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May 10, 2020
5th Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55-60; Ps. 31; I Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones
That poor martyr, Steven. His first sermon was his last. My first was in seminary, and like many seminary students, I too feared that my first would be my last. Stephen’s situation reminds me of an old Garfield cartoon. If you are not familiar, Garfield is a fat, lazy, cantankerous cat who, among many other things, does not like spiders. In one cartoon you see the first panel with a spider walking across a surface, watched closely by Garfield. Garfield says: ‘This is my pet spider, Dick. He does a trick.’ Then Garfield raises a folded newspaper and squashes Dick. In the last panel, Garfield explains: ‘Dick can only do that trick once.’
We read in Acts that both Peter and Steven delivered the first sermon. Peter preached his on Pentecost and it was quite a sermon — three thousand people pledged to follow Christ when he finished! He achieved every preacher’s dream. Stephen was not so lucky. His first sermon was not well-received. To be fair, Stephen had a much tougher congregation. Peter would probably have suffered the same fate if he had preached his first sermon to a judicial council in the presence of a hostile mob who came, not to hear a sermon, but to kill him.
It is always easy to preach to the crowd. Sadly, some preachers only preach to their crowd, never challenging their listeners, never prophetic. It may be good job insurance, but it is not what preachers are called to do. Steven preached his first and last sermon before a Sanhedrin. Generally speaking, “Sanhedrin” was a Greek term for a council of leaders. They could be leaders of the military, the government, federated states, or various trace and private associations. (Harper Collins Biblical Dictionary, p.971) In Acts, it appears the Jerusalem Sanhedrin was a council of political and religious leaders, including Sadducees, Pharisees, high-ranking priestly family members, elders, and scribes. Politics and religion were tightly interwoven in the Roman Empire, thus making it likely that Roman political leaders were also on the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. This body “sat as a judicial court interpreting and guarding Jewish life, custom, and law in Judea.” (Harper Collins, p. 972) As the purpose of this body was to keep the peace and maintain the status quo, it was understandably biased again these early Christ-followers. So, you see, biased, politically motivated judicial bodies have been around since antiquity.
Stephen had been proclaiming that in Christ we see God. This is the theme of our gospel passage from John. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” False rumors had spread that Stephen was blaspheming the Jewish religion. As we see so often today, political or religious bullies’ first tactical strike is to attack their critics by delegitimizing or dehumanizing them. In this way, bullies declare victory in a debate without ever producing facts and evidence to support their views. Another tactic of bullies is to tell lies about their opponents. It was lies and false accusations that brought Stephen before the council.
Stephen began his defense in the form of a sermon with evidence brought to bear from their shared sacred scriptures. He gave a readers’ digest version of the Old Testament’s account of the children of Israel and their God. He hit high spots from Abraham, to Moses, to King David and the great prophets of the Babylonian exile. The author of First Peter also used Moses to address a new Christian congregation. The author quotes from Exodus 19:6 when God told Moses, “but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” Unlike Stephen’s approach of denouncing his opponent’s failure to trust in God and be open to the Holy Spirit, the epistle author appealed to their “better angels.” He encouraged unity in their mission. The idea presented is that we live and work and have our being as a team. We are strongest when we work together for the common good.
The thread running through Stephen’s selected account of Old Testament scriptures was the guilt of the people to follow God’s laws and the leaders and prophets God sent them. Without uttering his name, but clearly implied, Stephen accused them of killing Jesus:
51” You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears,
you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors
used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not
persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the
Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and
murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained
by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Stephen was not preaching to the crowd. Like Martin Luther’s 99 Theses nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel that kick-started the Protestant Reformation, Stephen presented his message, with biblical justification, as a direct response to being accused of blasphemy. These particular children of Israel had longed for a change, but refused to accept any new information that did not fit their own vision of how God might lead them to the new life for which they longed. Like us, they did not always desire what God desires for us.
Today there are competing goals in the struggle with the Covid-19 virus. Money versus public health, individual freedom versus the common good. The bible comes down, unequivocally, on the side of life and the common good. Jesus’ Greatest Commandment and his Love Commandment clearly defines what abundant life in the Kingdom of God requires. The creed used in early Christian worship from Philippians we will affirm today states: Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Obedient to the point of death – for us! Surely, we can wear a face mask when we go out in public, practice social distancing, and patiently wait in our homes until we do not pose a strong threat to the life and health of others. Those who lived during the Second World War remember Americans lived with far greater sacrifices for the common good.
