sermon on Acts7:55-60; 1Pet2:2-10; John14:1-14
If your faith is going to get you killed, you might like to anticipate it and know why. That’s just one question of life’s trajectory as followers of Jesus in the surprise our first reading presents.
In Acts, we heard the very end of a story. Not even catch-as-catch-can to pick up in the middle of things, the lectionary drops it, leaving us with a shocked “what-the-heck-caused-that?!” No sooner had Stephen opened his mouth than the mob was dragging him out to stone him to death. It’s violent, and jaw-droppingly, abruptly so. You can’t even avert your attention, it hit so suddenly without the rest of the story.
As it happens, Stephen seemed ready for it, even if we weren’t. Our snippet gave practically no indication of what led to his tragic fate. From this ending, Stephen is identified as the first Christian martyr, usually meaning the first to be killed for following Jesus. Now, if one can evidently be brutally lynched not only for being Jesus but for following Jesus, we might want to back up to figure out why to anticipate that.
Last week, I mentioned how—in spite of their best intentions—the food pantry of the early Christian communists wasn’t running fairly. Chapter 6 of Acts described ethnic discrepancies that meant certain widows weren’t getting their share in the daily distribution. Without explaining too much dynamics, it’s as if German-heritage Lutherans like me neglected responsibility to Scandinavians for somehow considering them inferior or secondary. (Nevermind that—both in Acts and our own history—things continued to spread exponentially past those kind of restrictive confines, since the Holy Spirit always plans beyond the stubborn barriers we erect).
Besides the first problem of dumb injustices of ethnic boundaries, it also turned out that the core group of 11 (or 12) apostles who had been closest to Jesus said they were too busy to worry about the food pantry, saying they had to preach sermons so others needed to be found to staff the pantry.
That’s where Stephen came in, as the central one along with six others hired or commissioned to be deacons. It’s a word literally for “waiter,” for one who serves food. (We’ve continued to use the term for distinctions in church. Last summer at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly it was adopted as the term for official roles other than pastors. Pastors are responsible for Word and Sacrament, while deacons are those officially involved in Word and Service categories of ministry.)
Like that, Stephen is chosen with Philip and five others especially to serve food. But no sooner were they in the role than Stephen wound up a preacher anyway. This pattern is consistent in the book of Acts and is kind of funny. I mentioned in Bible discussion a couple weeks ago that, even though we know this book as “Acts of the Apostles,” it could better be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit,” since she’s constantly undoing the Acts the Apostles have done!
In this case, the apostles said they had to focus on sermons so somebody else should serve food. But Stephen got put on trial and needed to defend himself, and so the guy selected for food service wound up chosen by the Spirit to preach the longest sermon in the whole book of Acts. In the chapter after this, another deacon, Philip, ends up fulfilling Jesus’ words about being witnesses to the ends of the earth as he preaches to an Ethiopian eunuch.
So much for the apostles trying to stake out their turf or for Peter’s central place in charge of the church’s hierarchy! We constantly learn that the Holy Spirit isn’t too interested in the center, much less who thinks they’re in charge, but keeps pushing to edges of new beginnings.* Stephen’s sermon proclaimed that humans all too often reject as unpopular how God has chosen to act. As if to prove his point, they kill the messenger.
For the original question of what got Stephen killed, what prompted the unleashing of this aggression against him, a basic answer is that he was trying to take seriously what faith meant in following the God of Jesus.
Maybe more to the point for us, the model isn’t that you should be getting folks so ticked off they want to crush you. Though his words commending his spirit to God and responding to the hatred with a prayer for forgiveness echo the model in Jesus’ own crucifixion, Stephen’s faith isn’t just for the ending. Though we might wonder if we’d be ready to die faithfully, it’s also good to practice long before the end. Stephen is a martyr in the fuller biblical sense, not merely for getting killed, but as a witness, that commending your life into God’s care is the greatest power. The rejection and being driven out by people cannot rupture that relationship, since nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
This week I happened across an essay from Luther suggesting when frightened or attacked by anything—not just an angry gang—to resist by saying, “No, you’ll not have the last word!…If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine.”**
And yet, maybe we need to step back a bit. If you’re not awaiting a moment when a mob will seize you and drag you out of town, if testifying by confronting heresy isn’t really the epitome of what seems to matter about faith, if your main question isn’t really even whether God’s love is stronger than death, if it’s not so much about standing firm in the face of horrible fears for some ultimate ending, then you may instead have questions about getting to the middle of the story.
