The first reading continues our Easter season series from the book of Acts. Oh, the ghosts of those first Christians still haunt our lives. Here we have the story of the stoning of Stephen. Last week we learned of the communal living of the earliest Christians, including common meals. Stephen was one of the table waiters or deacons who helped with the distribution to those in need following these meals. Stephen is known as the first Christian martyr stoned to death for his faith in Jesus.
The figure of Saul is lurking in the background of this story. Saul is one of the Jews who organize the persecution of the Christians, and he plots the death of Stephen. Later in the book of Acts, Saul becomes a Christian. With a new name, Paul, he becomes a missionary to the Gentiles. He ends up writing half of the New Testament. But at this point in the story he is zealous in his efforts to kill Christianity and what it stands for.
Whenever I encounter this Saul or Paul, in this chapter of his life, I realize again how wrong we all can be, me especially. Here Paul believes so strongly in what he is doing that he kills others who disagree with him. And yet, in the end, he embraces the faith he once persecuted, as he regrets his past.
We who are of strong opinion and will, despite all of our certitude and certainty that we know what’s best: well, we can be so wrong. How is that possible? Sometimes we just miss the point. Sometimes we press our case too strongly. Sometimes things change and we do not go with the flow. Sometimes we stubbornly disregard the emerging obvious. Sometimes we go with the flow when we should have held firm. Sometimes disasters shape things differently. Sometimes the facts we are working with are wrong. Sometimes we forget something. Sometimes we lose our focus. Sometimes we become selfish or greedy or narrow minded. It really doesn’t matter. All of us can be so wrong even when we think we are so right. And the ghost of Paul in this chapter of his life, reminds us all of how fallible we humans are, and how it is best to practice humility and gentleness in our opinions so that we hurt others as little as possible in the inevitable error of our ways.
And then there is the ghost of Stephen. So much could be said about Stephen, but what I’d like to point out this morning, is that his apostleship is very brief. He’s appointed and perhaps a couple of months later he dies. Stephen reminds us that God works not only in the gradual movement of the organized church through the ages and not only through the destiny of creation through the eons; but also sometimes in the quickly burning bright light of compassion and forgiveness found briefly in the human heart. Even if we don’t have years to develop projects and ministries, even if we do not devote our entire lives to compassion and charity, sometimes just a moment is enough, just a flash of grace, that single act of courage or amazing forgiveness may be far more important than we think. Stephen’s short term reminds us that those who come later and do not last long may still have a profound impact and legacy. You may not have a life time to dedicate to compassion, but you do have this day. What small thing is God calling you to do, now?
Now the second reading continues our series from I Peter. I’ve never been a real fan of I Peter. The style is rather grandiose. Written during a time of persecution, it calls people to stand firm. That’s good when we are being eaten by lions. But we live in the age of practical and diminishing Christianity, and the grandiose language is not helpful. And admonitions to stand firm in persecution have been appropriated in our time to buttress attitudes and practices that actually hurt other people. We’re not being persecuted. But we can hurt others when we stubbornly insist on our own way.
And then in I Peter there are the long lists of should’s and don’ts that fill out the book. Did you notice that the lectionary committee omitted the first verse of this chapter? That’s because the first verse packs five sinful things to avoid into less than 140 characters, even when that’s not the main point of the passage. Peter just can’t help himself. He just exudes ethical admonition even when he’s trying to be comforting or inspiring. And then on top of all that, the passage is a mixed metaphor. It starts out talking about the nursing of children and then shifts completely to stones and rocks. Ufdah! What is a thoughtful Christian to do?
Well, for one thing, the reading reminds us that the odd stone, the one too big to fit into the wall, can be the cornerstone. We like things to go smoothly and have people fit into our vision of things. We like the building blocks of life to be assembled evenly. But it’s the awkward stone or person that becomes the corner.
And then notice that Peter is into living stones. Stones are not alive. They are dead. Or are they? The contradiction built into the phrase living stones is a reminder that even when it all seems dead, there is still the possibility of life, that even the most dead congregation filled with the most unlikely and un-spirited Lutherans can still be enlivened for joy and new life and new vision.
Oh, let’s really mix the metaphors and talk about living stones, dry bones, deliverance from fiery furnaces, the dawn of springtime in Wisconsin, and the resurrection of even the dead. God can work wonders of life in the desert of our fallible sin. And God will use us regardless of how mistaken and misshapen we are to accomplish some good, sometimes in the twinkling of an eye.
Until it is time to take us home. The third reading continues our series from the gospel of John in these Sundays of the Easter season. It’s a common passage for funerals because it reminds us that when it’s all said and done, it’s time to go home to be with Jesus forever. We’ve heard this passage a lot. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had almost 200 funerals.
But today, no one has died; so let’s notice something in the background of John 14. In the household of God are many rooms. The Middle Eastern vision behind this image is a large compound with different buildings and rooms. Many people from different perspectives and traditions are gathered at the end of time in one of those large community meals we found in the book of Acts, now a heavenly feast. It’s a big complex set of buildings, and all sorts are there: the mistaken, misshapen, and short lived of every age, in this heavenly space. All coming together, not because they are right in their views, or even because they can agree, or because they were perfectly and smoothly formed, but because they have heard the voice of Jesus calling them out of their empty headedness, out of their awkwardness, into compassionate living: out of the deadness of shallow apathetic meaninglessness into new life.
So today, we just continue reading from the Bible in light of the new life we have received in Jesus Christ, once dead but now alive. And today our stories were found in Acts, I Peter, and John. Amen.