of John: eternal life doesn't begin on the far side of the grave but on this side, fueled by an encounter with the divine.