That pairs with our Gospel reading. In fact, it’s almost directly what Thomas asks and another Philip reiterates, a question not so concerned about the final endpoint but about the meantime, the middle of the story. Thomas says it this way: “Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way to get there?” It’s tough to arrive at your destination if you don’t even know which roads to take.
But Jesus doesn’t reply with pointers to start those disciples down the right path of living a bit more faithfully. He doesn’t say, “Well, why don’t you try to be nicer to your family? Maybe you should gossip less? Or isn’t it about time you check the list of volunteer opportunities to see where your skills could be helpful?” He doesn’t ask what injustices you’re confronting and certainly doesn’t prompt, “So…how are you doing on your goals and five-year plan?”
In a way, we like those sorts of mileposts to measure progress, though. We might not feel so saintly as Stephen, but certainly must be doing better than the murderous mob. When things aren’t going the direction we’d want, we perversely even like those directional indicators for offering blame, even when it lands back on ourselves for straying from the straight and narrow, or failing to make the improvements we’d intended.
Instead of giving directions, though, Jesus says I AM the way. Now, that’s not as Jesus himself is directions or instructions or measurements of comparison. Neither is it that he is a means to your end, as if he’s the rocketship you climb aboard for a ride to heaven. No, Jesus is saying: don’t try to get elsewhere because I’m already with you.
That’s still not satisfactory for the disciples, though. This other Philip asks for something else: “Show us God and we’ll be satisfied.” Jesus says, that’s what I’ve been showing you this whole time, throughout the story! Don’t go looking for something different, waiting for more spiritual sensations, wandering off after shiny new and improved-ness, expecting you’ll get it all figured out, all mapped out. I bring God’s presence for you, Jesus says. And just after this he says, when I’m not here, you’ll have my Spirit. God always with you! That’s what you need! That’s it.
Yet that brings us even further back. If we aren’t confronting the ultimate end like Stephen, of needing to declare faithfully that our lives are in Jesus’ hands, and if like Thomas and Philip we’ve received the assurance that Jesus is with us even though we’re not sure where we’re headed or how to place our next steps, then that brings us all the way back to the first verse from 1st Peter: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation, tasting that the Lord is good.” Like newborn infants, you are nursed and nourished and nurtured and raised by this mothering God’s goodness. Commending your life into God’s care or committing to God’s pathways isn’t something you even need to do because you are carried already and always in God’s arms, sustained by God offering herself for you, from giving you birth, through life, beyond death, to new beginnings.
That’s tenderly wonderful good news, but it also comes with an ongoing awareness: you may wish it were so quick and simple as going down defiantly in a blaze of glory, with a heavenly vision as you’re confidently facing foul villains. But faith isn’t about Stephen’s ending. Even he witnessed that the Holy Spirit continued to abide with him. His life was already and always in Jesus’ hands. Neither, then, is this about changing your path, about needing to reorient your life. I find the term “followers of Jesus” generally helpful for us these days, but that isn’t trying to indicate that you’re following Jesus off elsewhere. He is with you.
Yet for this elusive assurance to be most effective, you probably need constant doses of it. If you’re longing for the pure, spiritual milk like newborn infants, a newborn nurses like eight or a dozen times per day, right? At best, you’re getting communion here and tasting that good gift from God once a week. Not that being away from here removes you from God’s maternal, eternal care or excludes you from God’s embrace. Far from saying that at all. But if you have to wait a week, you’re probably starving, longing, bawling and crying out, or just feeling so faithfully vulnerable, in desire for another feeding of this pure, spiritual milk to fill you with what you need to live, to satisfy your spirit, and revive your growth.
So, to continue to nurse and nurture you for the days ahead, here’s once again the assurance: you are a beloved child of God and nothing can separate you from that. And why don’t you turn an become surprising preachers for each other. Make the sign of the cross on each other’s forehead with those words: you are a beloved child of God and nothing can separate you from that.
* See Justo Gonzalez Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit on these observations
** Luther’s Works, vol43, p128 “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”
I believe there are worthwhile reasons Jesus refers to God the Father. But today some of those reasons are offset by Mothers’ Day, which gives us good reason to hear this passage with its very Father-heavy language instead in a motherly way:
The holy gospel according to John.
Glory to you, O Lord.
[Jesus said,] “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Mother’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and 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. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Mother except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Mother also. From now on you do know her and have seen her.”
8Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Mother, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Mother. How can you say, ‘Show us the Mother’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Mother and the Mother is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Mother who dwells in me does her works. 11Believe me that I am in the Mother and the Mother is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Mother. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Mother may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God within us, for the Word of God among us, thanks be to God.