Acts 7.55-60; John 14.1-14
+ As you were coming into church this morning I was trying to take account of who isn’t here this morning. I’m not taking attendance. I just wanted to see who was taken up in the Rapture that was predicted for yesterday.
I have to admit: these predictions of the “End Times” and conjecture about the end of the world did make me think a bit more than usual about “The End.” Now, I’m not certain about when or how the world will end. But I do know this—the world is going to end for each one of us one day. By that I mean, every one of us is going to die one day. I know that’s shocking for some of us, but it is a fact. But before we despair over such things, we should probably remind ourselves what our scriptures this morning said.
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. 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. I don’t believe that they’re actual mansion, mind you. I think Jesus is being very poetic in his description. But I think what he conveys is that God will provide something beautiful and wonderful for us.
And in our reading from Acts this morning, we get to catch an even clearer view of that beautiful and wonderful something that awaits us. In Acts we find our own dear, patron saint, St. Stephen, being dragged out by an angry mob and stoned to death. It’s certainly not pretty. But in the midst of that violence and anger, we find St. Stephen having a glorious vision. He looks up into heaven and is allowed a vision, in which he sees Jesus in the glory of God. And with his last words, he prays 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 St. Stephen could’ve prayed. So this, morning, in both our Gospel reading and our reading from Acts, we are confronted with glorious visions.
Now neither of them are as stupendous as the Rapture. But there is something wonderful in being 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 God 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.
As you know, I teach a class called Suffering and Christian Healing at the University of Mary. One night, we were discussing the issue of dying. And 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.
This past week, we here at St. Stephen’s, had our first Film Night. It was arousing success, I have to say. We celebrated a very well attended Eucharist, then had a wonderful supper at Spicy Pie and then went to the film, Of Gods and Men, at the Fargo Theatre. This film was the perfect choice for our first film night. It was, to say the least, a powerful film—one that I still find myself pondering even this many days after.
The story is based on the actual event of the murder of seven Trappist monks n Algeria in May, 1996. In fact, yesterday was the fifteen anniversary of their murders. The final scene (I hope I don’t give too much away to any of you who go and see—and I do recommend you see it) shows the extremist Muslim guerrillas who kidnapped them from their monastery, leading the monks up the mountain through the snow, to the place where they would be murdered. On each face, we know the monks are fully aware of what awaits them. The film, in fact, deals with this issue. They each chose to stay in Algeria, in their monastery, serving those whom they were called to serve, knowing full-well that their staying in Algeria under those uncertain conditions might actually mean death.
In that final scene, there is no dialogue as they walk to the deaths. The camera captures close ups of each monk’s face before it closes with a long shot of the monks and their murderers disappearing into the snow. Each monk appears to be collected. Some are praying. Some are not. But each face is focused on what lies ahead. And although there is sadness, there is shock, there is fear, there is also certainty. There is also resolution. And there are no regrets on any one of those faces.
Certainly, from the perspective of those monks, this was truly a “happy death.” Again, I stress that a happy death does not mean a death without suffering and pain. It simply means a death in which one is collected and is centered on God’s Presence at that moment.
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.
In our Book of Common Prayer, we have a beautiful prayer that is prayed for someone near death. It can be found on page 462. There we find this prayer,
“Almighty God, look your servant, lying in great weakness, and comfort ‘this person’, with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“Comfort ‘this person’ with the promise of life everlasting”
This promise of eternal life, as we have seen in the Resurrection, should truly be a comfort to us, especially in those moments when we fear death. Thinking about our own deaths is isn’t necessarily morbid or unpleasant. It simply reminds us that we are mortal. We will all 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. 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—we will find our true home. Heaven—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 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 are there together. Amen.