Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit,
looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God
and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,
and Stephen said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened
and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
But they cried out in a loud voice,
covered their ears, and rushed upon him together.
They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.
The witnesses laid down their cloaks
at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As they were stoning Stephen, he called out,
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice,
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them;”
and when he said this, he fell asleep.
I, John, heard a voice saying to me:
“Behold, I am coming soon.
I bring with me the recompense I will give to each
according to his deeds.
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last,
the beginning and the end.”
Blessed are they who wash their robes
so as to have the right to the tree of life
and enter the city through its gates.
“I, Jesus, sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches.
I am the root and offspring of David,
the bright morning star.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
Let the hearer say, “Come.”
Let the one who thirsts come forward,
and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water.
The one who gives this testimony says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!
Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying:
“Holy Father, I pray not only for them,
but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
so that they may all be one,
as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
that they also may be in us,
that the world may believe that you sent me.
And I have given them the glory you gave me,
so that they may be one, as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may be brought to perfection as one,
that the world may know that you sent me,
and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me.
I wish that where I am they also may be with me,
that they may see my glory that you gave me,
because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Righteous Father, the world also does not know you,
but I know you, and they know that you sent me.
I made known to them your name and I will make it known,
that the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.”
One of the things about which I was certain as a child were the events that were going to kick in the moment I’d die. The catechism was black and white on the issue, and, one way or another, our religion teachers constantly reminded us of it.
First, at the moment of death, each person would undergo a “particular judgement.” Jesus (or “God”) would personally evaluate us on how we’d lived our lives. Three options were on the table: heaven, hell, or purgatory. Though we preferred heaven, we presumed none of us were instantly worthy of such a place. We were simply content to avoid hell and be assigned to purgatory. We were warned we’d have to suffer the same tortures as hell, but unlike hell they’d eventually end – quicker if our friends and relatives said a lot of indulgenced prayers for us or paid to have Masses said for the repose of our souls.
Next, when the world finally ends and the risen Jesus returns in the Parousia, there’ll be a “general judgement.” Purgatory will be taken off the table. Only heaven and hell will remain. Everyone who ever lived will be judged – even those who already went through a particular judgement. Of course, those who had previously been sent to purgatory will now be sent to heaven to join all the other saints in praising God forever. Such a general judgement will give an opportunity for everyone to join in the glory and shame of those who had either lived their lives correctly or had really screwed them up. (My belief in such a spectacle started to wain after I sat through my first large high school graduation ceremony.)
Though this two judgement scenario is tight and tidy, nowhere is it found as such in Scripture.
The earliest Christian belief in what happens after we die is in I Thessalonians 4. Paul states his belief that we simply stay in our graves until the Parousia when Jesus comes to take us with him to heaven. No judgement seems to happen before Jesus’ Second Coming.
Neither Mark nor Matthew seem to have anything in their gospels which would contradict Paul’s belief. Only after several generations, when a delayed Parousia becomes a problem, does staying in one’s grave for that length of time also become a problem.
That seems to be where Luke – and today’s first reading – comes in. Notice what happens as Stephen is dying. “Filled with the Holy Spirit, (he) looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God . . . .” Then, at the point of death, he calls out, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” No grave, no delay. Stephen instantly experiences his “personal Parousia.” No reason to have a later judgement. Everything’s taken care of at the moment of death.
Scholars point out that John carries Luke’s theology one step further, as we hear in today’s gospel passage. He believes in “realized eschatology:” in other words, what we’re expecting in the future, we already have right here and now. Those who think we’re only going to be “one with the Father” in heaven must realize that anyone who is already one with Jesus in his or her present life is already one with the Father in this present life. We don’t have to wait until our physical deaths to experience that part of heaven.
It’s clear that ideas about the afterlife evolve throughout the Christian Scriptures. Perhaps that might be why it’s better to trust in our relationship with the risen Jesus than in our relationship with catechisms. Certainly where I’d put my money – and my life.