Year A: The Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 18, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 7:55-60
The contrast between Stephen — “the first Christian martyr” (if you don’t count Jesus)– and Saul is striking. Stephen is older, more experienced; Saul is a “young man.” Stephen is filled with the Spirit, while Saul is filled with rage and zeal for what he thought was right, like everyone else in the crowd that day. Stephen gets a straight-shot view through to heaven, where he can see Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Saul, of course, has yet to gain his spiritual eyes. He is blind to these details, even as he will become blind on the road to Damascus in just a little while.

Not to be missed are the visual and vocal cues connecting Stephen’s faith in God to that of Christ at his own execution. Stephen commits his spirit to Christ, as Christ had done in commending his spirit to God. Amazingly, Stephen prays– as did Jesus on the cross– a form of the “Father forgive them” prayer.

What kind of example do we have here from this outstanding deacon of the church, as well as from Christ himself? “Do not hold this sin against them,” Stephen prayed.

We don’t usually want to let those who have sinned against us off that easily. Like the bumper sticker says, “I don’t get mad — I just get even!” 

In its original context, the word for martyr (martys) simply means someone who suffers — not necessarily dies — for taking a stand. Are we still called to be martyrs — in this sense — for our faith?

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
This psalm text has connections both to the experience of Stephen (see above) and of Christ. Verse 5 is a poignant prayer: “Into your hand I commit my spirit….” Notice that the rest of the verse indicates a future that can already be claimed as present: “…you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”

Perhaps a part of living with the kind of vivid faith exemplified by Stephen and Jesus is the realization that God’s promises for the future actually reach to our present reality. As the psalmist says, “My times [past, present, and future] are in your hand….” 

What segments of your life — past, present, or future — do you need to commit into the hands of God?

1 Peter 2:2-10
Babies are sweet, aren’t they? Bring a newborn baby into any room, and there will be “coos” and “aahs” issued from every direction. We just love to hold them, cuddle them, smell them, and generally “make do” over the little ones!

But babies are a mess, too; let them get hungry, or wet, or dirty and the object of our affections is no longer quite so appealing. We’re soon looking for the momma or the daddy in order to hand them off. Nobody likes dealing with an upset baby!

All the more reason to see Peter’s analogy as an apt description of the necessity of nurturing new Christians in the faith. It is an exciting prospect to receive young members of the faith into our churches, through confirmation or “profession of faith.” We love to “coo and aah” over such events, and everybody in the congregation feels a bit like proud parents. But, then the messy work of growing these young converts sets in.

We might well want to put them aside — perhaps give them to the pastor or the Christian Ed person — or, better yet, the “youth director” — until their spiritual maturity has been accomplished. But, Peter says, it takes the hard work of building one stone at a time in order to see God’s house raised to fullness. “Babes in Christ” don’t automatically turn into “royal priests” overnight or automatically.

It takes a church — the whole church — to raise a Christian in his or her faith. 

What things does your church do to help people “grow” in their faith? What more could you — both plural (as in “all y’all”) and singular (as in you, personally) — in this area?

John 14:1-14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Easy for you to say, Jesus!

We have plenty of trouble all around us, everyday, don’t we? It’s pretty hard for us to see our way through, sometimes, when it seems the effluvia of life just keeps piling higher and higher. The disciples said as much on this day when Jesus sought to bestow on them a bit of the heavenly vision.

Jesus: “I am going to prepare a place for you…and you know the way to that place.”
Thomas: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?”
Philip: “Yeah, Jesus, just show us the Father, then we’ll be satisfied.”

Oh, those crazy disciples — always asking Jesus for a little more of this and a bit more of that. As if Jesus himself might not be able to handle it and ought to just go ahead and call God in!

Of course, as Christ’s followers, all we ultimately get is him — just Jesus. “I am the Way…” he replied to Thomas. “You walk with me and follow me, and you’re going to end up just where you need to go” — that kind of thing. No other roadmaps or directional signs.

I like the way that Eugene Peterson puts it in The Way of Jesus: “To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always derivative from Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus. To follow Jesus means that we can’t separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it. To follow Jesus is as much, or maybe even more, about feet as it is about ears and eyes.” (p. 22).

So — how can you go about “putting some feet to it” and following Jesus more closely?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I read this in the Christian Century magazine this week – “A Good Friday passion play was called off after the Oxford (England) City Council said the sponsoring church failed to get the proper permit. (Listen carefully now)  The council acted on the presumption that the “passion play” was a live sex show.   In a statement of apology, an official said, ‘At the time of processing the application, I did not appreciate that this was a religious event.’ ” (Christian Century, May 14, 2014, p. 9)

It is becoming clear that we in the west live in a world that is not simply biblically illiterate; the truth is worse than that – the world is actually religiously illiterate.  We have long worried about those who are opposed to Christianity; a more important worry, and mission opportunity, is those who are indifferent to, and ignorant of, religion in general.  The world we live in neither disdains nor disapproves of us anymore – it simply does not see us or know anything about us.

On the same page in the Christian Century there is a chart showing a couple of interesting stats: one fourth of all adult Americans say they never read the Bible, including 40% of adults under thirty.

Given that we know most people responding to such surveys tend to answer with their “best self,” rather than their “actual self;” it’s a pretty good bet that the real numbers are actually higher. And  reading the bible is not the same thing as actually understanding it, especially when it comes to complex and layered and nuanced books like the Gospel of John.

So, to go out into a world that knows almost nothing about either religion or Christianity or the Bible, a world in which a reasonably intelligent person like a City Council official thinks a Good Friday Passion Play is a live sex show for example; proclaiming that “in my father’s house are many dwelling-places,” and that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life,” and that Jesus “will do whatever you ask in my name,” is a recipe for both baffled misunderstanding and possible rejection and ridicule.

In this, we are not unlike the people to whom the words in John 14 were first addressed. Frankly, we are better off – we have billions of co-believers around the world; they had only each other, the people in the room with Jesus. This is a part of what is called the “farewell discourse,” a long section stretching from chapter thirteen to seventeen.  It occurs between Jesus’ last meal with the disciples and his departure to pray in the garden of Gethsemane.  In this long speech Jesus goes back and forth; on the one hand offering his followers assurance that things will be all right after he’s gone and on the other challenging them to persist in the mission and ministry he began with them.

Our reading for today falls into three sections; the first  is verses 1-4 where we hear the famous words, “In my Father’s house are many mansions (or dwelling places).” N.T. Wright points out that the only other place Jesus uses the term “my Father’s house,” is also in John, in chapter 2 where he is referring to the Temple. Wright makes the case that for the Jewish people the Temple is that place where heaven and earth meet, where people are in relationship with God.  The word translated mansions or rooms or dwelling-place sis the noun form of the verb “abide” or “stay.”  The promise Jesus is making here is less about a particular place called heaven with rooms or mansions or houses and more about a continued relationship with the divine, a relationship that will carry-on after death. It is a promise that whatever happens, we will “stay” with God in Christ. The promise is that just as who Jesus was and what Jesus did in life continues on in the Risen Christ;  that what we as people of faith are and what we do in life will also live on as a part of the Risen Christ.

The second promise in this text is sometimes the most difficult to talk about, not only with those outside the church who are often offended by it; but also among us within the church who do not wish to be either exclusive or offensive.  The promise here is that Jesus is “The way, the truth and the life.”  Not “a” way, but “the” way. Not “a” truth, but “the” truth.  Not “a” life, but “the life.  This does not go over well in our modern, inclusive, diverse, multi-ethnic, world.

How do those of us for whom Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” of our daily existence talk about Christ with others in a humble, inclusive and non-dismissive way? I got some help on this in a remark by Scott Kisker, Church History professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.  During a panel discussion at the Northwest Festival of Preaching in Seattle this year, he pointed out that in the post-modern world it is impossible to find an “apologetic” that will logically persuade anyone to believe in Jesus. The response of the post-modern is “you have our truth, I have my truth.  Why can’t our truths just get along?”  To point out that two contrary things cannot be true at the same time is to misunderstand the way most people think these days.  We live in a world of many “truths.”

We must remember that “The Truth” is just a third of the promise Jesus makes here.  We have sometimes forgotten  “the way” and “the life.”  Over and over again, careful research in church history has proven that people are attracted to and convert to Christianity because of the way Christians live their lives; not because of the “truth claims” by an evangelist.  My later father-in-law was a Baptist deacon and when I first became a minister he often encouraged me to remember that people “don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”  What’s true for pastors and preachers is also true for all of us as the Christian community.  If we want people to want to know our “truth” about Jesus Christ; we must first show them that truth in the way we live our lives. The promise here is that the way Jesus lived his life is a true path for us to live our lives and it will keep us in a good relationship with God, each other and the world.

The last promise in this text is the promise of power in prayer.   This promise is connected to everything that has come before about being in relationship with Jesus and the Jesus way, truth, and life.  Simply put – this is not what some of my seminary friends referred to as “blab it-grab it” theology.  “If you believe enough in Jesus and pray with a believing heart, you will get what you ask for.”   Fred Craddock says it this way, “In Jesus name” is not a formula for ending prayers but rather a reminder to think before you pray and to only pray for those things that fit within the Jesus’ way.

It is helpful that this is a communal and not a personal promise.  All the “yous” in this text are plural.  Since English doesn’t have an official plural you, when it occurs in the Greek it is sometimes difficult to detect and remember.  Jesus doesn’t say “When you the individual Christian decide you want something, just pray for it using my name and you will get it.”  Instead, he is saying “When you, the church, pray in my name (in my way, in my truth, in my life) for something to further the life of the kingdom, you will receive it.  This is about the church as the body of Christ, agreeing together about a missional need in the world and seeking God’s help in fulfilling it.

So, how should we respond to the unfortunate fellow who didn’t know a Passion Play from an X-Rated Peep Show?  Berate him for his ignorance?  Sit down with a Bible and a Catechism and educate him?  Ignore him and his ilk and retreat into a like-minded enclave of those who think and act like us?  Or perhaps we could live out our ongoing relationship with God in Christ by loving and forgiving and interacting with him in the gentle, honest straightforward way Jesus lived his life.  Amen and amen.

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