A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2017
Readings: Acts 7:55-60; Ps 31:1-5, 17-18; 1 Peter 2:11-25; John 14:1-14.
The stoning of Stephen hits a sobering note within the story of the early church. Last week we heard of the spirit of generosity that pervaded the newly formed community of the resurrected Christ. They shared all things. They knew the presence of God. Fellowship. Friendship. Fruitful mission. As a result this fledgling, Spirit-guided community grew exponentially.
This week, however, we are forced to recognise that the idealistic descriptions do not depict a community without challenge. As the frame of Acts pans out for a wide view, we can see that the early church, like the worldwide church of today, sat in the midst of terrible persecution.
How prone we are to lose sight of the grace and love of God at the point of suffering and challenge. We all too easily and quickly interpret anything other than bliss as something of an existential challenge: Does God really exist? Does God really care? What is the point in trusting God when things so easily and often go wrong? Where is this Holy Spirit now?
God’s work is often hidden. We may have brief moments of long-distant, cloudless vision, but they are not the norm. Such mountain-top experiences are real, and necessary, for this journey. The big picture, however, is not the only perspective followers of Jesus are ever faced with.
In the account of Stephen’s last moments we are inspired by his long-sightedness. Stephen is filled with the Spirit of God and sees Jesus in an open heaven. So real is this experience that he describes his vision to the angry crowd. It is the same vision Jesus offers us in today’s gospel reading: ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms’ and ‘I go to prepare a place for you’.
We may be tempted to suggest, however, that as a result of this explicitly Spirit-inspired witness none were ‘saved’. Those in the courtroom block Stephen’s testimony. They shout over his voice. With hands over ears they ‘rush’ the messenger. This articulate man-of-God is dragged through and from the city. Rocks fly even as the words of Psalm 31 tumble from his lips: ‘Into your hand I commit my spirit’. In this echo of Jesus’ cross-prayer he also prays God’s forgiveness over the maddened, murderous mob.
They refused to listen.
What a waste! A waste of life. A waste of time. A waste of breath. Was Stephen simply a fool to offer this testimony? Where is the good come out of this suffering?
The good, as it often is, is hidden.
Hidden in the miracle of strength and composure given to Stephen. Hidden in the timely, God-offered vision of a waiting heaven. Hidden in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Hidden in Stephen’s final testimony before the rock-hard heart of a young zealot named Saul.
God is doing far more here than anyone living in that moment can imagine. Even as God comforts and empowers a martyr another is being raised up. Saul will fall blind on the Damascus Road having seen Stephen’s suffering, and trust. Blocked ears will become a frustrating part of Saul’s own call. All too soon the Christ-transformed Paul will find himself on the receiving end of thrown stones.
Clearly, God is doing far more here than has been revealed even to Stephen.
God is always doing more than we see. In your prayer life. In the heart of your neighbour. Through your presence in the workplace. Through the unexpected conversation at the mall, the school pick-up line, the bosses’ or the doctor’s office. Our God is always doing more.
Peter describes us as ‘sojourners’ and ‘exiles’. Following Christ makes us different. Some will speak against us. Sometimes people and circumstances will cause us suffering.
So Peter urges us to ‘keep (y)our conduct…honourable’. We are, by the grace of God, free people – free to do the good we were created to do. This may involve confrontation and hardship. It may be misunderstood. People may, indeed, stop their ears to your unique voice and witness.
You may find yourself wondering what God is doing.
At then, I pray, that you may remember Stephen’s story – and the reality that our God is always doing more!