The scripture, "He is not God of the dead, but of the living," was the springboard for today's sermon, but it will lead us into several distantly related terrains; it is a sermon in two parts, the one today dealing with the physical body, and next week dealing with the "angel" body.
Now, you will have noticed, over the past several months, that I am, in a general way, an historian. I have used these sermons not primarily as a soap box for my own views on matters of spirit, but have also presented many, sometimes conflicting, views taken from contemporary, and historical sources; we have enjoyed large sections of text taken from Martin Luther, William Faulkner, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Aesop, just to name a few, and, of course, our old standby, C.S. Lewis. The sad news is that there will be no C.S. Lewis today; instead we will hear, in its entirety, a sermon written by George MacDonald.
George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a congregational minister cum novelist and short story writer: one of a group of 19th century writers who explored the world of fantasy and magic. MacDonald's work has been the inspiration for many 20th century writers of fantasy, such as W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L'Engle, but his chief disciple was good old C.S. Lewis. The fantasies of MacDonald and Lewis are journeys into an astral plane of dreamlike, fairyland realities evoked by the ancient magic; and yet there is always a clear and compelling Christian resonance. Indeed, it is the broadminded acceptance of religious principles and expressions, taken from outside the mainstream of conventional Christian thought, that drew me to C.S. Lewis in the first place; and you will be able to identify some of this broadmindedness in the MacDonald sermon I am about to read.
Now, the scriptures:
23The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question,
24saying, "Teacher, Moses said, 'If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.'
25Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother.
26So too the second and third, down to the seventh.
27After them all, the woman died.
28In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her."
29But Jesus answered them, "You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.
30For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.
31And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God:
32 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not God of the dead, but of the living."
33And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.
18Then come unto him the Sadducees, which say there is no resurrection; and they asked him, saying,
19Master, Moses wrote unto us, If a man's brother die, and leave his wife behind him, and leave no children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother.
20Now there were seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed.
21And the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: and the third likewise.
22And the seven had her, and left no seed: last of all the woman died also.
23In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? for the seven had her to wife.
24And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God?
25For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.
26And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?
27He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.
27 Then came to him certain of the Sadducees, which deny that there is any resurrection; and they asked him,
28 Saying , Master, Moses wrote unto us, If any man's brother die , having a wife, and he die without children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother.
29 There were therefore seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and died without children.
30 And the second took her to wife, and he died childless. 31 And the third took her; and in like manner the seven also: and they left no children, and died .
32 Last of all the woman died also.
33 Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them is she ? for seven had her to wife.
34 And Jesus answering said unto them, The children of this world marry , and are given in marriage :
35 But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry , nor are given in marriage :
36 Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.
37 Now that the dead are raised , even Moses shewed at the bush, when he calleth the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.
38 For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living : for all live unto him.
39 Then certain of the scribes answering said , Master, thou hast well said .
40 And after that they durst not ask him any question at all.
Now begins the Sermon by George MacDonald, largely without interruption:
The God of The Living
He is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him.--ST LUKE 20: 38.
It is a recurring cause of perplexity in our Lord's teaching, that he is too simple for us; that while we are questioning with ourselves about the design of Solomon's earring upon some gold-plated door of the temple, he is speaking about the foundations of Mount Zion, yea, of the earth itself, upon which it stands.
Hear my first interruption: This startling opening "he is too simple for us" resonates with a point I have made repeatedly: Jesus is always giving us down-to-earth, how-to-live advice. His words can be kind of like a crystal ball that you can look into, and get lost in, but the bottom line of His teaching is always pretty much right up front. Jesus' commitment to Earth, to Peace on Earth, to Heaven on Earth, is foremost. One wonders if there was not an anti-intellectual strain running through Jesus--there must have been if He so highly prized innocence. Anyway, this opening points to the focus of MacDonald's sermon--the immediate, obvious, physical.
If the reader of the Gospel supposes that our Lord was here using a verbal argument with the Sadducees, namely, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; therefore they are," he will be astonished that no Sadducee was found with courage enough to reply: "All that God meant was to introduce himself to Moses as the same God who had aided and protected his fathers while they were alive, saying, I am he that was the God of thy fathers. They found me faithful. Thou, therefore, listen to me, and thou too shalt find me faithful unto the death."
But no such reply suggested itself even to the Sadducees of that day, for their eastern nature could see argument beyond logic.
I love this remark about the eastern mind's ability to transcend logic--it's all in the language, I'm sure.
Shall God call himself the God of the dead, of those who were alive once, but whom he either could not or would not keep alive? Is that the Godhood, and its relation to those who worship it? The changeless God of an ever-born and ever-perishing torrent of life; of which each atom cries with burning heart, My God! and straightway passes into the Godless cold! "Trust in me, for I took care of your fathers once upon a time, though they are gone now. Worship and obey me, for I will be good to you for threescore years and ten, or thereabouts; and after that, when you are not, and the world goes on all the same without you, I will call myself your God still." God changes not. Once God he is always God. If he has once said to a man, "I am thy God, and that man has died the death of the Sadducee's creed," then we have a right to say that God is the God of the dead.
