What is God like?
Reflection on the Gospel Luke 20:27-38
One of my favourite lecturers at theological college was Max Thomas. Dr Thomas was an expert in Orthodox spirituality, and he often enthused about how much Anglicans can learn from our Eastern brothers and sisters.
Max was closely involved in our student lives. Most days he chose to eat lunch with us where his presence provoked lively theological discussion. Even though Max was way ahead of us intellectually, he still needed that kind of interaction.
A year or two after my return to WA, Max was appointed Bishop of Wangaratta in Victoria. It was not a happy appointment. We heard that he was an idiosyncratic bishop, and his clergy were not too sure how to take him.
For example, when he visited a parish on a Sunday, he chose not to robe and lead the service, but to sit in the back row and take notes on the sermon. He told me that the biggest fault in the sermons he heard was that they were not theological enough. By this, Max meant that the preachers did not explore and explain what God is like.
Sermon critique, however, was perhaps not the best form of pastoral care!
Max would have rejoiced in today’s gospel with its lively theological discussion between Jesus and the Sadducees. In this discussion, they refer to the Bible. They discuss subjects relevant to everyday life. Above all, they argue about what God is like.
The Sadducees try to wedge Jesus with their question. If Jesus tries to answer their question, ‘Whose wife is she?’, he will end up contradicting himself because the question is phrased in such a way that there can be no logical answer. If he denies that the seven brothers and their serial wife will be ‘in the resurrection’, the Sadducees have trapped Jesus into agreeing with them that there is no life after death.
But Jesus avoids the wedge. The real issue, he says, is not about sex in the afterlife. The real issue is not even about the afterlife. Nor is the real issue about the extent of the Bible, whether the first five books are the only authoritative ones, as the Sadducees claimed, or whether the prophets and the writings also speak to us of God.
The real issue, says Jesus, is God and what God is like. (Max Thomas’s question!) God’s life and influence extend beyond any of those things. The ‘God of the living’ is the living God, and we all live in God. The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live, because God gives them life and goes on giving them life. ‘Before Abraham was, I AM’, Jesus claimed (John 8:58).
There is no limit to God. God transcends anything human minds can comprehend, and we human beings are embraced by God’s ongoing life. The issue in this passage is not life after death, but life with God, ongoing life, life now and for ever. The difference is crucial.