Sunday, May 22, 2011

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

And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

We were in the car early this morning, headed to the airport, when I threw out the question, ďSo, who died on your show last night?Ē See, we had a house full of girls, part of a group of students from Victoriaís college who were traveling to Germany on a learning trip. Several of the girls were coming from far away and the flight left very early in the morning. It was easier for them to gather in one place and I willingly took them all to the airport. During the evening we had two televisions turned to favorite shows that were airing their season finales. A couple of the girls were interested in only one of the shows, the others in both. Both shows expected someone to die, one typical of the show, the other a shocker. When I asked the question of the girls who watched the other show, the girls that watched with me screamed ďNO!Ē They didnít want to know until they were able to watch the show for themselves. They didnít want the surprise ruined.

Iíve seen this played on sitcoms regularly. A character generally records a game when they have to do something else while it is being aired. Then they spend the entire show avoiding anyone or anything that will ruin it for them. The quest is made harder by the other characters who have already seen the game and want to talk about it. Theyíll ask anyone, ďCan you believe so and so did this or that this team did that?Ē As the question is being asked, the character who wants to see the game will cry out ďNOĒ and cover their ears so that they will not hear.

What other reasons do we have for covering our ears? Children will do it when they donít want to hear a parentís chastisement. An angry person will do it when they refuse to see the other side of a story. A jilted girlfriend will do it when she no longer trusts the man she thought she loved. A passionate believer will do it because nothing will change the way they believe. We stop listening when the words coming out of anotherís mouth will destroy something in our own life: our security, our ego, our faith.

In the case of those Jews in todayís story from Acts, they placed their hands over their ears because they believed that Stephenís words were blasphemous. They were afraid that even hearing the words would be destructive. Stephen claimed to see Jesus at the right hand of God, a description of the Messiah that is based in scripture but they were not ready to accept that Jesus was actually the fulfillment of the prophecies. Besides, for them the expected Messiah would be nothing but a human king, not an embodiment of the Living God. It was blaspheme to give Jesus this honor.

Stephen knew Jesus was who He said He was and willingly spoke the words to the crowd, despite the certain death he would face. He was stoned for speaking out against the Temple and the Law, but the crowd became overwhelming angry because he claimed to have a vision of heaven that was completely against their understanding of God.

In my mindís eye, I imagine a stoning to be a chaotic moment. I suppose it is based on representations Iíve 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.

A stoning was actually 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, then 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, ďLord Jesus, receive my spirit.Ē Then he fell to his knees and said, ďLord, lay not this sin to their charge.Ē 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.

It is true that we would live in a better world if people would be kinder and more compassionate to one another. Yet, I donít know a person that would disappoint me if I truly needed help. We see it every time there is a natural disaster: the public comes through with donations of gifts and money, as well as with a helping hand. Could we all do more? Yes, Iím sure we could, but I donít think thatís the problem. Perhaps I am naÔve, but I do not think we are as self-centered as many make us out to be. We have gotten lost. We donít always respond as we should. We donít always speak out when our words might make a difference in anotherís life. We are, all too often, blind to the problems of our neighbors, not only because we do not see but sometimes because they donít let us see. But, when the going gets tough, we do get going.

Jesus told us that the poor would always be with us. This is true. It is also true that it is our personal responsibility to share the gifts God has given us with others. But what we need most in this world is reconciliation and forgiveness. Yet how many even think they need to be forgiven? Rather than seeking the justification of God, we justify our sins as if they are God-given rights or even personal expressions of our own lives. Even worse, we no longer recognize that sin is more than just the things we do wrong. It is the separation that was created between God and man in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve rejected Godís Word and chose to believe the serpent. So today we ask the question, ďDid God really say?Ē and we find ways to juxtapose our wants and desires alongside Godís truth. Then we wonder why we are not doing the greater things Jesus promised us in todayís Gospel lesson.

Jesus said, ďVerily, 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. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.Ē Did Jesus mean that we would do greater signs than He, like raise the dead and heal the sick? Certainly the apostles continued to do such signs in Jesusí name as they took the Gospel to the world. There are those who would say that we are not doing these things because we do not have enough faith. Others claim that the age of miracles is over, that God is no longer working in that way.

However, I would like to suggest that we arenít doing the greater works because we have forgotten the source and reason for those miracles. As we begin to accept all belief systems as valid ways to the Father, then there is no need to share the message of reconciliation and forgiveness that makes Christian faith unique. Yes, people of all faiths do good works, care for the poor and are merciful. Weíd rather not insult or offend others, so we keep silent. We allow others to set Jesus alongside the other great men of faith, to make Him equal or even subordinate to the prophets of the past and present. He is teacher, friend, prophet, healer, radical, community organizer, one way of faith, and we are afraid to stand like Stephen and proclaim the reality of Jesus. We do good works in the hopes that someone will see God in our actions, but we never say the words that bring forgiveness and true salvation to the world.

I love the wise saying of St. Francis of Assisi which says, ďPreach always, when necessary use wordsĒ for this teaches us that we should always be walking in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in everything that we do. But this wise saying is used as an excuse for silence. We refuse to share our witness with others because we feel that it is enough to act. People are not saved by good works. They are saved by the Word of God: Jesus Christ. If we never proclaim His place at the right hand of God or tell the world who He is, they will not hear and be saved. If we never talk about sinfulness, our innate imperfection, they will never know Godís forgiveness.