"And wherefore should he not be so far the God of the dead, if during the time allotted to them here, he was the faithful God of the living?" What Godlike relation can the ever-living, life-giving, changeless God hold to creatures who partake not of his life, who have death at the very core of their being, are not worth their Maker's keeping alive? To let his creatures die would be to change, to abjure his Godhood, to cease to be that which he had made himself. If they are not worth keeping alive, then his creating is a poor thing, and he is not so great, nor so divine as even the poor thoughts of those his dying creatures have been able to imagine him. But our Lord says, "All live unto him." With Him death is not. Thy life sees our life, O Lord. All of whom all can be said, are present to thee. Thou thinkest about us, eternally more than we think about thee. The little life that burns within the body of this death, glows unquenchable in thy true-seeing eyes. If thou didst forget us for a moment then indeed death would be. But unto thee we live. The beloved pass from our sight, but they pass not from thine.
This that we call death, is but a form in the eyes of men. It looks something final, an awful cessation, an utter change. It seems not probable that there is anything beyond. But if God could see us before we were, and make us after his ideal, that we shall have passed from the eyes of our friends can be no argument that he beholds us no longer. "All live unto Him." Let the change be ever so great, ever so imposing; let the unseen life be ever so vague to our conception, it is not against reason to hope that God could see Abraham, after his Isaac had ceased to see him; saw Isaac after Jacob ceased to see him; saw Jacob after some of the Sadducees had begun to doubt whether there ever had been a Jacob at all. He remembers them; that is, he carries them in his mind: he of whom God thinks, lives.
I want to emphasize this point: we exist in the Mind of God, hence our Divine Identity is merged with His in a glorious synthesis of matter and spirit. None of the succeeding arguments mean anything without this in mind.
He takes to himself the name of Their God. The Living One cannot name himself after the dead; when the very Godhead lies in the giving of life. Therefore they must be alive. If he speaks of them, remembers his own loving thoughts of them, would he not have kept them alive if he could; and if he could not, how could he create them? Can it be an easier thing to call into life than to keep alive?
"But if they live to God, they are aware of God. And if they are aware of God, they are conscious of their own being: Whence then the necessity of a resurrection?"
For their relation to others of God's children in mutual revelation; and for fresh revelation of God to all.--But let us inquire what is meant by the resurrection of the body. "With what body do they come?"
Surely we are not required to believe that the same body is raised again. That is against science, common sense, Scripture. St Paul represents the matter quite otherwise. One feels ashamed of arguing such a puerile point. Who could wish his material body which has indeed died over and over again since he was born, never remaining for one hour composed of the same matter, its endless activity depending upon its endless change, to be fixed as his changeless possession, such as it may then be, at the moment of death, and secured to him in worthless identity for the ages to come? A man's material body will be to his consciousness at death no more than the old garment he throws aside at night, intending to put on a new and a better in the morning. To desire to keep the old body seems to me to argue a degree of sensual materialism excusable only in those pagans who in their Elysian fields could hope to possess only such a thin, fleeting, dreamy, and altogether funebrial existence, that they might well long for the thicker, more tangible bodily being in which they had experienced the pleasures of a tumultuous life on the upper world. As well might a Christian desire that the hair which has been shorn from him through all his past life should be restored to his risen and glorified head.
Yet not the less is the doctrine of the Resurrection gladdening as the sound of the silver trumpet of its visions, needful as the very breath of life to our longing souls. Let us know what it means, and we shall see that it is thus precious.
Let us first ask what is the use of this body of ours. It is the means of Revelation to us, the camera in which God's eternal shows are set forth. It is by the body that we come into contact with Nature, with our fellow-men, with all their revelations of God to us. It is through the body that we receive all the lessons of passion, of suffering, of love, of beauty, of science. It is through the body that we are both trained outwards from ourselves, and driven inwards into our deepest selves to find God. There is glory and might in this vital evanescence, this slow glacier-like flow of clothing and revealing matter, this ever uptossed rainbow of tangible humanity. It is no less of God's making than the spirit that is clothed therein.
We cannot yet have learned all that we are meant to learn through the body. How much of the teaching even of this world can the most diligent and most favoured man have exhausted before he is called to leave it! Is all that remains to be lost? Who that has loved this earth can but believe that the spiritual body of which St Paul speaks will be a yet higher channel of such revelation? The meek who have found that their Lord spake true, and have indeed inherited the earth, who have seen that all matter is radiant of spiritual meaning, who would not cast a sigh after the loss of mere animal pleasure, would, I think, be the least willing to be without a body, to be unclothed without being again clothed upon. Who, after centuries of glory in heaven, would not rejoice to behold once more that patient-headed child of winter and spring, the meek snowdrop? In whom, amidst the golden choirs, would not the vision of an old sunset wake such a song as the ancient dwellers of the earth would with gently flattened palm hush their throbbing harps to hear?
