Easter 5 Readings:
This sermon is an update to one I gave 3 years ago on this same Sunday. I really miss our Wednesday mornings Bible Studies with Corby, Gretchen, Mary, Joyce, and whoever else showed up to discuss our reading for the next Sunday and get latest ideas on what to say with the sermon when I was up for that Sunday.
In these fifty days of Easter season we are just past the halfway point, four weeks after Easter Day. Key events upcoming are Ascension Day (day 40), which we will celebrate in two weeks on that closest Sunday, and Pentecost Sunday (day 50), three weeks from now.
Today’s readings seem to provide a progression of how a Christian’s life and death will unfold. It is certainly not all joy and laughter, but it has its fulfilling and comforting aspects as well.
There have been readings about several events of the early Christian church in the Book of Acts the past few weeks, and today is yet another of those readings in Acts 7, the story of the stoning death of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Back in Acts 6, Stephen is first mentioned as one of seven disciples raised up by the Twelve Apostles to help carry out the ministry to the people. “Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
For most of Acts 7, before our reading today, Stephen’s fiery, Spirit-filled speech to the Sanhedrin, reminded them of the full story of the Jewish people from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, their exile in Egypt for 400 years, their return to the Promised Land led by Moses and Aaron, and eventually their Kings David and Solomon. He also reminded them of their rejection of the Prophets, who foretold of the Messiah, and the ultimate indictment—they were the ones who had rejected the Holy Spirit and betrayed and killed Jesus.
In the verse before our reading today, it says the Sanhedrin became enraged. And the rest we read today—Stephen told them he gazed into Heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. They refused to hear it, dragged him into the streets and stoned him to death. All the while, Stephen asked God to forgive them and then gave up his spirit and died.
I just have to say this—think about and compare this very real persecution shown to Stephen to the perceived version that some Christians believe they suffer in the United States today. All because they do not get to discriminate against others with their religion and force it upon everyone else.
Our Psalm 31 reading gives us some sense of peace and hope as Christians, using a lot of R words—refuge, righteousness, rock, redeem and rescue. Verse 5 talks of our action, and God’s response--Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
The 1 Peter reading provides thoughts about those new in the Christian church—to look for the very best of one’s faith in God, as living stones building God’s church in the world. For those who believe they are a chosen people, to proclaim the mighty acts of One who brought them out of darkness into a great Light, receivers of mercy.
Finally, our Gospel reading from John is a familiar one used at funerals to let everyone there know who hears it that there is a comfort in physical death, that God has prepared a Holy place for all believers. Jesus talks to Thomas and Philip, who wonder about this place and how to get there. Jesus tells them that they find God the Father through Him and says that if they cannot see this directly by being with Him and hearing what he says, then believe in what He has done.
Admittedly, verse 6 is a tricky one if one truly believes in an all inclusive God. Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” My own view is that this extends to those who have never heard of Jesus or who may not believe in a formal religion but do all that Jesus called on everyone to do—to love their neighbors and to help those around them.
I believe in a limitless God, not one with any kind of limiting box around Him, and that anything is possible. To me that is the definition of faith, and is the crossover between just what is comprehended and physically real, and what is believed based on what we cannot see but are convinced to be so. If some of the world’s greatest scientific thinkers can somehow make this trek from what they can prove and what they can have faith in to be true, they provide examples for all of us to have faith in a living acting God.
The Holy Spirit is key in all of this, and we see it in each other as we live our lives in Christ, and with the coming of Pentecost we will celebrate its importance in our faith experience.
The rest of my words paraphrase our once Canon for Stewardship Lance Ousley, who describes full Christian faith, “as the spiritual response of an open heart filled with the peace and presence of God led by Christ”. But so often we fail to avail ourselves to the Spirit, relegating the transformational simply to the technical. It is easier for us to keep this transformational process in our heads than allowing it to fill our hearts. But as a living response to the depth of our love of Christ it is what brings integrity to the faith we proclaim that we have in a culture that is counter to what we believe.
Peter urges us to avail ourselves to the "spiritual milk" that we may grow in our faith and respond accordingly. This is a transformational process that is shaped by integrated action. Peter reminds us that we have been pressed into service through our faith and that we are called to offer spiritual sacrifices in our lives.
Jesus desires to set us at ease telling us not to be troubled, but to have faith in God and in him. Jesus seeks to instill confidence in his disciples (and all of us) through the reality of his relationship with God and the witness of his works. In this, he also urges us that the integrity of our actions with our faith are a strong witness to the faith we proclaim. Jesus also is encouraging us that this integration of faith and action are the result of a relationship with God that fills the heart. It is through committed and persistent practice of our faith with open hearts that we are transformed into this "royal priesthood" offering spiritual sacrifices with all that we are and all that we have to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Note: I continue to see this in how our St. Mark’s community lives and acts with each other and in the world. Thanks be to God for this way of being Christians.