From Heaven to Earth
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Death by stoning is a horrible way to die. Yet despite the violence directed against him, Stephen prayed for his enemies. “He knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.” (Acts 7:60) How is this possible?
Hatred is a powerful thing. Cain hated Abel for being more admired by God than himself, so he killed him (Genesis 4:8). King Saul hated David for becoming more popular with the people and tried to kill him every chance he got (1 Samuel 19:19 – 22:23). Saul of Tarsus hated the followers of Jesus because he thought they were blasphemers and heretics and made a career of rounding them up so they could be stoned to death like Stephen (Act 8:1- 9 :18). Horrible self-deception about our own righteousness can be deadly, not to mention the effects it has on families and relationships.
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:1-2). Stephen seems to have taken those words to heart. It changed how he lived. It gave him courage to proclaim the gospel to a hostile crowd. It gave him peace of mind even and love for his neighbor even as he was slowly, painfully, and tragically being murdered.
Today’s scriptures offer a lesson about resiliency and reconciliation. Learning how to repair relationships damaged by hate and violence is not a luxury. Learning forgiveness is the way we reclaim what hate and fear have taken from us, and restore the love, kindness, and trust that has been lost between our neighbors and ourselves. Loving one another as we are loved by God is the urgently needed antidote to the loneliness, which the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, this week has said plagues us and our society.
Jesus says we are to love our enemies and to pray for them. It’s a tall order. Jesus lived this kind of life and Stephen dwelled with him. Even now, Jesus lives this kind of life toward us and in us, so that the way of forgiveness and reconciliation is possible for us too.
This is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home (monē) with them” (14:23). Jesus in the gospel of John tells us this over and over again. The little verb “meno” appears 69 times. It means to “stay,” “remain,” “abide,” or “dwell.” Jesus is on a mission to reveal the hidden source of his glory is that he abides in the Father and the Father in him. Jesus invites us to do the same. As we come to dwell in God, God’s love and light comes to dwell in us.
No doubt, recent generations of Christians will hear this promise and think of ‘going to heaven.’ But Jesus, in the Gospel of John, is pointing to something different, the mutual indwelling of God and human beings. The “many dwelling places” Jesus prepared through suffering and death on the cross is the advent of God’s New Creation beginning now and stretching into eternal life. It’s the very opposite of ‘going to heaven.’ Jesus’ point in the gospel of John is about God coming here and now to make God’s “dwelling place” with you and with everyone who honors Jesus’s way of love in their lives.
The crucial passage for understanding Jesus’ promise to make dwelling places for us, (in John 14:2), is probably John 2:16, the only other place where we find the phrase “my Father’s house,” where Jesus was talking about the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus told those who were selling doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” … The temple leaders said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body.
Upon his death on the cross the barrier between heaven and earth will be broken. Jesus is telling the disciples the location of his father’s house will change from the Temple in Jerusalem to the Body of Christ. Now, the many abiding places in God’s house is each of us. Jesus abides in the Father and the Father in him. Jesus abides in us, and we in him forever. Abiding in God through Christ is what Jesus means by “eternal life.” It might be better translated as “life in God’s new age.” (Paul Nuechterlein, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary). It is the way, the truth, and the life.
It should be obvious this way of life in Jesus cannot be a reason to exclude anyone, whether by race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or immigration status. Not even our enemies can be denied access the living sanctuary of God’s grace. Dwelling in the shelter of God Stephen could see his shared humanity with people even as they murdered him. And what could be more revealing of Jesus’ power to forgive and to heal our bitter, hard-won divisions than the story of Saul who would become Paul?
Scripture says, “The witnesses [to the stoning of Stephen] laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” This is the first mention of the great missionary apostle whom Jesus will knock from his horse and claim for himself. In Acts 8:1 we are told that this Saul “approved of their killing of [Stephen],” with the implication that Saul himself may have had a hand in instigating the entire event. Yet this same man will go on to become the apostle to the gentiles, spreading the gospel message to many “even to the ends of the earth.” He will author more pages of the New Testament than anyone else.
Jesus Christ, who suffered unspeakable violence, has broken the wheel of the endless cycle of violence, enmity, bitterness, and contempt. Christ Jesus returns again and again to us who rejected and betrayed him with the gift of shalom—peace—this is the seed of willingness planted in us, grows, and blossoms into forgiveness, compassion, transformation, and reconciliation so that trust may be restored, loneliness is ended, and kindliness may abound.
Like Stephen and like Paul, we begin this journey from wherever we are. The heavens stand open before us, and our common humanity is revealed, as we begin to dwell in the mystical and living sanctuary of the body of Christ. Desmond Tutu once said the willingness to forgive grows into the capacity to tell the truth, name the hurt, and to either renew or release painful relationships. We can do this with grace and mercy while we abide together in Christ the true vine, the one body, the temple not made with hands, the living sanctuary of hope and grace in which heaven and earth are one.
We cannot create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, but with God’s grace we can create a world of grace. We can create a world of forgiveness in which we love even our enemies, heal our losses, and repair our lives and relationships. But ultimately, no one can tell you to live. We, and the Holy Spirit, can only ask. You and I are invited on this journey. All of us must walk our own path and go at our own pace to discover the power of the abundant life to transform your heart and mind and ultimately, to change the world.