The author of First Peter reminds his audience that God has created, laid claim to, and steadfastly loved and protected God’s people. With the unconditional love of a mother for her child, God loved the sons and daughters of Israel, even, as Stephen recalled, when they were rebellious, disobedient, and difficult to love. In sacrificing God’s own Son, God paid a remarkably high price for us.
Peter is saying to his audience: ‘You are valuable because God has claimed you, given you the unfathomable grace of being a child of God. But it is not just you; it is we – a community, a people. Peter’s words were addressed to a congregation. It is through the church, the community of faith, that Christ’s mission is continued. Its members are not without sin, it needs forgiveness at times, but it forms the nuclear family that strengthens our identity and provides encouragement to go out into the world to be God’s children and brothers and sisters for the rest of our human family. In this time of physical separation from other members of our congregation, it is important to maintain these life-affirming bonds.
This entire Epistle passage is grounded on a compilation of Old Testament texts. Out of the nine verses in this epistle passage, six are either direct quotes or obvious allusions to verses in the Old Testament. The audience heard here, the words of Leviticus, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Psalms. These early Christians, babes in the faith, were part of a family with a rich heritage. From this, they had an identity, but this identity did not separate them from their forefathers and mothers. God’s family grew. The most poignant stories of the Old Testament story, such as the ones Stephen recalls in our reading from Acts, reveal the trajectory of God’s steadfast love, continued in the new stories created by the birth of the Church and its wobbly first steps as it aged into the second century.
So often, we engage in the futile pursuit of our identity and self-worth by worldly values, which have no currency in the kingdom of God. We will not find ourselves in mapping our family tree, claiming privilege based on skin color, social status, or country of origin. We will not find ourselves in amassing wealth, obtaining advanced degrees, or standing atop the shifting sands of popularity. We will not find our true identity in believing a particular church doctrine or setting ourselves above or against other’s religious beliefs. We are, as the epistle writer claims, the priesthood of a royal nation, a nation in the divine realm in which God is king, not a nation in the world ruled by a prime minister, president, monarch or dictator. Being a child of God is the only identity that will ever give us a sense of belonging for which we deeply yearn.
First Peter’s words are words of affirmation, yet also words of challenge. Yes, these new Christians were set apart, “chosen, “as a royal priesthood, but not as a reason for boasting.” The ugly beast of Christian triumphalism is spawned from such a misunderstanding. These first Christians, and we as their descendants, were set apart for service in the way of Jesus Christ. The persecuted minority of Christians in the early second century of the Roman Empire did not feel “royal” like Christians who claim superiority and privilege in this country by claiming it to be a Christian nation. The early Christians had to forge their identity by imitating Christ in their daily living, not by claiming status. Christ lived a life of obedience to God, immersion in the study of the Holy Scriptures, and service to his neighbors to the glory of God. It is Christ who is the cornerstone upon which the life of the church, and its individual members, is grounded.
Christ is the foundation of, and builder of our true Christian identity. Just as we cannot be defined by adherence to a particular doctrine or theology built on the flimsy foundation of self-promotion or political agenda, we cannot find our identity in being “not like those Christians.” Again, our identity is shaped by our actively and intentionally following Christ’s path.
Before that fateful day, when Stephen gave his testimony and became the first Christian martyr, he worked tirelessly to get food to Jewish widows and orphans in need. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, he was able to do wondrous things to feed the hungry. This is the kind of work we do when we support the WestMark Food Pantry, give money to the Peoria Dream Center to aid the homeless, provide healthy snacks to an elementary school with a largely poor population, and give food to the Free Pantry at an elementary school in Westminster’s neighborhood. The Westminster church building may not be open for worship, but its work continues.
In this time when the economic fallout from the pandemic diminishes our own freedom to do all we want to do, for millions who have lost their jobs or been laid off it has meant going hungry, losing health care, and more. We now have the greatest unemployment rate since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Sharing during this time of great need is our witness to Christ.
Stephen’s final words echoed those of Christ Jesus before his final sacrifice on the cross. Luke tells us Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit… he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God…he prayed, he offered, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen lived his testimony to the end.
Christ ordained our commission to go out into the world showing who we are by what we say and what we do. We do not need to define Christianity to a skeptical world, we need to show that we are walking with Christ in such a way that there is no doubt as to who we are, to whom we belong and why we do what we do. This is our testimony …
Christ is risen! We are Witnesses. Alleluia!
© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Avenue | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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“Why am I a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church? Two words keep floating up in a rather persistent way – “home” and “family” – and I realized that it is an inescapable fact that is what this church means to me. During my 40 years here, so many life events have happened and Westminster has been there for me through all those times – good and bad. It has been my home and family. They say “home is where the heart is” and I’ve found the heart of Westminster to be as open and warm as a family’s!”