I know that I’m not the only person here who’s a fan of Agatha Christie, whether in her original novels or in the television adaptations of the stories of Hércule Poirot and Miss Marple.
They are classics of the detective novel, the murder mystery. What makes them so gripping is trying to work out who dunnit. And I have to admit I’m not very good at that. There are of course lots of clues scattered through the story, but many of them are misleading and there are lots of distracting leads and red herrings. But by the time I get to the end of a story I usually find out that the person who dunnit is the one person I never suspected. At the end of the story all kinds of things come into the light, hidden relationships, secret motives, concealed identities. All of them explain who dunnit, and why. And they were there all along in the story, but I didn’t see them for what they were, I didn’t understand what they meant, because I didn’t know what the end of the story was.
If you re-read an Agatha Christie knowing what the end is, suddenly everything becomes clear. It’s almost as though you’re reading a different story. The end of the story changes everything that happened before, as well.
Well, as with Agatha Christie, so with the Bible. The end of the story changes the whole story, and nothing will make complete sense unless you read it in the light of the end.
What is the end of the Bible story? Stephen tells us in Acts today, when he knows he is about to be murdered by the Sanhedrin, and he cries out “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
The end of the story is heaven opened. It is seeing God as God really is. This is why the book of Revelation, which is all about seeing heaven opened, is at the end of the Bible. And equally heaven opened is at the end of Stephen’s story, at the end of his life. And seeing heaven opened means seeing Jesus in the place where God is. “At the right hand of God” doesn’t just mean that Jesus is God’s best friend. It means he is one with him, ruling with him, sharing his power. So also in Revelation we see the Lamb upon the throne – Jesus on God’s throne.
This is utterly shocking. It means seeing the man who was rejected, cast out, crucified, a blasphemer, under God’s curse – it means seeing that man raised on high in the place where God is.
If you don’t know the end of the story, this is incomprehensible. The story of Stephen in Acts draws many parallels between his death and that of Jesus. Both are judged by a council of religious leaders who really believe that what they are doing is God’s will. Both are convicted of blasphemy, both thrust out of the city and murdered. Stephen repeats in his death the rejection and murder of Jesus, the innocent victim. And Stephen, like Jesus, forgives his murderers and prays for them.
Stephen endures this because he knows that the whole way the religious leaders judge things is wrong, and he trusts completely that God will save him. For him, heaven is open. He sees the end of the story. His murderers don’t. Or they don’t yet. Among them is Saul, later called Paul, who would later become the greatest ever preacher of the crucified Messiah.
The Bible contains many stories of sacred violence like that of the death of Stephen. Particularly in parts of the Old Testament people are cursed, cast out, killed, for what seem to be religious or ritual reasons. Maybe they’re foreigners, they worship the wrong gods, they are unclean, or they have fallen foul of some kind of ritual taboo. These are like the misleading clues in an Agatha Christie story. The people in these tales of ritual violence think that this is what God is like, what God expects. They invite us to draw the same conclusions.
But at the same time, other Old Testament texts give us different clues. They talk about a God who does not want violence or sacrifice and has no interest in ritual religion. What God wants is righteous living, justice, peace – and for all people to come to his light, to come to know the God who is being revealed in Israel’s history. All people, Jews and foreigners, men and women, without any distinction based on ritual boundaries.
It is Jesus who makes this strand of Jewish teaching absolutely explicit. Jesus was constantly touching the unclean, going to meet the outcasts and restoring them to the fellowship of Israel’s society.
When Jesus, like Stephen, became the victim of sacred violence it seemed as though all that has gone wrong. Jesus had ended up on the wrong side of the sacred curses and died as an outcast, a blasphemer. It seemed as though the misleading clues were right all along – God really was a God of violence, he drew clear lines you must not cross and you will be punished if you do. And, incidentally, the religious people knew they were alright because they were on the inside of the sacred boundary, projecting their violence onto the person outside.
But the resurrection is the twist in the tale that changes the whole story. Jesus is raised from the dead. Heaven is opened, and the victim of sacred violence is seen in the place where God is.
The whole story changes. The structures of violence that have been running the world since the beginning turn out to be not where God is. In fact, God has come among us in Jesus to liberate us from them.
This requires a total reversal in humanity’s perception of God. The victim is where God is. This is what is meant in today’s reading from 1 Peter which quotes Psalm 118:
The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner.
That is, the rejected stone is turns out to be the one essential stone that holds the structure together. That is the most frequently quoted verse of the Old Testament in the New Testament. It’s as though the New Testament writers are taking this verse and saying, this is the clue you mustn’t miss, this is the key that unlocks everything. This huge reversal - the Victim ends up where God is – is the end of the story that changes the whole of the story.
This is why Jesus, in today’s Gospel passage from John, tells his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them in the Father’s house, and he will come back to them so that they can be where he is. The return of Jesus from the death of the cross is absolutely necessary. The resurrection opens heaven because it shows that the Victim is where God is and so makes possible a new understanding of God. A God without violence. A God who opens to us and to everyone his overflowing deathless life out of sheer love and generosity.
The end of the story changes the whole of the story. Like Stephen, whose story could be seen as a foolish waste of a life, recklessly thrown away in rebellion against the sacred structures of the world. Until you see heaven opened, and the Son of Man at the right hand of God. Then Stephen’s story becomes that of a life lived from the abundant deathless generosity of God, a glorious witness to the true and inexhaustible life which no stones or violence can touch.
And so it is with us. Heaven opened, and the Victim in the place where God is, changes everything. It changes, for a start, the people we want to victimise and cast out. We can’t do that any more, because that place of the outcast is where Jesus is!
But it changes too all the stuff that’s gone wrong in our own lives, the history of sin and failure, wrong turnings, wasted opportunities, regrets. Now, those aren’t the story any more. The risen Victim is the story. He has gone before us to prepare a place for us, and has come back to us to open the way. The way to the Father who is utterly different from anything we had imagined, whose love draws us into his own overflowing deathless life. The end of the story changes the whole story, for each one of us, here and now, as it has for believers down the ages, and will do to the end of time.