Proper 27

November 11, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Reading 2: 
Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21
Reading 3: 
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Reading 4: 
Luke 20:27-38
By Russell Pregeant

Although process theologians disagree on the issue of subjective immortality (the survival of the individual person after death as an experiencing subject), they are firmly united in the affirmation of objective immortality (the retention of all experience in the everlasting life of God). And the function of such an affirmation is to insure the meaningfulness of life. To say that our lives are forever retained in the life of God is to say that they have eternal significance, that the experiences we have and the decisions we make are not in vain but count for something in the ultimate scheme of things. Objective immortality is thus in a sense the “bottom line,” without which subjective immortality would lose its significance. If we live forever only to have our experiences perish along the way, their significance is limited to the moment.

The passage from Luke is a strong affirmation of both types of immortality. Jesus uses the designation of God as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” in the story of the burning bush to support his contention that God is the God of the living rather than of the dead. And this means that for God, “all of them are alive.” In context, this is an affirmation of the resurrection of the dead (hence subjective immortality) against the Sadducees, who have tried to trap him by posing a conundrum regarding a woman who has had seven husbands serially. But Jesus’ answer focuses ultimately not on the matter of individual survival but on God. The most basic affirmation is that the dead are alive to God, which has more to do with objective immortality than subjective. It is God who gives life, who preserves life, and in whom all life has its ultimate significance.

The story also makes the point that life in the resurrection has a very different character than life in the present. The Sadducees’ conundrum hinges upon their projection of earthly social arrangements into the future life. Jesus’ refutation challenges this projection, however, and in doing so it combines with the affirmation of resurrection to remind us that the earthly-historical plane of existence is not all that there is for persons of faith. The emphasis in progressive religious circles upon the hope for justice in this life is an important corrective to the “pie-in-the-sky” theology that has all too often blunted the Bible’s prophetic challenges to unjust social structures. But progressives should beware of putting all their eggs in the historical basket. Even if we were to achieve a just world in our lifetime, we would still have to reckon with all the injustices of the past and with the tragic lives of all those who have suffered and even died for just causes without seeing much realization of their visions. Unless the tragedy of unfulfilled hope is somehow addressed on the supra-historical plane, we are left with a fragmentary and ultimately unsatisfactory answer to this basic human problem.

The passage from Haggai contrasts with the Lucan passage by virtue of its exclusive focus on the historical scene. The prophet is concerned with the rebuilding of the Temple following the Babylonian Exile, which he interprets as a momentous act of God that will “shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land” and “the nations” as well. To the prophet, the restoration of Temple worship meant God’s faithfulness to the promise made at the exodus from Egypt and was therefore a matter of God’s justice. So here we have the other half of the matter. To believe that in God all things are in some sense made well should never become an excuse to grow weary in the quest for justice, and neither should it compromise the essential belief that God is at work in the world, seeking to subvert the tyranny of empires and to empower the powerless.

Many scholars regard 2 Thessalonians as a pseudonymous letter, written in the generation after Paul, to enlist Paul’s authority in combating a particular teaching with respect to eschatological expectations. And most identify this teaching as a claim that the final events associated with Christ’s return and the end of the age had already begun. On this reading, the letter works within an apocalyptic framework, specifying in 2:3-4 what must take place before the end, in order to combat an interpretation of the apocalyptic scenario that is apparently causing disruption in the church.

Ironically, however, the passage that was intended to calm down persons imbued with eschatological fervor, can—precisely by enumerating the events that must precede the end—feed the fires of such fervor in our own day of television evangelists. It is therefore important, in preaching from a passage such as this, to call attention to its original purpose. And it would seem equally important, from a progressive perspective, to dig beneath the whole apocalyptic framework in order to get in touch with the more basic value-system that supports it—i.e., the hope for peace and justice that has led many in our own time, under the influence of liberation theology, to speak of apocalyptic writings as “the literature of the oppressed.” For it is precisely the emphasis upon peace and justice that gets left out—and, indeed, sometimes flatly contradicted—in the dispensationalist theology of those who stir up eschatological fervor in our time. The emphasis upon futurity in the passage, however, can serve progressive theology in at least two ways: first, as a reminder that God is certainly not satisfied with the unjust structure of the present world; and, second—as a complement to the gospel reading—as an affirmation that what remains unresolved on the historical plane is somehow resolved in the ongoing life of God. We need neither the outrageous fantasies of the so-called “rapture” nor the grotesque images of millions of souls condemned to eternal torture while the blessed shine like the sun to insure that human life has eternal significance.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).