The Fifth Sunday of Easter, 18 May 2014

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
I Peter 2:2-10
St. John 14:1-14

Background:  Saint Stephen

One Christmas, early in my career, we went after Christmas Day services in Southeastern Massachusetts to spend the remainder of the day and the following day with clergy friends in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  One member of the family was “Groß”, short for Großpapa, and my friend’s father – who was also a priest.  On the day following, as Groß descended the stairs to the breakfast room, I called out to him and said, “Groß, happy Saint Stephen’s Day.”  “Ach, ja,” he replied, “You know, if he had lived, he would have been much better than Saint Paul.”

Since that day, I have had a fondness for Saint Stephen.  His feast day, 26 December, is of liturgical and logistical significance.  Along with days that honor Saint John the Evangelist (27 December) and the Holy Innocents (28 December), these days help define what it means to honor the Christ at the manger.  All of them were martyrs (Stephen in will and deed, John, in will and not in deed, and the Innocents, not in will but in deed), and all of them describe the cost of following Jesus.  Stephen is known not only as the “protomartyr” or first martyr, but also as a deacon, called in Acts 6:5.  He was called to help with the distribution of alms to the Hellenist widows and orphans.  Judging from his name, Stephanos, which means, “crown”, we may assume that he was Greek as well.  He is known to us this morning in our readings for the substance of his response to his judges, and the manner of his death (ironically in the presence of the soon to be Saint Paul, who was a witness to his stoning.  The actual sermon is found in Acts 7.  You may wish to read it as an introduction to the first reading.

Acts 7:55-60

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.

Here again Luke pictures the main character as participating in actions that were done by Jesus himself.  So the “gaz(ing) into heaven,” and his comment, “receive my spirit,” and “do not hold this sin against them,” all mirror comments by Jesus.  In addition, the action takes place outside the city, just as the crucifixion dead.  Here, however, it is the crowd who acts.  The Sanhedrin does not render a sentence here.  The crowd acts on its own, in an exaggeration of the wishes that were expressed at the trial of Jesus.  That Saul (Paul) should be present is ironic, and one wonders what psychological effect might be supposed on his part as he witnesses Stephen’s death.  If there is indeed a mystagogy that accompanies the Christmas cycle (Stephen, John, and the Innocents), then it certainly accompanies the mystagogy of Easter as we learn what it means to be inculcated into the mysteries of the Risen One.  That is the theme that connects this week of Sundays that follow Easter – the cost of following.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. How is Stephen a type of Christ?
  2. What does the story of Stephen have to say to Deacons today?
  3. What has it cost you to follow Jesus?

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 In te, Domine, speravi

In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame; *
deliver me in your righteousness.

Incline your ear to me; *
make haste to deliver me.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold; *
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, *
for you are my tower of strength.

Into your hands I commend my spirit, *
for you have redeemed me,
O LORD, O God of truth.

My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.

Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me."

As a psalm of supplication, and to some extent of thanksgiving as well, this psalm bears a great deal of resemblance to other psalms of its type, especially to a psalm in Jonah 2, where the need for protection is met by God in spite of the dire circumstances.  There is physicality in this psalm that makes an immediate impression on us.  God bends down to hear, and then receives the urgent request, “make haste to deliver me!”  There are multiple references to a protected place: “a rock, a castle…my crag and my stronghold.”  And to make the dire conditions even more evident, the psalm includes hunting allusions as well.  “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” Puts us in mind of the crucifixion of Jesus as well as the stoning of Stephen.  In it all the author is reminded that God is indeed in control and it is God’s hand that will save, “My times are in your hand.” 

Breaking open Psalm 31:
  1. From what do you need protection?
  2. How is God a stronghold for you in this situation?
  3. Why haven’t you asked?
1 Peter 2:2-10

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation-- if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:

"See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."

To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,

"The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner,"


"A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall."

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God's people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

When my father was in Seminary, he belonged to a group of guys (and it was guys back then) who were called the Easter Cycle Boys (which actually lapsed into pre Lent as well – Dad was Sexigesima).  If I belonged to such a group I would have wanted to be Quasimodogeniti (“as new born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word”.)  So this reading links that Sunday with the author’s request above.  The key signs of the Easter Christian are like those of the infant: eagerness and recognition of hunger.  This metaphor is quickly abandoned, however, and one from Psalm 118, the rejected stone – the corner stone, is quickly taken up.  Now the image is that of a house, a house of living stones stabilized by Christ the corner stone.  What binds this building together is not genealogy, or ancestors, but Spirit that Christ sends.  The body of those who follow Christ are motivated by their desire to know Christ in the Word, and from that eagerness and hunger, a new people is born.  The author wants us to understand this community, however, in terms recognizable to the old.  Listen to the terms: “chosen”, “royal priesthood,” “holy nation,” “God’s own people.”  To know the new is to also claim the old.  To further add to that identification with the People of God, the author quotes Isaiah.  Here the context (an oracle against the North) is the destruction of the northern cities.  Here many stones have been rejected, and here many people have been sent from their homes.  I Peter is a Gospel of return, selection, and holy use.  The final verse is a recollection of Hosea, who like Isaiah, comments on a fallen community and the promise of recall and redemption that will surely come.

Breaking open I Peter:
  1. For what are you eager, hungry?
  2. Is there eagerness in your faith?  For what?
  3. How are you a living stone for your parish?
St. John 14:1-14

Jesus said, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it."

Here in the initial section of the so-called “Book of Exaltation” (St. John 13:1 – 20:31), John also writes within the framework of Departure and Return (see I Peter, above).  Here Jesus continues to instruct the disciples about what is to come, and what they will both need to be and to become.  The initial instruction obtains throughout the entire instruction, “Believe in God, believe also in me.”  Jesus also talks about a place to be – a home, a place of protection and surety.  If we are indeed the living stones of the house, perhaps the many places are a way of Christ naming us as the several manifestations of where God is in the world – not in the Temples, but in the people.

All of the certainty that Jesus intends for his disciples gives way to Thomas’ question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.”  What follows is an elegant and succinct answer: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Jesus is the utter and total context of our life in God.  What follows, with Philip’s question and Jesus’ response seems to gild the lily.  The simple statement to Thomas is the whole story.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What is the way that Jesus points to?
  2. How is Jesus the truth for you?
  3. How is life different when you follow the Word?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


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