Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter 5, 7th of May, 2023
A few years ago I drafted the statement on funerals for the Uniting Church’s Doctrine Working Group. It begins, ‘Everyone dies. It is one of the great truths of life – it comes to an end’. Today’s Bible readings are about two deaths, one as inevitable as our own, the other completely voluntary. In the reading from the Book of Acts Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is killed. In the reading from the Gospel according to John we hear Jesus comforting his friends after telling them that, despite being the Word that is with God, and the Word that is God, he too is going to die. Our own deaths and the deaths of all those we love are inevitable, but these two stories remind us that as Christians we do not approach death without hope.
The Book of Acts contains some memorable sermons. Last week we saw the response to Peter’s Pentecost sermon, when three thousand people joined the existing one hundred and twenty believers and were baptised. I said then that Luke’s description of this group could leave us feeling inadequate in comparison. Today’s story is much less disheartening for those of us whose sermons do not draw a crowd of thousands. As one commentator writes: ‘Perhaps all unsuccessful preachers should take some comfort here. If their congregations merely complain or fire them, at least they do not stone them.’ Because that is what happens to Stephen after the sermon he preaches. He becomes the church’s first martyr.
Stephen was one of the seven men that the disciples chose to help the Twelve in their work, the seven we remember as the church’s first deacons. We are told that ‘Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people’. (Acts 6:8) But some people complain about him, and he is brought before the council. Stephen takes the opportunity to preach a long and elaborate sermon telling the history of the people of Israel and their many failings and ending: ‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which 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’ (Acts 7:51-2). This was the gist of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, but Stephen is much more aggressive, and while Peter’s sermon led to conversion, the response of the council to Stephen’s sermon is to become enraged and grind their teeth. That is where today’s reading starts.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Stephen sees a vision of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. He tells the people this, and their response is to cover their ears; drag Stephen out of the city; and stone him. As they do, they lay their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, who will later, after an experience on the road to Damascus, become the Apostle Paul.
In his death Stephen imitates Jesus, and Luke’s telling of the story shows his readers a distinctively Christian way to die. Stephen prays, asking God to receive his spirit, as Jesus prayed on the cross. Then Stephen further imitates Jesus in asking God to forgive his killers. Stephen’s sermon was a complete failure. But Stephen’s death is a complete success as a witness to what faith in Jesus means, and the Greek word ‘martyr’ means ‘witness’. Stephen dies without fear. He commits his spirit to God. And he forgives his killers. His manner of death is truly a witness to the enormous grace and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. And so Stephen the very unsuccessful preacher is remembered as the very first Christian martyr with his feast day on the 26th of December, the day after Christmas.
Today’s gospel reading is also about death, because in it we are hearing from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, given to his closest disciples on the last night of his life. It is late in the evening. The meal is over. Earlier, as the meal ended, Jesus knelt and washed his disciples’ feet. He now begins to prepare them for life without him. Jesus knows that he is about to go to his death. This has been clear since he raised Lazarus from the dead. From that day on the chief priests and the Pharisees had conspired to put Jesus himself to death; the death and raising of Lazarus had foreshadowed the forthcoming death and resurrection of Jesus himself. Jesus warns his disciples of what is coming. ‘Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”’ (John 13:33)
This horrifies his disciples. The disciples do not want to hear Jesus’ prophecies of his death. Where is Jesus going that they cannot follow him? They do not want to be left behind; separated from the one in whom they have encountered God. Why is he talking about betrayal and denial? What are these ‘dwelling-places’ that he says he will prepare for them? From their perspective, Jesus’ death can only mean the triumph of Jesus’ enemies and their own bereavement. They will be left alone. How can Jesus say to them, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’?
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.’ We often think of the many dwelling places in the Father’s house as providing places to which we can go after death. But when Jesus talks about ‘dwelling’ he is talking about abiding in and with God even while alive, living as the children of God today. The Son will join the Father, and both Father and Son will welcome Jesus’ followers into communion, in life as well as in death. The promise that there is room for us in the many dwelling-places is undoubtedly a comfort when we face death. But we do not need to wait until death to enter them.
The disciples, of course, find this puzzling. ‘Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”’ Too often this has been read as an exclusive claim for Christianity, an argument that there are no other ‘ways’ to God. But as one commentator writes, ‘Triumphalism has never been an attractive part of Christianity,’  and Jesus is not speaking here to non-Christians. He is speaking to his closest followers and reassuring them that everything they have learned and experienced while following him has already led them to their Father in heaven. They may think that Jesus’ death is going to leave them alone, bereaved. Jesus assures them that it will not. They will still be in communion with the Father, dwelling together with both the Father and the Son.
Philip asks the question so many of us ask: ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus’ teaching may be all very well, but we want to see God. We want revelation, a spiritual encounter, a light on the mountain, a voice from the burning bush. Not a man in an upper room with his friends, about to be murdered. But this is the way in which God has chosen to reveal Godself. Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus. In everything that Jesus has said and done, in the way he has lived and the way he is about to die, we see the Creator of the cosmos, the one who holds our whole world cradled in the palm of his hands. In Jesus, we see God. If we want to know what God is like, we can look to this person in whom God has been revealed, the way, the truth and life. It is because we see God in Jesus we know God is loving. We know God welcomes outsiders. We know God is willing to die for us. We know that God is absolutely and utterly opposed to violence. We know that God seeks to win us through vulnerability, rather than strength. So many people say that they do not believe in God, but they like what Jesus was on about. For Christians, the two cannot be separated. Through Jesus, we know God.
Today’s readings are about death, and why it is not something to fear. They reassure us that because Jesus has entered death before us it will be possible for us to die as Stephen did: without fear; committing our spirits to God; forgiving those who have sinned against us. But even more, today’s readings are about life, about how we are to live here and now. We do not need to wait until death to enter God’s dwelling-places, to join the community of love that is God. Jesus tells his disciples ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me,’ and we are welcomed into that communion and invited to dwell in God in both life and death. We do not need to worry that in the absence of the human Jesus we have been left alone. The God we have seen in Jesus, the God who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light, is always with us. Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people, and we dwell in the Father’s house, today and always. So let us live with untroubled hearts. Amen.
 Gary Neal Hansen in Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 2, (2010) p. 448.
 Molly T. Marshall in Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 2, (2010) p. 468.
Pingback: Sermon: We have not been left alone | Rev Doc Geek