11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection November 6, 2016
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, I preached on a passage from Paul on how the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. (1st Corinthians 2: 1-5, 9-10). I would like to add part of that sermon in this week’s Advance:
There are parts of every person unknown and unknowable to any other person. The human person is always a mystery. Even though I knew my beloved Beth better than anyone else - she was (and remains) a mystery to me.
I am now in the process of reading through her many prayer journals. I will say more about these prayer journals during her memorial service next Saturday. But every new thing I learn about her - every revelation - helps me to better know her and to love her more deeply. And yet there are places within Beth that no one can ever know except God alone.
The Spirit of the Living God, according to our brother Paul, is able to enter into and know those secret, sacred spaces that otherwise must remain hidden to us humans. We traditionally call the deepest and most sacred of these spaces - the human soul.
The human soul is the place, the space, where the Spirit does its most holy work. As Paul writes in Romans: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26-27)
We can trust this Spirit to help us pray even when words fail us. But when we pray we must always respect God’s ultimate freedom to do as God sees fit. When Jesus prayed on that faithful night before his crucifixion, it says Jesus fell on his face before the Father. He prayed: “Not what I want, but what you want.”
This prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane must also be our prayer. In the past few months, many of us, myself included, have prayed mightily that God might heal my beloved Beth from the terrible illness that was assailing her.
Why did healing not happen? In one sense, on October 19, at 5:01 pm, complete healing happened to my beautiful Beth. But it was not the healing I wished - not the healing so many of us wished - yet God is absolute, almighty, freedom.
We can offer God our suggestions. We can offer God our heartfelt pleas. Yet all is and always will be, in God’s hands. We see this most clearly at Gethsemane and at Golgatha.
Our brother Paul also knew this truth. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles ends with Paul in house arrest in Rome. But why end there? Why no mention of his death - especially since Acts was written many years after Paul’s death? Here we must speculate.
After Paul is arrested in the Jerusalem Temple (which may well have been part of a betrayal from some of the Jerusalem church people), he winds up on a long journey to Rome. Paul spends two years in Rome under house arrest.
According to an old non-biblical account, written about 100 years after Paul’s death, Paul was beheaded during Nero’s persecution of the Christians. This is not what I believe actually happened. Let me explain.
As we may recall from our history lessons, the Emperor Nero was unbalanced. He may have set fire to the city of Rome in the year 64. The fire raged for a week and destroyed or severely damaged 10 of the cities 14 regions. Nero blamed the Christians for setting the fire.
Vast numbers of Roman Christians were viciously rounded up. Christians betrayed one another according to the historical records. These early church members were executed in one of two ways.
According to the Roman historian Tacitus, in his own words: “They were covered with wild beast skins and torn to death by dogs, or they were fastened on poles (and crosses), covered with pitch, and when daylight failed, (they) were burned to serve as lamps by night.” I believe that our brother Paul was executed in one of these two horrible ways.
No wonder Luke’s Acts recounts nothing about Paul’s death. It was too terrible to write about. And, by the way, because of this vicious rampage by Nero, he is portrayed in the Book of Revelation as the Beast with the number 666 (see Revelations, chapter 13).
While this beast is not called the antichrist (the term antichrist is not found in the Book of Revelation but, rather, in the First and Second letters of John), many have come to associate the number 666 with the Antichrist. So, Biblically-speaking, Nero is the Antichrist, already come and gone!
We know Jesus died a terrible death. It seems likely that Paul also died a terrible death. As the Christ mystic Teresa of Avila complained to God: “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”
We suffer. But God is with us in our suffering. There is no suffering (and no joy as well) that does not echo in the broken heart of God. This is what Jesus believed. This is what Paul believed. Both suffered horribly for this bedrock belief.
My beloved and beautiful Beth believed this. I believe this. I pray we might all believe this because nothing else makes sense in our broken world. If God is not with us in our joys and our sorrows, then we are all truly and totally lost!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor