Fifth Sunday of Easter: April 24, 2004.
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
K: Did I hit my head and wake up at a funeral? In the stages of grief, we are finally mourning, but it seems that we are five weeks too late. At first glance, the readings today are all connected to death. Granted, Stephen's martyrdom is not typically read at a funeral, but it does give us a look, however unwanted, at the death of one of the first deacons of the church. I have heard the other texts, even the 1 Peter text, read at funerals. Yes, death connects these texts. But we are standing just this side of the death and resurrection of Jesus, so these texts are about something more profound. These texts are about truth telling.
It is true that Stephen was called into a life of preaching the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection and serving the needs of others because he was transformed by that news. When charges of disrespect were leveled against him, he preached a vehement, passionate sermon, calling his accusers "enemies of God."
T: Stephen tells the truth of Israel. Throughout salvation history, God has used unlikely instruments and means to accomplish his will. And throughout salvation history, humans have repeatedly rejected God's efforts. This is what gets Stephen killed: he tells them the truth about themselves.
K: Stephen was stoned to death because of it. But two men would lose their lives that day. We are told that one of the witnesses (who were obligated to cast the first stones at the accused) was Saul. He, too, would experience death for the sake of the gospel, but not before he died to his old way of living. He would be renamed and given a new identity as Paul. Today, however, it is not inconceivable that his job is to hurl stones at another man.
When we live our lives so completely in service to Jesus, we begin to sound just like Stephen. His last words are eerily familiar, for they were the words Jesus spoke on the cross. Stones kill, and as these instruments of death were taking his life, his last act was in service to others. It is the only way he knew how to be.
T: Suppose that some of the other disciples followed along behind to see what would happen to Stephen. Not a hard leap of imagination; after all, the same author already had Peter following along "at a distance" (Luke 22:54). And, if nobody followed, who told Luke about what happened so he could write it down? Now, suppose you are one of those disciples, hovering at the fringe of the crowd. You just heard Stephen's powerful, moving sermon and watched the crowd grit their teeth and rush your brother, your friend and fellow follower. You watched the stones fly, watched them strike and break skin and bone, watched Stephen's blood flow and splatter. Then you heard his final words: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" Would you have wanted to hear these words from him? Or would you rather have bound that sin to them instead?
K: The truth of the epistle is that stones kill, and stones can build up. In 1 Peter, cold, brutal, life-taking stones have been transformed into the one who is the giver of all life (used through a very feminine metaphor of mother's milk). We also are called to be life-givers, stacked up on top of each other to form "a spiritual house" (v. 5). Can you imagine it? A house that is all arms and legs and hair, flailing all over, trying to keep balance? One body, made from bodies of all different shapes and sizes, mortared together by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Not all will choose to stand on his firm foundation. That is a part of truth telling. For those of us who have accepted the invitation into the sharing of his life, death, and resurrection, we become both building and fellow builder.
The Gospel tells another kind of truth. It answers the questions Why did Jesus leave? Where did Jesus go? I have been reluctant to include the ascension as a part of the story of Jesus, for we do not celebrate the ascension in this Easter season for almost two more weeks. The truth of the matter is, John writes his story, in a sense, backwards. He is unapologetically writing from the sure knowledge of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. By the time John writes it all down, it has already happened, and these are exactly the questions with which John must grapple.
T: We get this text after the death and resurrection have happened. Yet, in the context of John's narrative, it is yet to come. I call this "ecclesiastical whiplash"--when the chronology of our lectionary doesn't match the chronology of the originals, or of the narrative. Here John explains something that, in a sense, is going to happen. Yet, he is also explaining something that's already happened. For John, in a sense, these are both the same. John clearly takes a cosmological view of time: "In the beginning was the Word...." So in terms of John's worldview, this whiplash is maybe not that big a deal. But it certainly colors our proclamation of the text on this day. What does it mean to hear Jesus speak of a future that we have already been through?
K: The first verse of this text has a variant translation. The end of the verse is most commonly translated "Believe in God, believe also in me" (v. 1). The verse can be translated "Believe into God, believe into me." As in last week's Gospel text, there is a more intimate relationship established. Where is Jesus? Mutually, intimately connected with God. A Confirmation student once said, "So, they are living together!"
Yes, they are. But what does this house to which Jesus is going look like?
I attended a funeral where the preacher spent a great deal of time talking about the promised home Jesus had built for all of those who believed in him. He painted a vivid picture of gold-dripping walls, bejeweled avenues, and velvety beds. Then he sang a song about pearl-encrusted gates of heaven and the platinum throne of God. I remember feeling empty as I listened to this description of where Jesus had gone. I kept thinking that it was a beautiful place, if you liked interior decorating in that style, but it felt void of the presence of Jesus. Would I really want all that grandeur if Jesus wasn't there?
The place of God that we search for is a place in God's family. Jesus did that for us. He secured us a way to that place. We come into, believe into Jesus as the revelation of God in our lives. It is then that we can tell the truth about who we are. We share in the work of Jesus, God's work in the world. We are people who point to the one who reveals Godself to the world, Jesus the Christ. KH/TK
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2005|
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