The Fifth Sunday of Easter, 10 May 2020

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

I’ve made a change here, moving the Collect from the end of our study to a point at the beginning so that we might begin our study in prayer.

The Collect

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.

Background: Martyrs

We must begin with the Greek root of the word – one who is a witness, who suffers or is persecuted for religious reasons. Sometimes the descriptive is applied to those who were martyrs but not knowing the status of their actions. We first see it in a biblical context during the period of Seleucid rule in Palestine, where in the Books of the Maccabees there are several stories of Jewish martyrs resisting the Hellenization of Jews by the ruling party. This honoring of those who resisted influenced later Judaism and Christianity.

The persecutions of Christians under the Roman emperors led to a whole culture of martyrdom amongst Christians of the Roman Empire. Seen as dismissive of civil religion, Christians were singled out as social misfits, and subjected to persecution and death. The story of Stephen, the proto martyr, served as a focal point for those who lost their lives in state sponsored pogroms. Interestingly, there also developed a “white martyrdom”, seen in the ascetics who lived in isolation in the wilderness – dying to themselves each day.

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.

One might want to review the entirety of Stephen’s sermon (Acts 7:1-53) which serves as a prelude to the story of his martyrdom. It’s connection to the whole of Salvation History makes for a good understanding of the theology of Luke and a segment of the early Church at the time. The reaction of the crowd is similar to what Jesus experienced at the synagogue in Nazareth, “When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him.” The sentence that follows this puts Stephen into an entirely different situation, “But he, filled with the Holy Spirit…” At this point he becomes the martyr in the classic sense – a witness in word and deed. In many respects he mirrors our Lord at his crucifixion, asking God to receive his spirit (a quotation from Psalm 31 (see below), and beseeching that those who stone him to be held innocent. The first verse of the subsequent chapter introduces us to Saul (Paul).

Breaking Open Acts:

1.     What do you think of Stephen’s witness?
2.     Who has witnessed to you?
3.     How do you witness to your faith?

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

1      In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame; *
deliver me in your righteousness.
2      Incline your ear to me; *
make haste to deliver me.
3      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.
4      Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, *
for you are my tower of strength.
5      Into your hands I commend my spirit, *
for you have redeemed me,
Lord, O God of truth.
15    My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
16    Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me."

The words of this psalm of supplication could be appropriately placed on the lips of Stephen. It is a pastiche of lines from other psalms, from the Book of Jonah (see Jonah 2:1-10) and from Jeremiah as well. God here is pictured in our image, having an ear, and bending over to listen to the psalmist’s urgent cry, “haste – deliver me!” The third verse gives us a scene of a fortress, another image for God, and then switches to lakeside or river, “Take me out of the net.” The elided verses continue in this vein, describing the psalmist and the enemies that are in pursuit. The final two lines of this reading recognize the situation hoped for and the heart of the psalmist’s prayer.

Breaking Open the Psalm:

1.     How do you take refuge in God?
2.     From what or from whom do you take refuge?
3.     How do you give refuge to others?

Second Reading: I 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.

The first line here gives us a clue as to the author’s intent – “Like newborn infants.” What is the identity of those who have become the holy people of God? The first option is to realize our hunger of God, as in Jan Bender’s translation of the Beatitudes, “How blest are those who know their need of God.” Let us hunger for him so that we might grow into him. The second seems to be a knowledge of being a part of a greater entity – we become living stones integrated into a spiritual house.  Finally we are to be something that we did not realize we were – “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” Baptism integrates us into a process, a becoming. We ought to model ourselves on resurrection.

Breaking Open I Peter:

1.     In what ways are you a newborn?
2.     What does your faith hunger for?
3.     Where is your spiritual home?

The Gospel: 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.”

What is inherent in following? Perhaps not understanding the way, but trusting the One leading to know it and guide us into it. This passage anticipates Thomas’ curiosity in things about Jesus, “How can we know the way?” I suspect we all might join in his question. It stands almost as a paren that is finally closed with a touch in Jerusalem after the resurrection. “My Lord, and my God!” This gospel reading in both of its sections is about knowledge and wisdom – knowledge of who Jesus is and where he is leading us, and the wisdom we have to follow. That discussion leads us into a greater relationship – knowing the Father. Beyond that is a reality that we all must understand, and adopt. First there is belief and then there are works – the reality of life with others, and a life with Christ that is evident to others. These are helpful lessons from the one who will soon be leaving his disciples so that he might return to the Father. There is power here to do the acts that come from belief – “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Breaking Open the Gospel:

1.     What is behind Thomas’ question?
2.     Do you identify with Philip’s comment?
3.     How does Jesus lead you?

General Idea:              A Terrifying Possibility

Scene 1:                        Does faith lead to a witness like Stephen, or to some other difficult witness? (First Reading)

Scene 2:                        Leaning on God (Psalm)

Scene 3:                        Growing in a witness to ourselves and to others (Second Reading)

Scene 4:                        Courage in asking questions, and then knowing (Gospel)


Popular posts from this blog

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 6 June 2021

The Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, 23 May 2021

The Second Sunday of Advent, 6 December 2020