The urgency of the question is matched only by the reticence of Scripture. We want to know, we need to know, what happens to our loved ones when they die. When someone who has been our constant companion in life and love, always at our side, is suddenly no longer there, their absence screams for an explanation. What has become of them? Where did they go? Will we ever see them again? “At this point saying that it’s all just speculation, or that we really don’t know, or the always popular but vague – ‘She’s in God’s hands now,’ just won’t do” (Scot McKnight). We want a straight answer. And so, as Christians, we turn to the Scriptures.
The Bible is our basic authority. It’s where we go with our questions believing that it’s where the answers can be found. But the Bible is surprisingly reserved in what it has to say about what happens to us when we die. Oh, the big promise is unmistakably there: “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus told us, “even though you die, yet shall you live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). “I go to prepare place for you,” He promised, “and I will come again for you, and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). It is a pillar of Biblical faith that the Lord will be our companion “in the valley of the shadow of death,” and that when we come out of it on the other side, that we will find ourselves “in the house of the Lord” where we will abide “forever” (Psalm 23), where there will no longer be “any mourning, or crying, or pain” because “there will no longer be any death” (Revelation 21:4).
The broad promise is clearly there. It’s the details that are missing. And so the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “eye has not seen, ear had not heard, and the heart has not imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Corinthians 2:9). And the Apostle John put an end to all the guesswork with his declaration that “it has not yet appeared what we shall be,” but we know that “when Christ appears, we shall be like Him” (I John 3:32). “Mystery and modesty” – those are the two words that the United Church of Christ theologian Gabriel Fackre urged us to embrace when we are asked: “Where is my father/mother/brother/sister/friend now?” This is not to say that we don’t know some things, but it is to freely admit that we don’t know all things. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God,” Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us, “but what has been revealed belongs to us and to our children forever.” And so, in the wisdom of our denominational tradition, “We speak where the Scriptures speak, and we are silent where the Scriptures are silent.” I am hesitant to speak beyond what the Scriptures say, and so what do I say when a family, with tears in their eyes and a gaping wound in their hearts turn to me as a pastor and ask the poignant question?
Acts, chapter 7, is the first description of a Christian’s death in the New Testament, and the most detailed. Stephen was one of the church’s first Deacons, a man filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom who had been chosen by the Jerusalem church to serve as a leader in its ministry of service (Acts 6:1-6). Arrested for the work that he was doing in the name of Christ, Stephen was put on trial in front of the very same council that plotted against Jesus. In his defense, Stephen preached a wide ranging sermon about God’s plan of salvation as it played out in the history of Israel, climaxing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Acts 7:54-60 is the description of the response that Stephen’s preaching generated. They “became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen” (7:54), before grabbing him and dragging him out of the city to be stoned (7:57). And as Stephen died, Luke tells us that he had a vision of the glory of God in heaven, “and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the Father” (7:56). Every other description in the New Testament of Jesus Christ in glory has Him seated at the right hand of the Father. But here in Acts chapter 7, He stands. The question is why? I believe the answer can be found in verse 59: “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” I believe that the Risen and glorified Christ stood up to welcome Stephen to heaven. I think He got up to greet Stephen at the door of his new heavenly home.
Luke 15:11-32 is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Helmut Thielicke, the great German pastor and theologian of the last generation, always thought that this parable of Jesus should properly be called “The Parable of the Waiting Father” rather than “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It’s more a story about how God behaves as the loving father than it is about how we behave as the prodigal son. On verses 20-24 we are told that the father was waiting and watching for the return of his boy from the far country, and when he caught a glimpse of him on the horizon, the father got up and ran out to greet him, to welcome him home, enfolding him in his embrace and smothering him with his kisses. When the son began his prepared remarks, hoping for nothing more than a position on the household staff, the father stopped him in midsentence, and began to lavish on him a series of gifts: a robe to cover him, a ring for his finger, some sandals for his feet and fatted calf on the BBQ pit. Each one of these gifts was a wonderful symbol of the welcome home that the boy was being given.
- The robe was a garment from the father’s own wardrobe, something to cover the tattered and filthy rags that the boy had been reduced to during his sojourn in the far country. One of the ways that the Bible talks about forgiveness is as a covering. That robe was a witness to the welcome of the father’s mercy.
- The ring that was placed on the boy’s finger was the family’s signet, the seal they used to conduct business. By placing it on his son’s finger, the father was giving him access to all of the family’s resources. That ring was a witness to the welcome of the father’s restoration of that lost boy to the family circle.
- The sandals that were put on his feet were a sign of the boy’s status as a son rather than just a servant. In the ancient world slaves went barefoot to discourage them from running away it’s said. Only members of the family wore shoes. Do you remember the old Negro Spiritual: “I got shoes, you got shoes, all of God’s children’s got shoes”? Well, those shoes were the signs of dignity and freedom. And in the story that Jesus told they were a witness to the welcome of the Father’s regard for the status of his returned boy.
- And the fatted calf that was put on the spit in the yard was a special animal that was kept for just such an occasion. When a guest unexpectedly showed up at the front door, ancient hospitality dictated that a feast be spread, and so an animal was always being prepared for just such a moment. That fatted calf on the BBQ was a witness to the father’s welcome and to the community that His love creates.
Besides the fact that Acts 7:54-60 and Luke 15:20-24 both came from the pen of Luke, you might conclude that these two texts have nothing to do with each other, but I see a connection. In Luke 15, in the story that Jesus told about the father who waited and watched for his boy to come home, and who then got up and ran to him, lavishing him with wonderful gifts when he finally did, the father’s welcome was the whole point. And the same thing is true in Acts chapter 7, in the very first story that we have of a Christian dying. Jesus stood up to welcome Stephen home. It’s all about the welcome.
Biblically the gift of hospitality is not just a matter of etiquette; it’s a matter of the deepest truth about God that’s been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. As Paul told the Romans: “Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7). God wants to be in a relationship with us. God wants us to feast at His table and to live in His love forever. And so God the Father waits and watches for our return, always ready to bestow His gifts – the robe of forgiveness, the ring of belonging, the sandals of status and the fatted calf of celebration. And as we approach the front door of eternity, Jesus Christ the Son of God, our Savior, stands up to welcome us home. DBS+