Readings: Acts 7:55-60; John 14:1-14
William came home from the doctor looking very worried. “What is it?” asked his wife, “What’s the problem?”
“Well, the doctor told me I have to take one of these pills every day for the rest of my life,” explained William.
“So what?” his wife replied. “Lots of people have to do that.”
“I know. But he only gave me four pills.”
Anxieties of a Young Priest
My greatest anxiety going into ordained ministry was how I would manage visiting the sick in hospitals, conduct funerals, and provide pastoral care to the bereaved. I was 27 years old at the time and was not well acquainted with Death. Close friends of mine had lost parents, I lost a friend who died tragically and suddenly, but these experiences didn’t really prepare me to bump up against the reality of death in my everyday life.
I hadn’t even been in a hospital since I was born, but now it would be part of my job to visit parishioners in hospital on a regular basis. I had only been to a few funerals in my life, and none were for my own family members, but now I would be tasked with leading people through the grieving process while proclaiming our Easter hope. I was young and in good health, and so the idea of ‘walking through the valley of the shadow of death’ was more of a concept than a lived reality for myself. What happened, surprisingly to me, is that I came to find these times of ministry, taking place with the specter of Death at the door, to be the most meaningful and spiritually powerful of my work.
What are we saying in the Easter proclamation?
For much of the time when we celebrate Easter and proclaim, ‘Christ is Risen!’, we are filled with pleasant thoughts of trees budding and spring flowers emerging from the earth. We take hope that our God is powerful to overcome any obstacle. But I wonder: How easily do we draw the connections between the Easter proclamation and our own inevitable deaths? I also wonder if the relative comfort and security we enjoy in this great nation actually has the effect of somewhat muting the Easter proclamation? (How bold of a proclamation is it that Christ has overcome Death if we can keep Death at arm’s length?) And if this is so, what do we make of the observation that it is in times when the Church is faced to confront danger and death that it has the potential to thrive the most? Could our own comfort hinder or limit our gospel witness?
Missiologists would tell you that the persecuted Church, including the ancient Church, often grows at an incredible rate when Christians put their lives at risk to follow Jesus. A church facing the painful reality of its unsustainability can be inspired to engage in more risky and innovative mission and ministry to reach its community. Christians living in impoverished countries around the world so often shine with the joy of the Risen Christ, despite living in death-inducing conditions. And in the case of my own ministry, I’ve found that many who are in the place of grief grow more deeply in their faith than at any other time in their lives as they trust in the Good Shepherd to lead them through the valley of the shadow of death.
Living with the Spector of Death
Well, the events of the past few years have brought the spector of Death much closer to all of us. While we may feel relief in the news this week that the WHO declared an end to the COVID-19 emergency, we know we will be living with the ramifications of the pandemic for years to come. We may still be anxious for ourselves, our loved ones, our world, and our Church.
Jesus taught and worked under the shadow of Death. He lived in a world lacking the safety and security our technology provides. He was of a people living under the oppression of a powerful Empire that was built on its effectiveness in doling out death upon its enemies. We are reminded throughout the gospels that religious leaders were continually plotting and scheming to kill him – something of which he was acutely aware. And Jesus knew that his mission, his great purpose, would culminate in his own death and resurrection.
Jesus Offers Words of Hope from a Place of Vulnerability
In today’s gospel, Jesus, sensing his friends’ growing anxiety around the dangers that lay ahead, speaks words of comfort and hope: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me.” I’ve read that sentence many times at funerals. The words that follow speak of dwelling places that Jesus prepares for us. It conjures up images of the afterlife and heaven that awaits us after death. These words may be of comfort to us, particularly as we say good-bye to a loved one who has died, but they might also seem trite to others.
So often we Christians, especially in the West, have quoted scriptures like these from places of security and strength. Christianity has been the dominant religion in North America since colonization. Even today, as Christianity’s influence has waned in our society, we can still stand behind sturdy pulpits in multi-million-dollar buildings and tell ourselves (and any who would listen) that we have a monopoly on hope and the afterlife. And I think it’s important we realize that it is one thing to tell people to not let their hearts be troubled when food security and housing are not issues for most of us, it is another to proclaim these words from a position of vulnerability and weakness.
These days, we might feel more like Thomas who painfully admits, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Where is God taking us in these troubling days? Where can we find Jesus? Where has he gone to? Where are we going? Is it enough to simply hold out hope that one day, after we die, we’ll get to heaven and all our struggles will be over? Or is there a hope that we desperately need for the here-and-now, particularly living in these challenging times?
‘Dwelling Places’ & ‘Abiding’ in Jesus
Some commentators believe that when Jesus speaks of ‘dwelling places’ he is not so much speaking about a future reality (ie, going to heaven after we die). Rather, the term ‘dwelling places’ in its original language is strongly connected to John’s idea of ‘abiding.’ Just one chapter later, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Abide in me.’ What might this mean? Lindsey Jodrey writes, “The charge to abide and dwell with God strikes me as an invitation to hear and share a comforting word—not from a place of security or power, but from a place of vulnerability. More than a charge to “get it together” and put on a brave face, there’s a permission that is given, to admit that we cannot control the things that trouble us, to seek comfort without a false sense of security.”
The path that Jesus was on, and that he offers to us, is one of vulnerability in the face of all that would assail us. Jesus walked through the valley of the shadow of death on his way from Galilee to the Cross. He took his friends by the hand and led them through. The promise of life beyond death certainly gave them, as it gives us, a future hope which can inspire us to carry on. But the idea of abiding in Jesus is, what I believe, gives us the present unction to keep on following Jesus on the Way.
Bearing Witness to Christian Hope
We can look at Stephen, the first Christian martyr, as a prime example of what ‘abiding in Christ’ might look like. He was boldly preaching Jesus, and Luke (the author of Acts) reminds us that he was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit.’ I think this is another way of saying, he was abiding in Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus. Even with the Spector of Death before him in the hate-filled faces of those casting the stones that would kill him, Stephen is so close to Jesus that he is even able to utter the same words as his Lord at the point of death, “God, forgive them.”
The word martyr means ‘witness’ for it is in facing our own mortality that our Christian witness shines brightest. It is in embracing, and not denying, our mortality that we find the Holy Spirit most powerfully at work in our lives. The knowledge that there is an ending ahead can, when rooted in faith and trust in Jesus, energize us and spur us on to live each moment for the glory of God and the sharing of Jesus’ love.
Our Mortality Can Move us to Greater Love
In closing, I’d like to share with you a poignant example of the life and love God can grow in us in dark times. And I hope that it might inspire you to grow in your relationship with Christ and encourage us as a parish to keep going, to keep loving each other, to keep trying new things for the sake of the gospel. A clergy colleague, Dr. Erin Raffety, has a young child with a terminal illness. Here are her thoughts on what it is like to live in this reality and how it might speak to our context:
“My husband and I don’t always talk about how it feels to live with the specter of death at our door. It freaks people out to talk about death, let alone the impending death of a child. But we find it important and comforting to be honest and open about the unknowns. I don’t want to live with a false security that my child will always be there. Instead, with the full knowledge of life’s impermanency, we can choose to love even more fiercely, generously, lavishly…
(For all of us) there (is the) important work of loving fiercely, praying, honoring, and naming the dead, and not shying away from grief and fear but embracing them and their pain, in patience and hope that love will survive. Our naivete may be gone, grief and death may be more and more evident these days, but perhaps there is salvation to be found. While we can’t save ourselves, may we be reminded that the God who saves has been unleashed in the world as love incarnate.
Love will conquer death. Love will find a way.”
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:9, 12)