I want you to forget about life after life, put it right out of your mind and do not give it another thought. Don’t get me wrong: I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. I believe with all my heart, and I want you to believe also. Why? Because—and I want you to jump in with me when you catch on—“God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Believe it, rest you heart on it, live every moment of your life out of it . . . and put it out of your mind.
Why put it out of your mind? Because God has it all taken care of, and there is nothing for you to think about or worry about or agonize about. Rest your heart in the assurance of this truth, and let God take care of it.
- Be like Job, who said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
- Be like the Psalmist, who said, “Wondrously show your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand. Guard me as the apple of [your] eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.”
- Be like Paul, who said, “God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Rest your heart in the assurance of these truths, and do not give the first thought to life after life.
What I want you to think about instead is death before death. The poet Rumi wrote,
Die in this love!
If you die in this love
your soul will be renewed
Don’t fear the death
of that which is known
If you die to the temporal
you will become timeless
Cut off those chains
that hold you prisoner
to the world of attachment
Die to the deathless
and you will be eternal
and come out of this cloud
When you leave the cloud
you will be in the effulgent moon
Die to the din and the noise
of mundane concerns
In the silence of love
you will find the spark of life
Let life after life take care of itself. Be like Rumi and take up the practice of death before death.
There are two ways to achieve death before death: one is the way of the Sadducees, the other is the way of Christ. Choose the way of Christ.
No one really knows much about the Sadducees. We think they were the upper class of their time and place, a relatively wealthy and influential group of men. They might have been influential in the current events, politics, and religious concerns of their day. In their political, social, and religious roles, they were often responsible for:
- Administering the state domestically
- Representing the state internationally
- Participating in the Sanhedrin, and often encountered the Pharisees there.
- Collecting taxes. These also came in the form of international tribute from Jews in the Diaspora.
- Equipping and leading the army
- Regulating relations with the Romans
- Mediating domestic grievances.
They were among the movers and shakers of their day, and they often took stands on issues—like the afterlife—that were opposed to the Pharisees. Remember that the Pharisees were especially concerned with maintaining ritual purity and righteousness before God. If you look back at the list of concerns that the Sadducees took on—collecting taxes, equipping the army, maintaining relationships with Rome—you can easily see maintaining purity might not have been very high on their list of priorities. These are the things we know about the Sadducees from historical sources.
But we learn a lot about them just from this encounter with Jesus:
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.
Here’s what I learn about the Sadducees from this one encounter with Jesus:
- They were more interested in justifying their own beliefs than in learning from the one whom they sarcastically call “Teacher.”
- They delight in trying to make their opponent, Jesus, “quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word,” rather like those about whom Paul warns the Thessalonians.
- They are preoccupied with control. They know, and Jesus knows, and we know, that they do not care a whit about the afterlife. What they care about is: who will control this woman in the afterlife?
I think of the Sadducees in the much the same way that Charles Dickens describes Ebenezer Scrooge:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
There are two ways to achieve death before death: one is the way of the Sadducees: grasping and grappling, controlling and contorting, squeezing and suffocating.
The other is the way of Christ:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? –Luke 9:23-25
We die to ourselves when we put aside our own concerns and need for self-justification, and become open and teachable, willing to be wrong on order to be teachable, and willing to give up control in order to let others be free.
We die to ourselves when we take up our cross by taking on the suffering of Christ: to be agents of healing and reconciliation, to feel compassion deep in our bellies and take action to relieve suffering, and to live generous, open-handed lives willing to give up our own comforts and privileges to comfort and empower others.
We die to ourselves when we follow Christ into places where we would prefer not to go: places that shake our complacency, disrupt our assumptions, and disarm our defenses. Places where we have to think about things we would just as soon put out of our minds: hunger, homelessness, poverty, sickness, death, the widening gaps between the poor and wealthy, the well-educated and barely literate, the overly pampered and underserved.
The poet Rumi says, “Die! Die! Die to the din and the noise of mundane concerns. In the silence of love you will find the spark of life!”
So don’t worry about life after life. God has that taken care of. Think instead about Death before death. Die a little every day. Die in the way of Christ For indeed, those who die in the way of Christ cannot die anymore, because [we] are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. Amen.
Let us pray: God of the resurrection, may we ever rest our hearts in the assurance of eternal life. May we be willing to die a little every day so that others might live. Amen.