Acts 7.55-60; John 14.1-14
+ On Friday, I received a strange thing in the mail. I received my brother’s death certificate. I actually ordered it a few weeks before. I was curious to see it and to read about what caused my brother’s very premature death last July at age 57.
There were no surprises. He died of a heart attack. He had had, of course, a stroke years before, which was a contributing factor to his death. He had high cholesterol. The regular litany that we hear so much about in our society.
When I showed the certificate to my mother, she shared a story I hadn’t heard before: a story she heard from my niece about my brother’s death. She said that, at some point in his last heart attack, he had a look of absolute fear on his face.
My mother said, “He died just my father”—my grandfather Ted.
They both died frightened. They died uncertain of what was happening to them.
“Yes,” she said, “they just didn’t know how to die.”
It was a very telling comment from my mother.
And the fact is, if I asked you this morning if you knew how to die, would you be able to say you knew. Let’s face it, there’s no classes on how to die. There’s no grand lesson. All we, as followers of Jesus know of dying is this: we know only that he promises us something greater than this.
And we catch a glimpse of that greater something in our Gospel reading for this morning. 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 post-Ascension 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.
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 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 on 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 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.
I wish I could’ve shared all of this with my brother, Jeff. I wish he could’ve know that there was such a thing as a happy or holy death. I wish he had known how to die.
For us, we do know. 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.