If those good works are enough to ensure Godís mercy and grace, then there is no need to trust in God. If we are not sinners in need of a Savior, then we have no need to cry out to God to be our refuge. I imagine that Stephen may have prayed the words of todayís Psalm, seeking Godís mercy in the midst of the worldís persecution. ďInto your hand I commit my spirit.Ē But if good works are enough, then we do not need to commend ourselves into Godís hands. If good works are enough, then our prayers for Godís shining light become less a need for salvation and more a demand for glory.

Jesusí grace is not exclusive, for He reaches out to people of every time and place. But there is a chasm much greater than we ourselves can ever cross. We try to do so with good works, following His example of kindness and compassion. We are merciful to our neighbor and do good things for the sake of the world. Yet, there is no hope in works righteousness because we canít do enough to earn the grace of God; we have no assurance that we have done everything necessary. The good people in every religion are making the world a better place, but they are doing so with their own strength and ability. The world will never truly be at peace until Christ rules over all.

There are thoseómany, some that are even found in the Christian churchówho would like to think of 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 the path we are to take to know God. Yet, Peter identifies Jesus as the foundation of our faith. He is the chief cornerstone on which faith is built. Without Him, there is no foundation, no faith. He is, to those of other religious, a stumbling block. They know they need to speak on Him in their writings, but they have to reduce Him to less than He is so that their works of faith will seem to be enough.

Peter writes, ďBut 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.Ē We have been called to be people of God, not just to serve the world, but to belong to God and declare His praises. That includes Jesus, for He is one with the Father.

Jesus is the cornerstone. The cornerstone of modern buildings is little more than a marker, often with dates and other information so that people who visit will have information about the building and builders. Thatís how some want to think of Jesus: He is little more than a marker, a part of Godís story, pointing people toward the Father as others have done.

But in the days of those first Christians, the cornerstone was much more important. 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.

When laying a cornerstone, the builders held a ceremony with offerings of 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. Jesus willingly became the cornerstone of the New Covenant. It was His blood that was washed over the foundation and it is Him that God uses to line up the other bricks in His Church. We are the bricks, and one by one we are laid on the foundation established by and with Christ.

I think some of the hardest words for us to hear is the promise in todayís Gospel lesson, ďAnd whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.Ē I donít know about you, but Iíve asked God for many things. Iím pretty sure I even asked for those things in Jesusí name. Some of those prayers have not been self-centered. Iíve prayed for healing, for peace, for salvation for friends and neighbors. Iíve asked God to reveal Himself to the people who desperately need His grace. Iíve even asked for the courage and the strength to speak the words they need to hear. Yet Iím often disappointed. I donít see miracles. Iím not so sure those greater things ever happen, even though I have asked in Christís name.

We are so skeptical about the promises of God. After all, weíve heard that there is no such thing as a free lunch. How did Stephen feel when his faith in Christ led him to the stoning pit? How do we feel when our faith in Christ leads us to some sort of persecution or rejection? In this world, all things are reciprocated. A free lunch requires something in return, a type of repayment. So, we question the reality of the words we find in these texts because we know that is not how things work. Promises are not enough; belief is not enough. We want something tangible.

Philip said, ďShow us the Father.Ē 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. Donít 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.

But Godís 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. Our good works will fail us because we will fail to do everything that needs to be done. We canít solve the worldís problems with our physical labor or all the money that exists. We need something greater. We need someone greater: Jesus. 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. These are words that need to be heard. Unfortunately, many will cover their ears. They donít want to hear this. They donít want to know that Jesus is the way because they like the path they have chosen.

Because they do not want to hear, we will face persecution and rejection. We probably wonít be stoned and I doubt weíll see a similar fate of the other disciples. That doesnít make the message any easier to speak, especially since the persecution we face might mean the difference between a job or friendship. We might even lose our family over our passionate proclamation of Godís truth. But this is what God calls us to do: speak the truth with grace and mercy. They canít believe if they donít hear. They canít experience Godís forgiveness if they donít know they are in need of it. They wonít be saved if they never realize that they need a Savior. Though they will cover their ears, preach it louder; speak more boldly with love.

Do not be troubled, because even when the world rejects what you, God will not. He will be with you through everything: good and bad. Ultimately, His promises will be fulfilled. Even if we suffer at the hands of enemies that refuse to listen, God has rescued us from the greatest enemy, death. At that moment, weíll see Jesus at the right hand of God, as He welcomes us into Godís glory for eternity. Weíll see Him with outstretched arms ready to draw us into His bosom forever. There in the glorious presence of God weíll know real joy and peace forever.

We are called to live in hope no matter what circumstances we face. In faith we can join with Stephen in crying out to God to be our refuge, so that we might dwell in His presence today, tomorrow and always. And in faith we are sent out to share the hope of that promise with all those who cross our path. It is in the words of forgiveness that all people will be reconciled to God and welcomed into His presence forever. When we speak the words, we will truly see greater things happen because He went to stand with the Father so that we can have His Spirit through whom we can take forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.

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