All this revelation, however, would render only a body necessary, not this body. The fulness of the word Resurrection would be ill met if this were all. We need not only a body to convey revelation to us, but a body to reveal us to others. The thoughts, feelings, imaginations which arise in us, must have their garments of revelation whereby shall be made manifest the unseen world within us to our brothers and sisters around us; else is each left in human loneliness. Now, if this be one of the uses my body served on earth before, the new body must be like the old. Nay, it must be the same body, glorified as we are glorified, with all that was distinctive of each from his fellows more visible than ever before. The accidental, the nonessential, the unrevealing, the incomplete will have vanished. That which made the body what it was in the eyes of those who loved us will be tenfold there. Will not this be the resurrection of the body? of the same body though not of the same dead matter? Every eye shall see the beloved, every heart will cry, "My own again!--more mine because more himself than ever I beheld him!" For do we not say on earth, "He is not himself to-day," or "She looks her own self;" "She is more like herself than I have seen her for long"? And is not this when the heart is glad and the face is radiant? For we carry a better likeness of our friends in our hearts than their countenances, save at precious seasons, manifest to us.
Who will dare to call anything less than this a resurrection? Oh, how the letter killeth! There are who can believe that the dirt of their bodies will rise the same as it went down to the friendly grave, who yet doubt if they will know their friends when they rise again. And they call that believing in the resurrection!
What! shall a man love his neighbour as himself, and must he be content not to know him in heaven? Better be content to lose our consciousness, and know ourselves no longer. What! shall God be the God of the families of the earth, and shall the love that he has thus created towards father and mother, brother and sister, wife and child, go moaning and longing to all eternity; or worse, far worse, die out of our bosoms? Shall God be God, and shall this be the end?
Ah, my friends! what will resurrection or life be to me, how shall I continue to love God as I have learned to love him through you, if I find he cares so little for this human heart of mine, as to take from me the gracious visitings of your faces and forms? True, I might have a gaze at Jesus, now and then; but he would not be so good as I had thought him.
I'm sure that this crack about getting bored with Jesus has a trace of ironic humor in it, but still, it definitely crosses some line in terms of 19th century English dogmatics. It seems to raise the point that we are all, even Jesus, creations of a single conscious entity, and in that cosmic Mind, we are all equally real and equally loved.
And how should I see him if I could not see you? God will not take you, has not taken you from me to bury you out of my sight in the abyss of his own unfathomable being, where I cannot follow and find you, myself lost in the same awful gulf. No, our God is an unveiling, a revealing God. He will raise you from the dead, that I may behold you; that that which vanished from the earth may again stand forth, looking out of the same eyes of eternal love and truth, holding out the same mighty hand of brotherhood, the same delicate and gentle, yet strong hand of sisterhood, to me, this me that knew you and loved you in the days gone by. I shall not care that the matter of the forms I loved a thousand years ago has returned to mingle with the sacred goings on of God's science, upon that far-off world wheeling its nursery of growing loves and wisdoms through space; I shall not care that the muscle which now sends the ichor through your veins is not formed of the very particles which once sent the blood to the pondering brain, the flashing eye, or the nervous right arm; I shall not care, I say, so long as it is yourselves that are before me, beloved; so long as through these forms I know that I look on my own, on my loving souls of the ancient time; so long as my spirits have got garments of revealing after their own old lovely fashion, garments to reveal themselves to me. The new shall then be dear as the old, and for the same reason, that it reveals the old love.
This passage is of tremendous significance to the creative artist who constantly seeks to clothe spirit in fresh garments, garments whose single purpose is to update the physicalization of spirit in the drifting sands of time, to find a NOW that is subtly different from the preceding NOW.
And in the changes which, thank God, must take place when the mortal puts on immortality, shall we not feel that the nobler our friends are, the more they are themselves;
(This was always a big point in C.S. Lewis. He insisted that, by giving up yourself to God's will, you found found your own true will.)
that the more the idea of each is carried out in the perfection of beauty, the more like they are to what we thought them in our most exalted moods, to that which we saw in them in the rarest moments of profoundest communion, to that which we beheld through the veil of all their imperfections when we loved them the truest?
Lord, evermore give us this Resurrection, like thine own in the body of thy Transfiguration. Let us see and hear, and know, and be seen, and heard, and known, as thou seest, hearest, and knowest. Give us glorified bodies through which to reveal the glorified thoughts which shall then inhabit us, when not only shalt thou reveal God, but each of us shall reveal thee.
Today George MacDonald will pronounce the benediction. Let us pray:
And for this, Lord Jesus, come thou, the child, the obedient God, that we may be one with thee, and with every man and woman whom thou hast made, in the Father.