A sermon for Easter 5: Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
I am in a quandary this morning. Today is mothers’ day. It is also the Sunday we read about St. Stephen being martyred. Stephen is a good man. He is one of a few who are chosen to ensure Greek-speaking Christians got a fair share of daily food distribution. He is far more than a counter clerk or table waiter. Stephen has a powerful Spirit and an eloquent voice. He is not afraid to share the first, with skillful use of the second. His verbal joust with the Freedmen’s synagogue leads to false charges of blasphemy and an appearance before the council. There he there he openly talks about Israel’s history of failure to follow God’s law, naming the Temple authorities, Pharisees, Sadducees, and historical figures all the way back to Moses. His fearless spirit, eloquence, and power stir up such passions that the Jews stone him to death. (Sakenfeld) In addition to Stephen’s personal qualities, he is also a mother’s son. And I know she would be proud of who he was. So, how am I to preach about a son’s death, and pay homage to Mothers’ Day. Maybe by reflecting on how Jesus and the disciples say good-bye; because Stephen left us with more than a story of spirit and strength; Stephen leaves us with the challenge to live life differently (Lewis). To do that we begin by being honest with ourselves, by examining the behaviors of Stephen’s adversaries
We pick up the story in mid-action. After the Stephen is taken to the council, he retells Israel’s history, with an emphasis on their unfaithful behavior. Then he charges them:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it (Acts 7:51-53).
That sent the crowd over the edge. Luke writes “[they] ground their teeth at Stephen.” Grinding teeth is a sign of the anger of those who oppose God’s servants; an example is Psalm 37:12 The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them. Matthew uses the phrase to tell about those excluded from the kingdom. and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:42). Here it is an expression of righteous outrage (Wall). This is one of those biblical expressions that does not get proper attention. We tend to envision it as something an actor might do to express a feeling. But it is deeper than that. I know several people who have dental problems because they grind their teeth. The causes can an abnormal bite, missing or crooked teeth, a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea; but it can also be caused by stress and anxiety (WebMD). I’m not casting any judgments, but stress and anxiety can be related to stubborn refusal to acknowledge the truth you just do not want to face. I suspect people’s habit of clenching their teeth as a physical expression of an extreme effort to control anger qualifies for biblically grinding teeth.
A bit later we hear they cover their “uncircumcised ears” referring to a stubbornness that prevents the council from hearing the true word of God Stephen spoke (Sakenfeld). When you think about it, they have doubled down, by covering their ears so they cannot hear, with ears that are already unable to hear the truth.
This is another expression that reveals common behaviors. Our kids could never hear us call them unless it involved something they were excited about. Angie tells me I never hear her unless she is saying “dinner is ready.” You get the idea; we are very good at not hearing what we do not want to know.
We now have two traits to look for in our self-examination: anger expressed in grinding or clenching teeth, and voluntary deafness. I expect all of us can tell at least one story involving us clenching our teeth or choosing not to hear. I am sure all of those stories involve some sort of emotional angst, some deep sorrow or trouble. This raises the uncomfortable possibility that we are not all that different from the mob that stones Stephen. Maybe we are not; but, ~ we can be.
Part of my seminary experience was Clinical Pastoral Education. It is a program where you go to a big hospital, or some large ministry center to learn how to be pastoral. What you do not know go going in is that this is not a skills development experience. CPE, as it is known, is about developing the self-awareness that allows you to identify your physical response to past experiences which provoke an emotional response that gets in the way of your immediate pastoral relationship. For ten or fifteen years of my 23 years in ministry, I have spent some continuing education time exploring Family Systems Theory which puts the same events into a theoretical and practical structure of our family history. The short-hand for all this is getting to know yourself so you can control yourself. Jesus has a similar idea, with a slightly different emphasis.
A point of order here; story order that is. The lectionary is structured in such a way that we are experiencing a flashback. This is not a post-resurrection story from John’s Gospel; this is a pre-crucifixion story. This is the night before. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. He has revealed that one of them will betray him; which introduces all kinds of anxiety. He has told Peter that he will deny him, not once but three times. “Troubled hearts” is very much an understatement. Nonetheless, this is where Jesus starts.
I expect Jesus starts by naming the disciples “troubled hearts” so they could recognize their emotional angst. Jesus did not have ten or fifteen years, and neither did the disciples. Jesus’ next step is to focus on the relationship steps. He and God know each other so well, they are one. Jesus and the disciples know each other very well. Their relationship is so tight that in knowing Jesus they also know God. Jesus is encouraging his disciples, and that includes you ~ and me, to remember their relationship, to keep their belief in him and through that, they are in a relationship with God; not might be, not can be, not will be, but are in a relationship with God ~ right here, right now.
The shorthand for these verses is that the words ‘house’ or ‘dwelling place,’ ‘the way’ and ‘I am’ are all traditional Jewish references to a relationship with God or the revelation of God (O’Day). All of them are inclusive. This means the phrase “No one comes to the Father except through me” is not a road map any more than Thomas’ understanding of “the way” is a road map. It recognizes a particular way of being in a relationship with God, i.e. through Jesus; it does not express an opinion about or exclude, any other relationship with God (O’Day). Jesus’ saying, “I am the resurrection and the life” marks the beginning of a new age, and assures the disciples “nothing, not even death, can separate Jesus and his “own” from God” (O’Day).
One defining characteristic of the God-Jesus relationship is trust. Jesus trusts God enough to die. All this is Jesus’ effort to help the disciples trust God as much as Jesus trusts God; in this particular moment, but also in the moments to come that as we know, will be nearly as anxiety producing. It is also Jesus’ effort to remind us to trust God/Jesus/Spirit in the midst of our teeth gnashing, ear covering, anxiety moments. Jesus is assuring the disciples he is still the way to the peace of God. The rest of the bible story reveals the truth of Jesus’ assurance.
Today, this story is assuring us that Jesus is still the way to the peace that passes all understanding. It is not easy to remember. Which is why we need a faith community to help us remember when worldly affairs drive our anxiety meter to the top. And helping each other is one of the greater works, Jesus assures us we will do. We will help each other, and others, and we can help them because we remember the us-Jesus-God relationship connection is:
- our strong rock,
- our castle safe hold,
- our tower of strength.
Now we flash forward; all the way forward to this very moment. Our world is as troubled as the disciples’ world is troubled, each in its own particular way. Jesus asks the disciples to believe, to trust him just as he trusts God. Through the story, they shepherded we know Christ died. Through their continuing story, we know Christ is risen. Through our mutual trust in the story, we now shepherd we know Christ will come again.
So, do not be afraid, be believing.
Aymer, Margaret. Commentary on Acts 7:55-60. 14 5 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.
Bratt, Doug. Easter 5 A Acts 7:55-760. 14 5 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 14 5 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 14:1-14. 14 5 2017.
Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on John 14:1-14. 12 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.
Lewis, Karoline. “Dear Working Preacher Saying Goodbye.” 14 5 2017. Working preacher.
O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles (NIBC) John 21:25. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.
WebMD. oral-health/guide/teeth-grinding-bruxism. n.d. 10 5 2017. <http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/teeth-grinding-bruxism#1>.