Saturday, April 19, 2008

5 Easter

April 20, 2008
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND

Acts 7.55-60; John 14.1-14

The Gospel we heard this morning is a familiar one for most of us. This is one of the Gospel readings recommended by the Book of Common Prayer for funerals. In fact, it is, by far, one of the most popular Gospel readings chosen for funerals. There’s little doubt why it is. It is wonderfully appropriate.

In fact, just this past Wednesday, I preached on this same Gospel reading at a funeral, one of three funerals in which I’ve participated in the last two weeks (and I still have one more planned for May 3).

The reason it is so popular is because it truly does give us a wonderful glimpse into what awaits us following our death. This really is the BIG issue in our lives. We might not give it a lot of conscious thought, but no doubt most of us have pondered at some time in our lives, what awaits us following our death.

The part we no doubt concentrate on in today’s Gospel are Jesus’ words “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Traditionally, we have heard the word “mansions” used here, and I have never been shy in saying that I have always enjoyed the word “mansions.” I believe that these dwelling places awaiting us are truly the equivalent of mansions for us.

But the part we sometimes overlook in this scripture is Jesus’ even more wonderful words “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is really just another way of saying what we heard in last week’s Gospel when he said, “I am the Gate through which the sheep enter the pastures.” Over the history of Christianity, many people have used and abused the words of Jesus from today’s Gospel; using it to prove their point that Jesus is saying that only Christians get to go to heaven.

That is not quite what Jesus is saying here, however. What he is, in fact, saying is that, he is the way because he is the incarnate God—because he is God who has come to us and become one with us. In Jesus, because of his incarnation, we now know the way to God because we know God. Through Jesus, we truly get to know and experience God. In Jesus, we see God. He is the very image of God.

That is, of course, a huge statement of faith to make. But to say that God became flesh—that God actually took on flesh like our flesh—and lived like we live, and, just as importantly, died like we all must die—that really is a great and wonderful way, a truth way, to life.

For some people Jesus saying he was the Way, the Truth and the Life was, quite simply, blasphemous. It certain was blasphemous to those people who dragged Stephen out and stoned him to death in our reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. But Stephen understood the fact that Jesus was God. He looked up into heaven and was allowed a vision, in which he saw Jesus in the glory of God. And with his last words, he prayed to Jesus,

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

This is the first recorded prayer to Jesus in the scriptures. And it is the most beautiful and most honest prayer we can pray to him.

So this, morning, in both our Gospel reading and our reading from Acts, we are confronted with visions. In our Gospel, Jesus allows us to see that beautiful house that belongs to his Father, and how in that house, we have a place prepared for us. In Acts, we see, with Stephen, the glory of God and Jesus standing there. It is glorious to be able to look ahead and see what awaits us. It is wonderful to be able to see the joys and beauty of our place with Jesus in heaven.

Still, knowing full well what awaits us, having been given glimpses into that glorious place that lies just beyond our vision, we still find ourselves digging in our heels when we have to face the fact of our own dying.

I teach a class called Suffering and Christian Healing. The other night, we were discussing the issue of dying. I realized as we talked, that there are a lot of books out there about the process of dying—there are books on what we will experience if we receive a terminal diagnosis, there are books on how to manage pain, there are books on facing psychologically and emotionally the process of dying.

But there are few books that teach us actually about dying itself, from a spiritual point of view. I remember once reading a book by the Roman Catholic saint, Alphonsus de Liguori, about how to die what he called a “happy death.” A happy death was not a death free of pain or suffering necessarily. A happy death was dying in the Presence of God. A happy death is a holy death.

St. Alphonsus wrote,

“If, when death comes, we are found in the grace of God, oh with what joy shall we say: ‘I have secured all; I can never again lose God, I shall be happy forever!’”

