Sunday, April 20, 2008

Five Easter
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Into thy hand I commend my spirit: Thou hast redeemed me, O Jehovah, thou God of truth…

Stephen was not one of the twelve apostles. He was specially chosen to help with the administration of the church so that the apostles could focus on teaching and preaching. In Acts chapter six, the Twelve said to the gathered disciples, “It is not fit that we should forsake the word of God, and serve tables.” So, they selected seven men to serve as deacons. The Greek word for deacon means literally “to wait on.” Their job was to ensure the proper distribution of the gifts for the well-being of the congregation. Some of the widows were being left out, hungry despite their faith in Christ, perhaps because they were foreigners. The seven were very carefully chosen so that there would be no semblance of favoritism.

These men were described as ‘waiters’ and yet their job was so much more. In the story of Stephen we learn that he was full of God’s grace and power. He did great wonders and miraculous signs. He faced persecution, was arrested and charged with blasphemy. Stephen did not remain silent while he waited on tables. Those who opposed the spread of Christianity brought him to court. “We have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered unto us.” To them, this was blasphemy because their entire understanding of God was wrapped up in the Temple and in the Law.

When asked by the Sanhedrin about his message, Stephen responded with a lengthy sermon about how Moses pointed toward the day when God’s promises would be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. They were furious, of course, and took him outside to be stoned.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine a stoning to be a chaotic moment. I suppose it is based on representations I’ve seen on film or in paintings. It seemed to me that a stoning was like a lynching: a mob gets angry about something (real or imagined) and take matters into their own hands. In the case of a stoning, I thought they simply picked up the stones at their feet and began to throw them at the criminal (or victim). This seemed like a foolish way of dealing with a criminal. After all, few people have really good aim. The crowd risked injury as they surrounded the victim. The stones throne at the criminal might actually reach the people on the other side.

As I understand it now, a stoning was much more organized. The crowds gathered around a pit that was about four feet deep. The trial happened at the edge of the pit, with witnesses giving their testimony before the crowd and a prosecutor who was present to insure that the trial and punishment was done properly. If the party was deemed guilty and deserving of a stoning, the one of the witnesses pushed him from behind into the pit, head first. If he did not die from the fall, a second witness dropped a stone on his heart. If he still did not die, the crowds were given leave to throw stones at him until he died. In this story, it seems that Saul was there to stand as the prosecutor, to ensure that everything was done properly.

Stephen did not fear death or the consequences of his words, for he knew he was speaking the truth. As they were stoning him he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell to his knees and said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” He asked for their forgiveness even as they were about to murder him. In his life and in his death, Stephen exemplified the life Christ calls us to live and the mission He calls us to do: share the Gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Are you at all bothered by verse twelve of our Gospel lesson this week? Jesus says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto the Father.” Taken in the context of John’s gospel, Jesus has done some miraculous signs. He changed water into very fine wine. He healed the dying son of a royal official. He cured a man who had been crippled for a long time. He fed five thousand people with just five small barley loaves and two small fish. He walked on water. He healed a man born blind. He raised Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb. These signs, according to John, were the evidence that Jesus was one with the Father.

Now, in the early pages of the New Testament we hear of the disciples and apostles doing some pretty amazing things. Peter healed a cripple and raised Dorcas from the dead. Peter escaped from prison and Paul survived incredible experiences on land and sea. The Church grew rapidly, missions were planted and people were changed. In the stories of the early Christians and martyrs we hear accounts of incredible and miraculous things happening by them, with them, through them.

When was the last time you heard about someone rising from the dead? I’ve heard that it still happens in regions where the Gospel is just beginning to take hold, where faith is still new and Christians are still passionate. However, I think we would have heard if someone was prayed back to life after being dead for several days, like Dorcas. I think it would make the news if a man who’d been paralyzed for most of his life would begin to walk with just a word. Perhaps these things do happen—people come out of comas and people are able to learn to walk after years of rehabilitation. These are no less miraculous than what Peter did by faith, but the glory is rarely God’s. We credit the doctors who find the cure and thank the physical therapist who patiently works with the patient.

How can we do anything greater than Jesus? Even if we, by faith, bring life to a lifeless body, how is that greater than what Jesus did with Lazarus? Which of us hasn’t attended a potluck dinner that managed to feed hundreds with only a few delicious dishes? But is that greater than what Jesus did on that hillside two thousand years ago? We might be able to explain away stories like Jesus’ walking on water and the calming of the storm with scientific explanations as some often try to do, but can we really make these things happen?

What did He mean? Did He really mean that the miracles we will see will be greater even than what He did? Or is there some greater mission for which we have been sent into the world? People are sick, lonely, burdened, imprisoned, hungry and poor. The church has worked for millennia to help ease the pain which is suffered in this world. This is a wonderful mission. Yet, people from every religion respond to the world’s troubles with similar service according to their own faith. People from every religion pray. They see miracles happen because of their faith. They find peace and joy in their worship. They have fellowship with other believers and they do good works for their neighbor. Christians are not unique in this type of life.

Christians are called to something greater—a ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. According to John’s Gospel, the greatest sign, or miracle, of Jesus was His death on the cross, because there He defeated death and sin to reconcile us to God through His forgiveness. People are not saved by good works. They are saved by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We are called to take Jesus Christ into the world, to share His grace and His mercy. There is a chasm between God and man much greater than we ourselves can cross. We try to do so with good works, even following the example of Jesus’ kindness and compassion. We are merciful to our neighbor. But there is no hope in works righteousness because we can’t do enough to earn the grace of God. We have no assurance that we have done enough.

