A reflection on the readings for Easter 5A:Acts 7. 55-60, 1 Peter 2. 2-10, John 14. 1-14 by The Rev. Dr. Sarah Rogers
I thought I was going to get out of writing a sermon this week, but the world didn’t end yesterday as predicted…! Although whether Harold Camping’s calculation has taken into account the change from the Julian to Gregorian Calendarso I’m not quite sure. Judgement day is of course no joking matter, but I don’t think we should spend too much time worrying about it if we are living good and godly lives. After all, we are all going to meet our maker one day. We have reasonably comfortable lives here, we are able to worship in freedom. That isn’t the case everywhere and as this country becomes more secular and more multicultural, perhaps we will loose our freedom too. There are places around the world where Christians even today have to put their lives on the line for their faith, they do not have freedom to worship and they face persecution and martyrdom.
Given the persecution that Jesus himself faced, and the manner in which he died. It was not a surprise to his followers that the authorities would not take kindly to this new movement that was growing. In a few weeks time we will celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the church, the day when more than 3000 were baptised. That must have frightened the authorities. Soon after Stephen was made a deacon, and is seized by the scribes and elders, accused of speaking against the law of Moses. In his retaliatory speech he skilfully re-tells Israel’s past, challenging those who are listening to him to realise that there is a higher authority than the law of Moses, finally pointing out to them that they betrayed and murdered Jesus, the ‘Righteous One’.
Stephen is an excellent example of Christian witness in today’s world, he is a reminder of what it means to lay your life on the line for your faith – he certainly had a ‘no holds barred’ approach. He is dragged out and executed for his faith.
Saul, the one who would go on to persecute the church, was there, minding the coats – was it Stephen’s fervour that prompted him to take a stand against the evolving church? Perhaps after his conversion, it was the example of Stephen that drove Paul to be such a fervent ambassador for Jesus Christ. Later in Acts, Paul readily admits later in Acts that he was looking on and complicit in the stoning of Stephen. Paul’s words also indicate that Stephen was already seen as the first ‘martyr’ by the early Christian’s. He uses the word marturos which means first and foremost that Stephen was a witness. That is clear from the description of the manner of Stephen’s death. Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit doesn’t see the hostile faces of the council staring at him, instead he lifts his eyes to heaven and sees deep into the heart of heaven, he sees the ‘glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.’ He is a witness to the risen and ascended Christ. Paul acknowledges that Stephen’s blood was shed because he was a witness to Christ and so, he becomes the first ‘martyr’ the first Christian ready to die for his faith, to accept his fate without question and without fear. He wasn’t trying to draw attention to himself, he was just trying to make people see the truth. He was a witness to Jesus as the apostles were witnesses and later Paul himself was a witness. Stephen, as others have done after him, provided a living testimony to the transformative presence of God in the world. He stands firm in the face of hostility. But, the crowd didn’t want to hear him, they cover their ears and refuse to hear the message he has to offer them, and they descend on him and take him out and stone him.
It is scene reminiscent of Jesus’ own death. Stephen prays that Jesus will receive his spirit as Jesus himself prayed and commended his own spirit into God’s had. Stephen also asks for God’s forgiveness for those who kill him, they do not know what they are doing as they did not know what they were doing when they put Jesus to death and because of their refusal to listen to the message Stephen was trying to give them, they still don’t know. Stephen’s death, like his life, is modelled on the example of Jesus Christ. Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ and Stephen lives that out fully. His death also gives us a further pointer to the full meaning of the resurrection. Stephen sees deep into the heart of heaven. All of our readings today suggest that our earthly home is only temporary, that our true home is in heaven with our Father. Jesus says ‘in my Father’s house there are many mansions’ or ‘dwelling-places’. God has plenty of room for all his children, and we will all one day have a home there.
Jesus is the way the truth and the life, he is the one we must follow, and he is the one who will lead us through this life and into the next. God enters into his creation in the form of Jesus, he becomes human to experience our life and death. Jesus understands what it is to live in this world and he gives himself completely and utterly to it. We must follow his example and engage fully with the world around us, to take part in creation, to protect it and interact with it. If we engage and interact fully within the world, if we live our lives to the full, then we build ourselves into a living temple where we can serve and praise God wholeheartedly. If we do that, then we follow fully in the steps of Jesus and when our time finally comes we will meet him face to face in honesty, knowing that he has been our guide all our days.