Look, I See the Heavens Opened

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

 One way of reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” is to understand it as a story about theological imagination, and how it is we come to envision the world rightly.

At the center of this story is a nameless child who, being rather remarkable in her imaginative capacities, manages to see beyond the ordinary around her to a world shot through with importance and the work of the Spirit.

In one particularly poignant passage, she’s considering freaks in the freak-show at the fair, and understands them to be martyrs, supposing that what the adult tents contain must be about medicine. She decides she’ll be a doctor, but then reconsiders, thinking she’ll be a saint, but even that doesn’t fit, for she knows her sins. As the story goes,

“She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick. She could stand to be shot but not to be burned in oil. She didn’t know if she could stand to be torn to pieces by lions or not. She began to prepare her martyrdom, seeing herself in a pair of tights in a great arena, lit by the early Christians hanging in cages of fire, making a gold dusty light that fell on her and the lions. The first lion charged forward and fell at her feet, converted. A whole series of lions did the same. The lions liked her so much she even slept with them and finally the Romans were obliged to burn her but to their astonishment she would not burn down and finding she was hard to kill, they finally cut off her head very quickly with a sword and she went immediately to heaven. She rehearsed this several times, returning each time at the entrance of Paradise to the lions.”[1]

This kind of imaginative vision stretches beyond herself to the world around her. Where some see freaks, she sees temples of the Holy Ghost.

One particular freak in the story is transfigured in her sight, becoming in her imagination a gospel preacher of sorts. The freak-tent becomes a tent revival, and the freak preaches the truth that those coming to see the spectacle are themselves temples of the Holy Ghost, made by God just the way they are. Later, at mass, when the priest raises the elements as the body and blood of Christ, the child remembers the freak from the fair, interposed in her imaginary with the presence of God.

This child, perhaps filled with the Holy Spirit, sees heaven all around her, an alternate reality and what the world can be when Jesus is ascended to the right hand of God to reign in the new kingdom.

The story of Stephen in the book of Acts has similar elements of theological vision at play, for Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, sees what those around him cannot see – namely, God’s glory. In the moments before his stoning, he cries out “Look! I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

Look, I see the heavens opened.

Stephen sees, and his sight is dangerous. His sight is a threat to the powers, to the political order of the world, even the treasured religious institutions of his day. Like Joseph in Genesis, his visions get him in serious trouble. As Stephen invites those around him to see as he sees, the author of Acts tells us that “they covered their ears and with a loud shout all rushed against him.” (7:57) He sees deeply into the heart of things, Christ on the throne, and those around him refuse to hear it, see it, even entertain it.

As their violence strikes him down, he echoes the words of Christ, offering up his Spirit and praying for grace on behalf of his accusers. As a martyr, he dies in the tradition of the crucified one – a spectacle, a freak, but one filled with the Holy Spirit and the power to see what the gospel can do in the world.

Stephen is the first Christian martyr, and as such, this story perhaps lays out a paradigm for later martyrdoms. Namely, those who become martyrs in the history of the church are those who best can see the heavens opened, not above somewhere in the clouds, but all around them in the world you and I live in, and say to others, “Look.” Martyrs are often those who live out their prophetic vision, not only seeing into the eschaton, but seeing into now, into the way the world really is in the new and coming kingdom.

The story of Stephen raises a couple of timely questions for the church in our own age, namely these:

Do we, in our local congregations, see the world rightly enough that we run the legitimate risk of martyrdom?

Where in the world is the church’s kingdom imaginary strongest, and what can we learn from our brothers and sisters outside of our own narrow visions?

Are we faithfully saying not only with our lips but with our lives, “Look, I see the heavens opened,” testifying to the new and coming kingdom?

But hardest, who are the freaks among us? Who is saying to us, “Church, look,” and who, perhaps unexpectedly filled with the Holy Spirit, is calling us to a new vision of heaven and the kingdom? Where are our ears closed, where do we shout and rush, where is our violence directed?

What practices will strengthen our theological imagination, teach us attention, and train our eyes to see the world rightly?

May we, church, live into the vision of Stephen, saying to the world around us, “Look, I see the heavens opened, and Jesus at God’s right hand.”

May we live into the words of Peter, that we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of Jesus who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Amen.

[1] Flannery O’Connor, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” in Collected Works, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988), 204.

Image of St. Stephen by Domenico Ghirlandaio

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