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Thursday, May 19, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, I Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

There is discussion going on in various religious circles these days about the nature of (or perhaps even absence of) heaven and hell. Part of that discussion can motivate us to think about where we find God and where the life of faith finds its fullest expression. Are we often looking over the fence (beyond the veil) when God is standing right in our midst. Someone once said (I forget who), “All the way to heaven is heaven.” Now I certainly don’t experience life on that plane every moment of every day, but I believe a central part of Jesus’ teaching directed us to the presence of the fulness of divine love right here in every present moment of our lives. Don’t stand looking into the skies. Get connected and live in heaven right now. Paul Tillich talked about it as “The Eternal Now.”

This week’s readings can be part of that continuing discussion.

From Acts we have the story the stoning of Stephen. Saul (whom we know better as Paul) was present. He had not yet had his Damascus Road encounter with a blinding light. He was known as a persecutor of the followers of Jesus. We are told in Acts 8:3 that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” I’m sure this story about the stoning of Stephen is included because of Saul’s presence. He is mentioned in Acts 7:58 as the one before whom “the witnesses laid their coats.” The next verse after this week’s reading says, “And Saul approved of their killing him.”

What impact do you suppose all this had on Saul’s psyche? Here was a person (Stephen) who was not in the least intimidated by the power of Rome. After being arrested, he preached a long sermon reviewing the history of persecution faced by God’s prophets, another reason for including his story. Not one to mince words, he concluded by saying, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53) That was certainly enough to stir up this already not very friendly crowd.

The story calls us to think about what’s worth dying for, where we are ready to take a stand. A few nights ago, Margie and I watched the PBS special on the “Freedom Riders” that were part of the civil rights movement in the early sixties. Although I wasn’t one of the original freedom riders, I traveled through the south during that era—in a car shared by black and white together as we did what we saw to be the work of the church. I will never forget stopping at restaurants in rural Mississippi nor the always present local sheriff in each place we visited. One scene in the PBS documentary particularly stood out. The Kennedys were trying to get the Freedom Riders to back off, warning them that someone was going to get killed. The riders stated simply and eloquently that they had all signed their wills and knew someone was likely to get killed.

Stephen had that kind of assurance, and this reading from Acts offers one image of heaven and how a person of faith can die. Even as he was being stoned, it says that Stephen “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55-56) His words echo those of Jesus on the cross: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (vss. 59-60)

The reading from Psalm 31, a prayer for escape (vss. 1-4) which includes Jesus’ words of surrender on the cross: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” (vs. 5) The attention seems to be as much upon the spirit of dying as it is on the place to which one is going. A good death is seen as standing strong in the face of threat, trusting (surrendering) to the supportive presence of God’s Spirit, and letting go of all grudges (i.e., dying with forgiveness on one’s lips). Pretty heavy stuff, but stuff to think about as we consider the meaning of life and death.

The Gospel reading from John, contains an image of heaven that is often read at funerals. In whatever tradition the writer of the Gospel According to John has received (and wishes to pass on), he associates these words with Jesus. In these verses, Jesus speaks of heaven as a place with mansions, or dwelling places, or rooms—a place he has gone to prepare for us. (John 14:2-3) A separate room for each one of us? For each of our divided earthly religious groups?

I believe, instead, that the overall thrust of these verses is upon the reality of our continued communion/fellowship with Jesus (or his Spirit). There is a place for us wherever he is or will be. When Thomas is puzzled, Jesus reminds him that he himself represents all that one can hope for in heaven. In him, we are as close to God as we ever need to be. “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him . . . Whoever has seen me has seen the Father . . . Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (vss. 7-11) Even the opening verse of the chapter, which may provide the topic sentence, says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (vs. 1) Don’t worry. God (and I) will be with you wherever I am, wherever you are. Is the house with its many rooms simply a metaphor for a place where we can live together in intimacy with one another and God?

The “I Am” statement in these verses shows that we are not dealing with “heaven” in a narrow, otherworldly, way. Jesus doesn’t say simply, “I am the way to a life of ease beyond this earth eternally.” He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” the “way” being a common term for describing the life Jesus’ disciples expressed in their living on earth. Jesus came to show how “life” is to be lived, how heaven is all around us if we just see it and believe it and live into it.

If we wanted to dig into more difficult sayings, we could try to unpack the statement that has Jesus saying, “those who believe in me will do greater works than I do.” (vs. 14) Or, we could consider verses 13 & 14 about his doing whatever is asked in his name. The operative word, of course, is “in my name.”

Those are discussions for another time, except to say that the emphasis upon greater works may just refer to the fact that it is through us that his works accumulate through the ages. The work of heaven is continued through us. “All the way to heaven is heaven.”

Last week’s blog emphasized some images of that life together to which we are called on this earth. The reading from I Peter offers some more images. First, we are newborn infants needing to “taste” spiritual food so that we grow. (I Peter 2:2-3) How do we taste “that the Lord is good.”

Then the writer moves into the image of building a “spiritual house” from “living stones.” Jesus is “a living stone.” We are “living stones” who are to let ourselves “be built into a spiritual house.” Then Jesus is the cornerstone. One could spend hours meditating on the various facets of these images, and then putting them to work in the way we live together. These verses always call me to reflect on what kind of a stone I am in the building. What do I bring to the structure that helps build up our ministry together? What do you bring? It takes all us—and then it only works if we are held together, fed by, made strong by Jesus, the cornerstone.

Mixed into the passage are images of race, priesthood, nation, and peoplehood. (vss. 5, 9-10) Some have been misused at times, like “chosen race.” Their intent is to picture a shared identity. If we are to follow Jesus, live heaven on earth, we are called to be part of a movement which shares a vision and a spirit. Our diversity somehow becomes a unity. We are one, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love! It may be a dream some would call pie in the sky. That’s what some have said about heaven all along. It sounds like a good pie to me, so let’s get to baking.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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