Easter 5A                                                          St. John, Galveston 5/10/20

“Prepared to Live—Prepared to Die”

Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60

+ In Nomine Jesu +

This morning’s message is based on the first of the three readings for today, from The Book of Acts, chapter 6. It is the record of the martyrdom of St. Stephen who was, as the Scriptures say, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Luke writes, “They stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’  Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’  And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”

Stephen is counted among those referred to by the writer of the Book of Hebrews, when he says, by faith (they) conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy.”

Reginald Heber, who wrote the hymn, “The Son of God Goes Forth to War,” penned verse 2 specifically with St. Stephen in mind. 

“The martyr first, whose eagle eye 

Could pierce beyond the grave,

Who saw his master in the sky

And called on Him to save.

Like Him, with pardon on His tongue

In midst of mortal pain,

He prayed for those who did the wrong

Who follows in his train?”

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen..

It may seem evident that the pastor’s responsibility is to teach people how to live, that is, how a live a moral and upright life in the sight of God and men. His chief responsibility, however, is quite the opposite, it is to teach people how to die! As negative and morbid as that may sound, it’s quite true. The fact is, in one way or another, we’ve all sort of figured out how to live. Granted, some of us have figured it out more successfully and more contentedly and more peacefully than others, but, still, we’ve all sort of figured out how to live and the moral standards we long to live by are inscribed in the fabric of our hearts. 

So, one way or another we’ve all sort of figured out how to live. The art of dying though remains shrouded in mystery and wonder. It is the final portal, the passage from this world into the life of the world to come. While we have a tendency to think of it, at least under stressful times and under adverse circumstances, as a merciful reprieve from the torrents of life, it is, nonetheless, foreign and alien to God’s grand design for His creation. 

It’s said that Christians don’t fear death. That, however, is only partially true. While we don’t fear God’s wrath, since we know that He laid that wrath on His own dear Son, who died in our place and for our sins, we nonetheless, often fear other things about death. We worry about who will care for our loved ones when we’re gone. We worry about our children and who will take care of them. We even worry about whether, or, not we will have left any sort of mark in the world. In five or ten years from now, will people, outside of the immediate context of our own little world, even know that we existed?  

Furthermore, as Christians, even though we know that Christ has saved us from a hellish eternity, we have unique concerns regarding death. One of those concerns regards our faith and the witness of our faith. We want to honor Christ in death even as His Spirit led us to honor Him in life. 

I still recall something my vicarage pastor told me many years ago. Bear with me if you’ve heard this story before. It struck a chord with me and I think it’s quite appropriate to tell it here. He said, “you know, I really don’t like to fly.” Flying frightened him, it made him nervous. He recounted one instance on a plane when the aircraft took a sudden dip in mid-flight, having hit an air pocket, or, something of the sort. You’ve may have experienced something similar while flying. Dressed in his clerical collar, my friend said he remembered praying, “Lord, don’t let me disgrace you in death.” It wouldn’t be good, you know, for a man in clerical garb to run up and down the isle of a plane, screaming, we’re all going to die, we’re all going to die!”

It is our desire to honor Christ in death even as His Spirit led us to honor Him in life. With that desire, we likely cower at the thought of those great men and women of old like Stephen and the other martyrs, who left this world giving unequivocal witness to the grace, and mercy, and goodness of God in Christ Jesus. In Stephen’s case, when the stones struck him, each blow taking him closer and closer to the portal of death, he thought, not of vengeance, but of forgiveness, pleading that God would forgive those who hastened his departure from this world. Without a doubt, Stephen was prepared to die, to die with honor and with grace, as a witness to Christ who taught him how to live and how to die!

I suspect that it is at this point that we all begin to wonder if our faith could take us where Stephen went. In fact, I suspect that it is at this point that we all begin to wonder if our faith is anything at all like the faith that Stephen, or, any of the other martyrs for that matter, possessed. Many of us spend a lifetime envying the faith of others, comparing ourselves to them, wishing we could be more like them, wondering why God doesn’t give us what they had, that kind of assurance, that kind of resolve, that kind of boldness and confidence. It’s here that we might even dispute the premise that “we know how to live as children of God, much less that we know how to die as His children.”                              

After Jesus told His disciples that He wouldn’t be with them much longer and that they should love one another as He loved them, Peter said, “Why can’t I follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake.” At that point, Peter wasn’t anymore ready to lay down his for Jesus than were any of the other disciples.  He only thought He was ready. Jesus said, “Peter, the rooster will not crow until you have denied Me three times.” 

Jesus said to all of them, “Don’t let your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me.” When I go away I’m going to prepare a place for you. And then I’ll come back and take you to be where I am. Thomas, the doubting one said, “Lord, we don’t know where You are going, how can we know the way?” And then Jesus gave His disciples, and us, the answer to the mystery of life and death. He said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” 

Elsewhere Jesus expounded on the life part of that statement. He said, “I have come that you might life and that you might have it abundantly.” Your life, my friends, at least as Jesus speaks of it here in this passage, began when you were born anew in Christ, and just as you didn’t choose to be born the first time, so you didn’t choose to be born the second time. The life you live now is a miracle of God’s grace, for you are a new creation, a man, a woman or a child set apart for God’s own purpose, born by Water and the Word.    

And what is so amazing, what is so comforting to our oft troubled hearts, is that our new birth in Christ doesn’t depend at all on whether or not we, you, feel like God’s child, whether or not you feel capable of living as one who is set apart in a world of sin and death. The fact is, you are set apart, you are chosen by the grace and mercy of God. And, if He chose you by grace, He will then also empower you to live by that same grace. 

And then, when in time the test that separates men and boys comes into your life, when death beckons, when it knocks at the door, whether by violence, or, by so called “natural causes,” you will answer with the honor and the grace that Christ will give you on that day. And you will be counted among the company of angels and archangels, even among those who left this world bearing the venerable title of “martyr.”     

In a very real sense, it is my responsibility, my calling, not so much to teach you how to live, but to teach you how to die. Stephen, when those stones were hurled, when his body began to quake and the darkness closed in on him, said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” What better preparation is there for death than to commend our bodies and souls to the One who is “The Way, the Truth and the Life,” who has “gone to prepare a place for us,” and who has, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself, “defeated death and the grave?”    

“A noble army of men and boys,

The matron and the maid,

Around the Savior’s throne rejoice,

In robes of light arrayed.

They climbed the steep ascent of heaven

Through peril, toil and pain.

O God, to us may grace be given

To follow in their train!”

In name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +