May 14, 2017
Acts 7.55-60; John 14.1-14
+ As you know, I do a lot of funerals. A lot! In the almost nine years I’ve been at St. Stephen’s, I’ve done 70 funerals for St. Stephen’s. Now to be clear, most of those people have not been parishioners. I do a lot of funerals for people I do not know, for my own family members, for anyone who needs a funeral. And those 70 funerals are just for those whom we’ve buried form St. Stephen’s. That does not include all the funerals I did before I got here, the funerals I’ve done for other churches.
So, I do a lot of funerals. That’s not a complaint. It’s always—always—an honor for me to do funerals. And, as I say at funerals, whether they are for people I know or do not know, I end forming a kind of spiritual bond with those people whom we commemorate.
The Gospel we hear this morning is one we heard very often at funerals. After all, it 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.
If I had a dollar for every time I preached a funeral sermon on this scripture…well, I’d have at least $70.
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 it, we find our own 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, if you notice, is the first post-Ascension prayer to Jesus in the scriptures. And it was controversial.
(How appropriate that our patron saint should do something that would be considered controversial).
Praying to Jesus—in addition to Yahweh—would have been just one more reason for overly zealous religious people of that day, and at that time, to reign down rocks upon Stephen. But despite that, 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 is 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.
When I was a teenager, I read 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. Fearing death at times is all right. It’s natural. It’s the ultimate mystery for us (outside of God, that is).
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.”
Now that prayer is not controversial for us. In fact, that is the prayer would should always keep close.
After all, as we hear in our gospel reading for today, Jesus makes the very bold claim that he is the “Way.” This sounds very much an echo to last week’s Gospel reading in which he tells us he is the “gate.” But this time, he doesn’t end there. He goes on to say that he is also “the truth” and “the life.”
How refreshing to hear those words this morning? If any of us have been listening to the news these past couple of weeks—especially in these last few days— to hear anything about “truth”—real “truth”—seems like a cool breeze in the desert. It’s easy to despair over all the lies or rumors of lies that are swirling about.
But, for us, truth is essential. For us as Christians, truth is equivalent with life, is equivalent with moving forward along the way that is Jesus. And for us, lies and deceit and half-truths or “alternate truths” are not options for us. In the light of Jesus being the Truth—capital T—there are no alternate truths.
Yes, we’re all guilty of lies on occasion, or half-truths, or white lies. But living without truth, living in lies, living in a reality we have created for ourselves—that is not an option for us as Christians. And heeding others who lie or deceive or bear false witness is not an option or us either.
It’s simple sometimes. There is truth, and anything that isn’t truth, isn’t true. I’m going to repeat that. There is truth, and anything that isn’t truth, isn’t true.
To gain Life—to gain that life that God wants from us—we must follow the Way, in Truth. That is vitally important for us right now, right here, while we are alive. It also just as important for us as we pass from this life. And I think it’s so very appropriate that this Gospel reading is one of those readings that are so popular at Episcopal funerals.
Hearing Jesus say to us that he is the “Way, the Truth and the Life” and that it is through these that we come to God, is essential. It is essential to this life. And it is essential to leaving this life.
I know. It’s probably not the most pleasant thought to have that we are going to die. But I do 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 despair or fear. As we know, it is NEVER an option for us, as followers of Jesus, to fear or despair. So, even death is not something 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 more of us knew that there was such a thing as a happy or holy death. I wish more people knew how to die. But, we really do know. It is there for those who live in truth and love.
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, with St. Stephen, to it with joy. And let us live in joy until we are there together. Amen.