The Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 14, 2017
The Rev. Leigh Mackintosh, Associate Rector of St. Michael’s Church
During Eastertide, we come to know the hope and joy of the resurrection in the Gospel stories of the disciples encountering the risen Lord. And through the Book of Acts, also known as the acts of the apostles, we witness how Jesus becomes for us the way and the truth and the life. Today, the story of Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, shows us the promise of new life and victory that are possible with God if we reach out and meet God in the hard places.
In its early stages of formation, the Church was divided across cultural lines. Some disciples like the Twelve apostles were culturally Jewish–they spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and their faith was closely tied to the theology and traditions of the Jerusalem Temple. Other disciples like Stephen were born Jewish, but brought up in the Greco-Roman culture. They spoke only Greek and rejected their ancestral ties to the Temple as God’s only dwelling place on earth.
As tensions mounted, the Church had to decide which was more important, upholding one way, one truth or upholding one common life?
At its very beginning, the Church decided that being together as a community centered around Jesus was more important than the cultural differences that divided it. And so the Church remained one community centered on Jesus that embraced many truths.
But Stephen did not follow the Church’s example. On fire with his faith, Stephen goes to the local synagogue and preaches his truth over and against the others saying, “You stiff-necked people–you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors who persecuted the prophets. Now you have become betrayers and murderers. You received the Law…you know God’s way and God’s truth but you do not live it.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Preaching at people, insulting their beliefs…not the best model for Christian evangelism. One can see why Saul has Stephen stoned to death.
Yeah, this guy obviously needed a different homiletics professor. But note Stephen’s actions. He reaches out to meet God in the hard places–he chooses to share his faith with those don’t know him or think differently. And even when they throw stones, he still shares the hope of God’s victory with those around him. Up until the end, Stephen expresses love and forgiveness to those who persecute him and he dies commending his life to God.
Into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46 and Acts 7:59)
God, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34 and Acts 7:60)
Stephen’s story mirrors Jesus’ story of love and mercy on the cross.
Through Stephen, we come to know the wideness in God’s mercy is like the wideness of the sea.
Stephen’s death signaled a turning point for the Church. The early Christians refused to allow the hard places of persecution and death to defeat them and define the fate of their community. Reaching out to meet God in the hard places, these radical Christians found God’s dwelling place was not in just in Jerusalem but in the unfamiliar, unfriendly, uncomfortable areas beyond. They went to the rural Judean countryside; they crossed the border where the undesirable, uneducated Samaritans lived. They transcended ethnic, cultural, and religious boundaries by baptizing an Ethiopian Eunuch into the Christian Church. That’s right: the first Gentile convert to Christianity was a gay black man. (Acts 8:1-40)
Reaching out to meet God in the hard places, these early Christians spread the message to love, to forgive, and to commend our whole lives to God. Where hatred seemed to corrupt the whole of life and leave no escape, the message of the martyrs was “love is stronger than death.” (Pope John Paul II) Even in the wake of sorrow, persecution and death, hope and love endured and flourished. This was the way, the truth, and the life that they lived and died for. Such suffering, such living witness speaks more powerfully than all the causes of our division.
Witnessing to the love of Christ crucified and risen, these early Christians teach us that the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind. For this love leads Saul to meet the Crucified Christ on the road to Damascus. This love calls the disciple Ananias to pray, heal and baptize Saul his persecutor. This love transforms Saul into Paul, the apostle who remains one of the most profound spiritual leaders of our faith today.
What does it mean to be a modern day martyr?
While many of us may never be asked to die for our faith, our faith does ask us to measure our priorities, to take a stand and to express our beliefs through action. It asks us to witness not by our words, but by our example. To reach out and meet God in the hard places–to see the face of Christ crucified and risen in the face of a friend, a family member, a neighbor, a stranger, even in the face of an enemy or one who hurts us.
Being a modern day martyr means “trusting the place that is solid, the place where we can say yes to God’s love even when we may not feel it. Even when we feel empty or lack the strength to choose, we keep saying “God loves me, and God’s love is enough.” We keep choosing the solid place over and over again and return to it after every failure.” (Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love). We keep choosing the love of Christ as our cornerstone. This is the way we share our faith. This is how we love, forgive, and commend our lives to God. Amen.