Where's Your Gaze?
There's a medieval Christian saying called memento mori. It is Latin, and it means "remember that you have to die."
We forget this. Death is always weird, always unexpected, and always unsettling. You know that feeling when you walk to your car from a funeral service? That lump in your throat. The calm in the air. You have perspective on life for a moment, realizing how fleeting it is. You hear the birds. The grass is green. You reflect on what matters. Faith. Family. Joy. Love.
Then you get in your car, check your phone, and get about your merry way living as if you won't die.
It is apparently part of our nature - perhaps sin nature, but I'm not sure - that we live as if we won't die. So we squander time as if we'll have more of it. We mistreat others as if we'll have time later to smooth it over. We prioritize the temporary trappings of life over the transcendent.
I am convinced that the only way to live a good life is to understand the fragility of it. It is like a starving person eating a prime ribeye. He will savor it to an almost shocking degree. If he eats it too fast, he might even get sick because he isn't accustomed to such caloric delicacy. We too can savor life in this way, but we first remember that death is coming for us.
When Stephen was brought before the high priest and Jewish authorities in Acts 7, he is clearly a man who understands memento mori. He understands that the people to whom he's testifying don't mess around. They cross examine him because he's known for speaking of a heresy about some guy named Jesus who fulfills the law and sets people free. This is not good news to these powerful Jewish men. It is heresy, blasphemy even. But, in an act of unspeakable courage, he tells them the truth. And the truth is hard for them to hear. These guys are so made they grind their teeth at him. That's some serious rage. They cast him out of the city and stone him.
Do you know what stoning is like? It's throwing rocks at someone until they're dead. It's usually done in a crowd. Imagine them gathering the stones, hunched over and picking through piles. No, that one's too small - not enough damage. Oh that one there, it's heavy enough yet small enough. You can imagine no one in the crowd is a major league caliber pitcher, so they miss a lot. Hit the body and the ground. Long story short, the victim of stoning likely endures a long process of sloppy torture at the hands of an angry mob. It's a horrible, hateful way to die.
As Stephen was being pelted with rocks and his end drew near, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59). Then he begged for forgiveness for his executioners, much like his Lord Jesus did on the cross. He was focused not in the horrible moment, but elsewhere.
The painting attached to this post is a painting by the Dutch artist Rembrandt. It is a painting of the stoning of Stephen. I want you to look at Stephen's face. His face tells you something that will change your life.
Stephen's gaze is beyond his current circumstances. He knows he hasn't been perfect. He knows the law and he knows he hasn't kept it to a t. He does not trust in his righteousness, but yet his face beams hope and peace. He knows what Jesus has done for him on the cross. He knows Jesus has thrown open the door to the kingdom for imperfect sinners. He knows after the last rock is thrown, he'll walk through that door to Jesus. So the rocks are, at this point, background noise to Stephen. He's looking ahead into the eternal.
You and I will likely never face what Stephen faced. But we will end up at the same place, with death at our door. In fact, we may be on the threshold right now. Knock knock. Call it morbid, but it's true.
So the question is will we remain distracted by the trinkets and the headlines and the temporary pleasures or will we look up and beyond, as Stephen did? Will we be distracted by the rocks of this life or will we stand strong as they pelt us, our focus remaining fixed on God?
Where's your gaze?