Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
Well, we’re still here. The end of the world didn’t happen yesterday as some predicted.
But even while some people were making headlines about the end of the world, there was another big controversy in the news concerning someone who has taught us much about the beginning of the world. If you’re someone who enjoys learning about the history of our universe you probably know the name Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking is one of the great minds of our time; what makes him extraordinary, however, is that he has Lou Gehrig’s disease, making him physically almost helpless. And yet, this terrible disease has not stopped him from continuing to write and research and speak and contribute to our growing knowledge of our universe.
This past week Stephen Hawking made the news, not with a scientific theory but a theological statement. Stephen Hawking says that heaven is nothing but a “fairy tale”: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
When asked how we should live [Hawking] said: “We should seek the greatest value of our action.” Not surprisingly, this ruffled a few feathers. I suspect that this morning some of my fellow pastors across the country are spending a fair bit of energy denouncing this great scientist!
It wouldn’t be the first time. Christians tend to get riled up when people criticize our beliefs.
What would the world be like if Christians spent less time defending what we already believe and more time listening to viewpoints other than our own—even viewpoints that seem to criticize or threaten what we believe? What might we learn?
For example, today’s gospel reading from John is a reading commonly read at funerals. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. We take this passage to be reassurance for the life to come. God has prepared a place for us.
But what if it’s not just about heaven? What if it’s not so much about the life to come? Jesus spoke these words just before his arrest. When he said, “Where I am, you will be also,”—what if he meant that the place to which he goes ahead of us is the cross, as an example for us to follow? Not a message we want to hear!
In that case, maybe Stephen Hawking is on to something. I don’t believe that heaven is a “fairy tale,” but I also don’t believe that heaven is the main point of Christian faith. God created us for important work in this life; discipleship is about following Jesus’ example on earth. Sometimes I wonder if God might be speaking to Christians through people we consider a threat to our faith, challenging us to remember who we are and what we’re supposed to be about here on earth.
Stephen Hawking wasn’t the first to criticize those who consider themselves to be true believers. Two thousand years ago another Stephen opened his mouth and got into trouble with the religious people of his day. Leading up to today’s first reading Stephen preached a long sermon to devout people that ended with these words: “You stiff-necked people!…You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
Now, if someone were to say that to you or me we wouldn’t be too happy about it. Maybe we’d even do as the Bible describes the people’s response to Stephen: They stopped their ears. Nobody wanted to hear what Stephen had to say. They didn’t want to hear it so much that they killed him. Stephen, the one who told people things about themselves they didn’t want to hear, became the first Christian martyr. Interesting—the first Christian martyr died not at the hands of non-believers but true believers.
I wonder how things would’ve turned out differently if Stephen’s audience had listened to him? What if they had set aside their anger and resentment? What if they’d taken themselves less seriously—maybe even laugh at themselves? What if they had mustered the courage to ask, How might God be speaking to us through this unexpected voice?
But more importantly, how would things be different today? What if Christians stopped lashing out against criticisms against us and actually listened to what those criticisms might teach us about ourselves? What if we actually listened to Muslims? What might we learn from Jews? What about atheists? How about a cosmologist named Stephen Hawking who thinks that heaven is a fairy tale? Are we so weak? Are we so insecure in what we believe that we stop listening to people who ask hard questions about our beliefs and behavior? What if we took God more seriously and ourselves less seriously?
God has a pretty poor record of living up to expectations. Throughout history, the voices that have pointed the way to a new understanding about God’s work in the world consistently surprise and offend, especially those who consider themselves true believers. Those who point to signs of God’s new revelation in the world are often the least likely characters: Names like Joseph, Moses, Cyrus, Esther, Ruth, Mary, Jesus…and Stephen.
What voices in our day threaten you the most? Where do you hear ideas that upset your view of the world, or even your religious beliefs? Where do you find challenges to your comfort zone?
Jesus’ words from John anticipate our fear and discomfort at what God is doing in the world. “Let not your hearts be troubled.” “Don’t be afraid.”—knowing full well that we will be afraid. He knows that for the sake of love God will lead us into a deeper relationship with the Divine— and with one another–but that can only happen when we finally let go of beliefs and behaviors that we’ve been hanging on to for a long time.
The world did not come to an end yesterday. And the world will not come to an end if we change our hearts and minds. On the other hand, each of our worlds does come to an end when we die. Until then, let not your hearts be troubled. Our destiny is in the hands of a gracious God, beyond human understanding—beyond even a great mind like Stephen Hawking .
In the meantime, we listen for the voice of God, often through unexpected people–even people like ourselves. As our hearts and minds are opened, we find that we ourselves are transformed. We begin to see unexpected opportunities for transformation of our homes and schools and neighborhoods and cities. In fact, did you notice that in today’s reading Jesus says that we will do even greater works than he did? By the power of God living in us we discover not only opportunities to transform our world but the power and the gifts to accomplish it.