Glory Beyond

By Julie Rhodes

The Cowtown Marathon was a couple of months ago in Fort Worth. I feel wonderfully judgmental as I stand outside of this phenomenon. Never have I had even a hamster-sized desire to sign up. The reasons are manifold, but mostly it’s because I am against unnecessary bodily discomfort. It seems to me that marathons are mostly about being able to stick a decal on your Subaru Outback that says “26.2” and interject the word “marathon” into conversations, much like “gluten-free” and “non-GMO.”

Also: marathons are a mockery of running. In real life, we run when we are panicked, late, or embroiled in some other human tumult. The first ancient marathoner, the one who collapsed at mile 26. 2 was, I believe, running to announce a great victory, but he is the exception. Running is an (only sometimes) necessary evil, like when I jog for exercise. Four times a week, I force my body out onto the sidewalks to run two miles, which is 416 miles a year, which totals SIXTEEN MARATHONS A YEAR. I run sixteen marathons a year and I don’t get one bit of credit. Nobody gives me a decal for my car. Nobody hands me bananas or shouts, “you can do it!” from their congregated lawn chairs.  
 
Why do we actively seek out meaningless pain when life seems to have meaningless pain enough? Maybe if we control when it starts, how long it lasts, and when it ends, it gives us the control that usually eludes us. There is plenty of pain and death around us, lurking around our lives, sniffing at the edges of things. And if we can’t look death in the face, I suppose at least we can mock it by marathon.  
 
Besides the Resurrection, the most death-mocking scene in Scripture is the stoning of Stephen. Not because he’s delivered from stoning or even because he’s raised again from death. Neither of those things happens. 
 
The story unfolds: Stephen — a man “full of God’s grace and power,” whose face looked like an angel (Acts 6:15) — sat before his accusers. The Jewish leadership was a high-court-turned-lynch mob after Stephen preaches a famous sermon accusing them of killing God himself. 
 
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:54-55).
 
The word used to describe Stephen “looking up into heaven” is atenizo, apparently a stronger descriptive more like our word for gaze.  
 
Then Stephen said, “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (v. 56).
 
Once he said this, Stephen was dragged from the building, taken outside of the city, and stoned to death. 
 
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep (v. 59-60).
 
This death is deeply mysterious, and yet quite familiar. Stephen experiences a supernatural moment of eye contact — atenizo — with Jesus, and it ushers him into death, through death. Mysterious. And then all at once the scene seems familiar: just as Jesus commits his spirit into the hands of his Father, so Stephen benedicts his spirit into the hands of Jesus. Just as Jesus prays for the forgiveness of his murderers, so Stephen begs that his killers’ sins not be held against them. Where Jesus gave up his spirit, Stephen fell asleep. What kind of power enables a death like this? Could I also midwife my own different deaths into deaths that image Christ?
 
There is not a day I don’t face deaths of various kinds, or feel the sting of past ones. We face bereavements of different shapes and sizes each day — especially this week, as we mourn those who very publicly lost their battle with depression. How do we endure?
 
Maybe, like Stephen, the first step is to look up. And then to ATENIZO like my life (and death) depends on it. Maybe, like Stephen, I’m offered a glimpse beyond what I perceive is ending or being taken away into something totally above, where Christ is ruling all things at the side of the Father. 
 
Maybe death’s door is just another door to him.  
 
And so we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who endured death as a forerunner of all for whom death will someday be made untrue. Thus begins the mockery: Death, you’re just a DOOR. An aging, swinging door that’s about to be unhinged; not an unscalable mountain or a black abyss. You’re the screen door that slams its flimsy slam. You’re only one among God’s many access points to glory — in good company with cellos, with beet-red sunsets and the tang of lime and the running of sand between fingers. Those things will last, but you will not. Not forever. So I will gaze beyond you, Death. You’re just a door with a ripped screen, and glory beyond. 

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