A sermon for Easter 5
Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
There is something divinely humorous touched with irony that on the Sunday I’m scheduled to be at Calvary the reading would be about St. Stephen. But before we get to acting out I mean Acts, a word from Joseph Campbell.
Campbell has a special place in my life. I know of his writings about myths and heroes, and one day I intend to read them; however, it was his answer to an unknown question from Bill Moyer:
If you are on the wrong path you know it, if you are on the right path you know it, and if you ever sell out for money you are lost.
that set off the chain of events leading to my accepting God’s call to priest hood, the five year journey to ordination and the six or seventeen year journey here. In many respects that decision lives out another Campbell quote I heard the other night as the ending on Criminal Minds:
We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. [i]
The struggle to do jut this is seen in Thomas and Phillip in today’s Gospel reading, and in Stephen’s martyrdom.
We’ve skipped ahead several chapters in John. Jesus has just washed the disciples’ feet during the Passover Supper. He has told them: he is going to be betrayed; instructed them to love each other, as he has loved them; and told Peter he will deny him three times before the morning comes, with the crock’s crowing.
From this morning’s gospel we hear him, tell the disciples no worries believe in God, believe in him, he is providing a place them and they know the way. Thomas, never one to hold back from asking the unspeakable obvious answers:
Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
“the way” connects with his I am the gate … statement from last week proclaiming he is the whole in the wall, the way through that which separates us from God’s presence. “No one comes … except through me” isn’t an excluding qualification. It alludes to the connection between God and the Word in the prologue. [ii] *
Gail O’Day writes:
[this phrase expresses the] unshakable belief that the coming of Jesus, the Word made flesh, decisively altered the relationship between God and humanity. These words affirm that Jesus is the tangible presence of God. … [it] is the joyous affirmation of a religious community that does, indeed, believe that God is available to them decisively in the incarnation. [iii]
Phillip just wants to see the Father. With satire in his voice Jesus replies:
You’ve been looking at him all these years. When you see me, you see him.
He goes on to say:
those who believe will do similar and greater works. What you ask in my name I will do.
It is easy to interpret this to mean ask for whatever you want and if you believe enough Jesus will do it for you. This is a common prosperity Gospel reading, and it can do great harm. First, it sets folks up for failure, I prayed for … it didn’t come to be, I guess I don’t believe enough. Second, it ignores the critical phrase the works I do. Jesus is empowering us to continue his ministry to invite people to come and see, and to join in fulfilling the purpose of John’s Gospel account:
so that [others] may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing … have life in his name.
It is clear that neither Thomas nor Phillip understand what Jesus is saying. They, and to be honest all the rest of the disciples don’t get it, at least not yet. But it seems the community of The Way is making progress in storytelling, because it’s also clear that Stephen does get it.
Just in case you aren’t familiar with Stephen’s story he was:
- the first of the first seven deacons, chosen by the Apostles to serve the physical needs of the nascent community.
- He was full of grace whose works and signs drew the attention and ire of, some in, the Freedman Synagogue, who conspired to charge him with blasphemy.
- He was arrested, and offers a stunning eloquent defense that only further enrages people, so they stone him to death.
This morning’s reading starts as the stoning starts. Stephen sees Jesus standing at God’s right hand, he doesn’t call out for relief, he invites the people to look and see; they won’t. Near his death Stephen asks God to have mercy on his killers.
It is important to understand this is not a Christian verses Jewish argument, it’s the traditional version of Jewish history verses a Christ centered version of Jewish history. In his argument he aligns the people of The Way with Abraham, Joseph, the Prophets and Jesus and the associates his opponents with the Egyptians, Joseph’s brothers, the rebellion in the wilderness, and ancestors who killed the prophets. [iv] To put this in Joseph Campbell’s terms Stephen is showing them the life that is awaiting them, when the give up the life they’ve planned. Like Thomas and Phillip, in today’s Gospel story, the people of Freedman synagogue cannot give up what they’ve so long held true.
There is no question we live in tumultuous times. Some changes such as the Big River Steel project we are ecstatic about; perhaps overly so, the project can be a great benefit to Mississippi County; but ~ it will not be the savior of Osceola or the county. Other changes such as health care insurance and the status of state laws about marriage many are not so ecstatic about. Common Core and related education changes are disturbing many. And to be honest we continue to fear demographic changes
- declining population
- the aging of the population and
- growing non Caucasian peoples;
and it is a daunting reality.
You know well, that Calvary faces challenges of your own. How we have been stewards of Jesus’ ministry in years past isn’t working any longer. The ministry itself, to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and to invite others to come and see is and always will be valid. How we go about it must change with the times. It has changed in the past, the Reformation, printed materials, the bible and worship in English, actually not in Latin, women serving in elected church offices, women ordained priest and bishops, are all examples of historic changes that preceded us. None were easy. All required that we … let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.
So here is the challenge we face: to believe, to trust God in Jesus so much that we can let go of what we are grasping so we can grasp what God is offering. [v] Not all the particulars have been revealed, but you know the magnitude of the changes. Resist them, and I do not know what will be save more of the same. Embrace them and know the glory, the presence of God in ways you’ve not imagined.
[ii] Gail O’Day New Interpreters’ Bible THE GOSPEL OF JOHN INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
*John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
[iv] Mikeal C. Parsons, Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL) http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2069 1/3 Commentary on Acts 7:55-60
[v] Mike Kinmen, Executive Director ERD,