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Easter 5 2014 Sermon
Rev. Joyce Avery

Several major themes are developed in today’s Gospel reading taken from Jesus’ farewell address.  It is the evening of the last supper.  Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet and Judas has left to do his deed.
Jesus tells them, "I go to prepare a place for you. . . . I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also."

It sounds so wonderful.  It sounds perhaps like we imagine heaven to be.  If that’s so, then it’s a future place, a place that we will "go to."

That may be part of the promise Jesus was making to his disciples.  The other part is in his answer to Thomas: "I am the way, the truth and the life."

Yes, we are promised eternal life, but we are also promised that we are already housed by God, fed by God,carried by God.  We already have a foot in that place Jesus prepared for us if we but look around, look within and listen.  But as nice as that sounds, doesn’t it often seem difficult to imagine that in this world, we should be seeing evidence of Jesus being the way, the truth and the life?  If people truly believed that God is very much with us, wouldn’t "the world" be a different place?

Jesus often talked about the Kingdom of heaven being here already - it’s here and now - and that we must be in the process of building it.  But we aren’t terrible far away from the kinds of things that happened when our church was still in its formative era.

Jesus promises his eternal presence with his disciples, as he calls them to belief.  However, to "believe" is more than Intellectual assent, it is committing the whole self to the care of God.  In this, they can rest assured, for Jesus goes to prepare a dwelling place for them "in my Father’s house."

Although Jesus will no longer be with them as an earthly, physical presence, he will nonetheless stay with them. To abide in Christ is to have reached the intended "place", even as the journey continues, Eternal life begins when we "abide in the Son and in the Father."  This is the promise of Jesus in the Gospel of John - everlasting, mutual dwelling in Christ.

The passage from Acts gives a dramatic example of the risks faced by the first followers of Jesus as they lived out their faith. The verses in today’s reading are from the final words of Stephen as he is stoned to death by an angry mob.

Stephen’s story begins with the selection of seven men "of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" to oversee the equitable distribution of food within the community.  Stephen embodies the ideal disciple and is described as "full of grace and power," performing "great wonders and signs among the people."  However, his energy and eloquence soon make him a marked man among the community’s opponents.  He is arrested on false charges of blasphemy and brought before the council in Jerusalem - - where he gives a fiery speech.  Stephen reviews Israel’s history as one of unrelieved rebellion against God.  He accuses the people of Jerusalem of consistently resisting the Holy Spirit, persecuting God’s prophets, disobeying the law, and murdering Jesus.

His words are met with outrage from the crowd, who drag Stephen outside the city and stone him.  As he is struck down, he is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  His words further anger the crowd; as he dies, Stephen prays just as Jesus did, for God to receive his spirit and forgive those who executed him.

Today’s reading from Acts shows a dangerous and dark shadow into our Easter joy.  The crowd acted like maniacs, covering their ears and shouting at what Stephen was saying.  Hostile to goodness.  How sad.

Just look at what happens today.  Groups of lay people, priests and sisters are brutally murdered by guerilla groups with machine guns or machetes because they are working for freedom or education or they belong to the wrong tribe.  Where is this Kingdom of Heaven?  Do our hearts become troubled? Yes, very often they do.

We wonder how we can build our faith to the point where we can believe in a different world - where we can see God in the midst of hardship.  Perhaps the most powerful way of growing in the spirit is through sharing the Eucharist and believing that Jesus left this with us so we could touch him and know he is in us.  There is the power.  There is the mystery that explodes within us if we just open our hearts and minds to all God reveals to us.  There is the well of power that helps us continue looking for ways to build that Kingdom of heaven here while we wait to take our place in the world to come.

In our old Hymnal I found the Song of Stephen:

When Stephen, full of power and grace, went forth through-out the land,
he bore no shield before his face no weapon in his hand;
but only in his heart a flame and on his lips a sword where -
with he smote and overcame the foemen of the Lord.

When Stephen preached against the laws and by those laws was tried,
he had no friend to plead his cause, no spokesman at his side;
but only in his heart a flame and on his eyes a light
where God’s day break to proclaim and rend the veils of night.

When Stephen, young and doomed to die, fell crushed beneath the stones,
he had no curse nor vengeful cry for those who broke his bones;
but only in his heart a flame and on his lips a prayer
that God, in sweet forgiveness’ name, should understand and spare.

Let me, O Lord, thy cause defend, a knight without a sword;
no shield I ask, no faithful friend, no vengeance, no reward;
but only in my heart a flame and in my soul a dream,
so that the stones of earthly shame a jeweled crown may seen.