Stephen fed the hungry and met the needs of the poor, all the while sharing the Gospel of grace. Even at the point of death, Stephen cried out to the Lord to forgive those who were about to kill him. Jesus said we will do greater things, and that is what Stephen did. He is remembered as the first martyr, and so he was the first to follow Jesus into death. Yet, his martyrdom did not earn him a place in heaven or a reward of eternal life. That was won at the cross of Christ. Our mission is not just about living the example of Christ in the world; it is about sharing the forgiveness He brought to the world through His death on the cross. There God is truly glorified.

Jesus is not simply one of the ways to God, He is the way, the truth and the life. His way is not just a right way to get to heaven. Jesus did not say that those who think or act as He does will inherit the kingdom of God. He said, “No one cometh unto the Father, but by me.” Jesus is the gate that leads to eternal life. There is no other way. There are those, even some Christians, who see Jesus as merely another chapter in the story of God. To them, Jesus need not be the only way to God, but rather an example of one path we can take to know God. Peter, however, identifies Jesus as the foundation of our faith.

Our image of a cornerstone is little more than a ceremonial stone that is usually situated at about eye level, engraved with the date and other information having to do with the building. Though the stone is representative of the foundation stone, it is rarely foundational at all. The placement is specific, symbolic of some ancient practice. Sometimes the cornerstone is not even laid until after the building is complete, put into place at the dedication. It is more symbolic than foundational; the building can stand without that stone.

The cornerstone was much more important in ages past. The stone was generally laid at the northeast corner of the building site, a placement that promised prosperity and fortunate circumstances for the people who would work, dwell or worship in the building. It was the cornerstone that laid the lines of the building. Each stone was set in relation to the cornerstone. If any of the sides were off by even fractions of an inch, the entire building would end up out of alignment. It had to be perfect, which is why the builders often rejected many stones before choosing the one to be used for the foundation.

The ceremony included some sort of offering, whether it was grain, wine and oil or blood. In some places even today, a chicken, ram or lamb is slain on our near the cornerstone, its blood washed over the stone and then the body buried beneath the stone. In even more ancient days the body was human. It was thought that the offering gave strength and stability to the building.

In some places it is the man’s shadow that is buried beneath the cornerstone. A man is persuaded to stand with his shadow over the place where the stone will be laid. The stone is lowered in place. Though the man is in no danger during this ceremony, it was believed that the man whose shadow was buried would die within a year. In some places, the man was expected to die within forty days. To bury the shadow was believed to be like the burial of a man’s soul and because he is dispossessed of it will die.

God sees perfection from a much different perspective than human beings. In God’s mind, perfection is not judged by outward image. While we are able to make some scholarly guesses about Jesus’ appearance, we have no pictures that would help us identify Him if He were to walk down the street today. God recognized His perfection by His obedience. He willingly became the cornerstone, suffered the burial of His shadow, and allowed His blood to wash over the foundation. He was laid in the ground and it is Him that God uses to line up the other bricks in His Church. One by one we who are His bricks—the saints from past, present and future—are laid on the foundation of Christ.

Peter writes, “But ye are a elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: who in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” We have been called to be the people of God, not just to serve the world but to belong to God and declare His praises. This is not an easy life to live. It goes against the expectations of the world. Those who serve God and share His word are often persecuted. For Stephen and many others over the course of Christian history, the persecution led to death. This is not something we take lightly. It is something that requires deep faith.

Yet, we are beings that require tangible evidence of things for us to really believe. Science helps us to sort out the things of creation that we want to understand better, but allowing us to see it with tangible evidence. It is so much easier to understand the miracles of Jesus and the apostles from a scientific point of view. Take, for instance, the resurrection of Lazarus. Some suggest that Lazarus was never really dead, but in a coma. We can’t prove it today to know it is true. We have to trust in the scriptures and believe. In all things, God is beyond being proven with science. That does not stop us from wanting to see Him with our eyes, hear Him with our ears, and touch Him with our hands. Jesus answered, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.”

Philip said, “Show us the Father.” He wanted to believe, but without something on which He could grasp his senses and his mind, he was having a hard time with belief. He just wanted Jesus to show him some tangible evidence. It is certainly not too much to ask from a man who was demanding such an extraordinary sacrifice of His followers. Don’t be troubled? How can we go through even a day without a bit of worry, especially when our world seems to be falling apart? Believe in someone? People fail us every day. They break promises. They break our hearts. It is no wonder that Philip wanted something to help him hold on to the hope which Jesus was promising.

We are so skeptical about the promises of God. After all, we’ve heard that there is no such thing as a free lunch. We know that this is not entirely true, but for some people, perhaps there really is no such thing. Either they expect something in return, or think the giver will expect repayment. God’s way is different. He does not need anything we have; He gives freely out of His love for His creation. That is why we take refuge in God when we face difficulty, committing our souls to His care no matter what should happen. For no matter what happens to our bodies, God has rescued us from death through the blood of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. He has laid down the future not only of an earthly Church that does good work, but of an eternal kingdom where we will dwell in the presence of God forever.

A building stands as a testament to the work of the architect, the builders and the patrons. So, too, we stand as a testament to the work of God in this world. He is glorified in our life together. We are built on that cornerstone that is Christ. Jesus was rejected; they did not see what God knew to be true. He was faithful. He was obedient. He was truly perfect in every way and God made Him the foundation of the kingdom He would build. He continues to build, lining us up, carefully placing each one of His children as part of the Church on earth.

We are called to live in hope no matter the circumstances we face. We are called to dwell in the presence of God today because He will help us through our troubles, even unto death. And we are called to share the hope of the promise with all those who cross our path no matter the consequences. For in doing so, in sharing the forgiveness of God and helping God in the ministry of reconciliation, we will truly see greater things happen than ever happened with Jesus in flesh. He went to be with the Father so we could be His hands, and mouths, in this world. By sharing His Word, by sharing Him, we bring forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.

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