He even composed a prayer to Jesus to obtain a happy death. He prayed,

“My Lord Jesus Christ, through the bitterness you suffered on the cross, when Your blessed soul was separated from Your sacred body, have pity on my soul, when it shall depart from my body, and shall enter into your glorious eternity.”[1]

This is one of the things I think we can all admire about the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Church actually ponders and prays about dying. In the Roman Church, there are prayers one can pray so one can die a happy and holy death—a death in which one can find consolation and peace with God as one dies. There is even a patron saint for a happy death—St. Joseph, the same saint, strangely enough, that one invokes when one is trying to sell a house.

I recently read a wonderful story about a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Every day, when the monastery bell rang at 11:00, Father Placidus would bow his head and quietly pray. When asked why he did that, he said, “I pray the Ultima.” The Ultima was a beautiful Latin prayer to the Virgin Mary that he prayed every day at 11:00:

Ultima in mortis hora
Filium pro nobis ora
Bonam mortem impetra
Virgo Mater Dominia

At death’s last hour,
To your son pray for us,
A good death ask for us,
O Virgin Mother, Our Lady.

This kind of thinking might seem a bit strange to us non Roman Catholics. We just aren’t used to thinking about such a thing as a “happy death” or a “good death.” The whole idea seems like some kind of oxymoron. “Happy” and “death” just don’t go together in way of our thinking.
But it is a good thing to think about occasionally. Certainly there are few books to teach us non-Roman Catholics about how to die a happy and holy death. As a priest, I can say that I have known many people who, when faced with their deaths, simply don’t know how to die and don’t know how to look at their dying as a way of moving into God’s presence. And even fewer know how to prepare themselves spiritually for dying.

What few Episcopalians and Anglicans know is that there have actually been Anglicans who have set an example for us about holy dying. Jeremy Taylor, the great 17th century Anglican Bishop, wrote a wonderful book called Holy Living. In it, he prayed to God:

“Give me grace to live a holy life, and thy favour, that I may die a godly and happy death.”

Taylor also wrote another great book called The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying. For Taylor, the first way to prepare for a holy death is to always remind ourselves that we are going to die. Taylor wrote, “Always look for death, every day knocking at the gates of the grave.”

This kind of thinking isn’t meant to be morbid or unpleasant. It’s simply meant to remind us that we are mortal. We will die one day. But rather than despairing over that fact, we should use it as an opportunity to draw closer to God. We should use it as an opportunity to live a more holy life. And hopefully, living a more holy life, we can pray at that last moment—that holy moment—with true conviction, that wonderful prayer of St. Stephen, the first martyr:

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

Although it’s probably not the most pleasant thought to have that we are going to die, I think it is important to think about occasionally. The reason we should think about it—and the reason we shouldn’t despair in thinking about it—is because, for a Christian, dying is not a horrible thought.

Dying is not a reason to fear. Because, by dying, we do come to life everlasting—life with end. By dying, we come to meet Jesus and Jesus comes to meet us. And although we, at this moment, can’t imagine it as being a “happy” or “holy” moment, the fact is, it will be. It will be the holiest moment of our life and it will be the happiest moment of our life.

For Stephen, who died abused, in pain, bleeding from those sharp stones that fell upon him, it was a happy and holy moment when he looked up and saw Jesus waiting for him. He was happy because he knew he would soon be received by Jesus and it was holy because, at that moment, his faith was fulfilled.

That place toward which we are headed—that place in God’s house, in that place with Jesus—we will find our true home. We all know the traditional hymn “Jerusalem, my happy home.” It is a beautiful hymn with, yet again, that wonderful word “happy.”

Jerusalem, my happy home,

when shall I come to thee?

When shall my sorrows have an end?

Thy joys when shall I see?

Thy saints are crowned with glory great;

they see God face to face;

they triumph still, they still rejoice

most happy is their case.

Heaven—the new Jerusalem—is truly our happy home, the place toward which we are wandering around, searching. And we will not find our rest until we rest there, and we will not be fully and completely happy until we are surrounded by the happiness there.

So, let us look forward to that new Jerusalem, to that place in which Jesus has prepared a place for us. It awaits us. It there, right at this moment, just beyond our vision. Let us look to it with joy and let us live in joy until we can go there.


[1] St. Alphonsus de Liguori, The Incarnation Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ


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