We find ourselves today in the book of Acts. The reading begins at 7:54 and ends at 8:1. At the very heart of the scripture is the uncomfortable topic of death. One of the leaders of the early church, Stephen has died. His death sent a shockwave through the early church because he was so respected. He was the first one outside of the Apostles to perform a miracle. That miracle was important because it demonstrated to the people that God was still with them. Everyone was excited about the miracle except one small, yet powerful, group, the Sanhedrin. They were the Supreme Court of the orthodox faith. Like Jesus and Peter in the past, they had Stephen arrested. His trial does not go well. In the section prior to our reading, we are told he addresses them with little respect. In bold words, he tells them about God’s plan of salvation. Jesus was the final act of love. That was not what they wanted to hear. According to our reading, they reacted to his words in a violent way. In an emotional rage, they drag him out of the city and stone him. It must have been a horrific scene. The light that shined so brightly in the beginning of the day was now extinguished. It is at this moment the text begins to speak to us. There is no other way to say it. Stephen is dead. On the day he was born, his world shed tears of joy. Now, his world was shedding tears of sorrow.
Death is an uncomfortable topic. It shouldn’t be. Just like birth, it comes to each one of us. No one gets out of this world alive. The mortality rate of the world is 100%. Some will leave sooner; some will leave later. However, everyone must leave. Death does not discriminate. It takes the young and the old. It takes the educated and the uneducated. It takes the rich and the poor. It takes every race. Have you ever wondered how long you will live? Have you ever wondered what month you are going to die? Have you ever wondered what day of the week you will die? I never have liked Tuesdays. Have you ever wondered how you are going to die? Will your death be a long-drawn-out affair, spending your final days alone in some institution? Will your death be sudden, like Stephen’s? That is how I would like to go.
This blog is wrapped around three questions about your death. I have the license to ask these questions because part of my job for forty years was to prepare people for eternity. The correct answers to these questions are illustrated in today’s text about Stephen. However, this message is not so much about dying. It is about living life to the fullest! Mark Twain (1835-1910) once said, “The fear of death follows the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” This is question number one.
Are you prepared to die socially? In the fourth chapter of Genesis is one of the great stories of the Bible. How well do you remember your family history? Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. They came from the same biological parents but they, personally, were completely different. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. In time, both men sacrificed to God. Cain brought fruit; Abel brought meat. You can call it favoritism, but God preferred Abel’s offering, the meat. (Can you really blame him?) Cain gets his feelings hurt and positions himself to do something ugly. The story ends when Cain kills Abel. This story teaches us a variety of things. One of those things is the value of human relationships. God expects us to maintain healthy relationships with one another. Are all the relationships in your life healthy? Are there any relationships in your life that are near death?
The Bible does not really give us much detail, but it is safe to say Stephen had healthy relationships. Everyone in the church respected him. It is safe to say everyone in his life respected him. Does everyone in your life respect you? How many damaged relationships are in your life? I am not just talking about your siblings. I am talking about everyone, your parents, children, neighbors, and co-workers. God expects us to maintain healthy relationships. Do you have any relationships that need repair? Don’t wait! This is question number one. If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? This is question number two.
Are you prepared to die personally? Next month, my wife, Kathryn and I are traveling to western Turkey and Greece. We are traveling alone. We are traveling with a group led by East Ohio Annual Conference Resident Bishop Tracy Malone. In all there are thirty-seven of us. The trip was promoted as The Journeys of Paul. I am so excited. I love to travel, and I need an adventure in my life occasionally. It is a big world and I want to see as much of it as possible. I was sharing my excitement with a friend, and he simply asked, “Why?” He spent the next few minutes telling me in a nice way that I was a fool. He tried to discourage me from going. He ended by saying, “I hope you are happy living in a Turkish prison.” I ended our discussion quickly and walked away frustrated. I have never understood why people do that? Why do so many people discourage others from doing something? I was not inviting him to come. I was telling him I was going. I enjoy traveling and I want to learn more about the Apostle Paul. Have you ever discouraged someone from doing something they wanted to do? Let me ask you this question:
What do you still want to do with your life? I am not just talking about traveling to odd places. I am talking about your passion. Stephen was passionate about Jesus! What are you passionate about? Is there some place in this world you still want to go? Is there some book you would still like to read? Is there some language you would still like to study? When Thomas Jefferson died, he was studying German. Is there someone you would still like to meet? Is there something you still want to build or own? Don’t wait! If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? Would you be prepared personally? This is question number three.
Are you prepared to die spiritually? As I write this blog, one of my family members is in the Intensive Care Unit in a hospital in the suburbs of Cleveland. His medical situation is complex, so the family as asked many questions. The more questions we asked, the more confused we have become. The more confused we have become, the less hope we have. At one point, the kind of questions changed. They went from medical questions to spiritual questions. People started questioning his salvation. Those are the hardest questions to answer because we are not the judge. We pray that somewhere along the way our family member accepted Jesus, because Jesus is our hope of salvation. Heaven would not be the same without him. The one thing no one can question is Stephen’s salvation. He has a vision of heaven. If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? Would you be prepared to die personally? Would you be prepared to die spiritually? Let me end with this story.
You do not have to be a Civil War expert to know the name Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (1824-1863). The one-time instructor at the Virginia Military Institute was respected by both friend and foe for his courage during battle. He was once asked about the source of that courage. This was his response:
My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God (knows the) time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter where it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.
It is interesting to note that Jackson died eight days after that quote. He was accidentally shot by one of his own soldiers. That shot caused him to lose his arm, which led to pneumonia. I must ask you:
Are you prepared to die? Stephen woke up that morning and didn’t have a clue he would be gone that night. Maybe that will be our story? Only God knows. That is why you must always be prepared. Are you prepared to die socially? Are all the relationships in your life perfect? Are you ready to die personally? What do you still want to do? Are you ready to die spiritually? Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior? I hope so. Heaven wouldn’t be the same without you!