Life After?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 — Week of 4 Easter

George, Soldier and Martyr, c. 304

Toyohiko Kagawa, Prophetic Witness in Japan, 1960

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 960)

Psalms 45 (morning) 47, 48 (evening)

Wisdom 3:1-9

Colossians 1:15-23

Luke 6:12-26

For the next two weeks we will be reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, written in Greek by a Hellenized Jew from the diaspora, probably living in Alexandria, Egypt. Scholars date it to around the turn of the first century of the Common Era, contemporaneous with several New Testament writings.

Alexandria was a city with one of the most vigorous and successful Jewish communities, but it also was a place of some of the most serious persecutions of Jews. Anti-Jewish rioting during Caligula’s reign (37-41 CE) was particularly violent. Wisdom seems to have been composed in response to persecution.

If good people, righteous people can be unjustly accused and wrongly condemned to death, where is justice? Such questions are especially poignant in the wake of religious persecution. What is God’s answer to evil? One possible answer is that if there is life after death, God will right all wrongs in that afterlife.

Virtually all of the books in the Hebrew Scripture reflect an assumption that human life ends at death. But following the success of Greek culture after the conquests of Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE), many Jews began to believe in life after death. There were two schools of thought supporting afterlife possibilities: (1) the resurrection of the body, and (2) the immortality of the soul. Conservative Jews such as the party of the Sadducees continued to deny that there was any life after death, following the tradition of the Torah. The Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) is written in this tradition. The Christian New Testament asserts a belief in the resurrection of the body.

The Wisdom of Solomon is among other Jewish writings which assert a belief in the immortality of the soul. We read of that today: “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them…” From their heavenly existence with God, like the stars of the astrologers, these souls “will govern nations and rule over peoples.”

In Colossians we have a beautiful hymn to the cosmic Christ, universal agent of creation. This cosmic Christ has come to earth and reconciled all things in himself. The writer urges his readers to remain steadfast to the teachings they have received, to endure and to be patient. Their reward is secure in the promised bodily resurrection from the dead. The hope that this post-Pauline author commends is a hope for a post-mortem life in heaven. It is a very different kind of hope from that of the undisputed letters from Paul. Paul’s hope is a vigorous, assured expectation of the return of Christ to earth.

Then there is the very earthy hope given to us by Luke in his version of Jesus’ preaching from the Sermon on the Plain. Luke’s account poses the contrast between the present need of the poor and their future abundance. The poor are blessed, favored by God. Jesus adopts the traditional view of the prophets that God cares particularly for the poor. He pictures a reversal of situation, contrasting the future abundance of the poor with the the future depravation of the rich. He imagines similar reversals for the hungry & full; the weeping & laughing; the hated & praised. Jesus spoke of these reversals as characteristics of the coming Kingdom of God which has been initiated in the life and works of Jesus.

So, how does God respond to injustice? There are several answers represented in our tradition today. Some involve possibilities of life after death; some involve changing the conditions of life here on earth.

The classic Christian position has been for us to live within the values of the Kingdom of God here and now and to hope for its fulfillment on earth in the future. Such a life is a steadfast, faithful life. And, we add, we trust in the resurrection of the body after we die. It is also clear that resurrection life and eternal life are qualities of life that we participate in here and now. We know Christ risen from the dead now, and we live in the power of the resurrection to accomplish the values of the Kingdom here and now. The Christian Gospel is mostly focused on life in this world, with a vigorous hope for a coming earthly fulfillment, and a trust in Christ for the resurrection of the body.

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