I would like to thank Sam for the opportunity to preach this morning. I’m not sure how many times I have had this privilege – more than I deserve to be sure. But I realized this week that this is the second time that I have preached here in St. Paul’s when a lesson from Acts of the Apostles corresponds to one of our stained-glass windows. The first time, it was the lower window on the left where Saul is struck by a bolt from heaven, blinded and thrown from his horse. This week we heard the story of the stoning of St. Stephen, seen in the upper left. You see Stephen and the mob with their stones. There are the cloaks strewn on the ground. And there is Saul, the future Paul, identified as he is in all four of the scenes, by a blue halo.
We will get back to that story in a bit. But first, it was a week that was for many of us troubling in ways that we haven’t known in many years, if at all. It was a time when we may have needed reassurance.
Our Gospel lesson for today shows reassurance in its most unambiguous form. It is a simple and unrestricted reassurance that Jesus knew would stem from the Easter experience that was about to enfold. And that makes it a bit more complicated.
You know, Sam mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but it’s worth remembering. Easter is not a day – it’s a season and one that should inspire and reassure us every day of our lives. It’s why we are sometimes called Easter people. Although today’s Gospel is often read at funerals, I believe that the Easter experience is not just about our own death or the death of someone close to us. A similar renewal, a rising above can reassure us when we are confronted with other difficult circumstances.
But it’s easy to lose sight of the source of this Easter reassurance. Flowers fade and wither away. Soaring anthems are replaced by everyday hymns. In our weekly lessons, stark reality like the brutal death of Stephen intrudes, leaving us wondering if we are under assault or perhaps if we have inadvertently joined the mob of stone throwers.
I think that all kinds of pressures, concerns, and events in our lives can cause us to lose sight of how reassurance is available to us. In just a few minutes we will pray together and join in reciting the mystery of faith. Together we will say a few very profound words, words that are central to the Easter experience.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Let’s say them together: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
There. It’s a mystery, to be sure, but it’s one that we need to try to understand in order to comprehend its effects on us. But we can be thrown off in this effort, and not just by personal problems, political upheavals, and other concerns. Our understanding and comprehension can be dulled simply by the familiarity of words that most of us know by heart and recite without really thinking.
Which leads me to an aside – but one that does relate to what I am trying to say.
Happy Mother’s Day to mothers present here today and those who are close to us in spirit. This is the first Mother’s Day since my mother passed away last fall. We had a family gathering just last weekend in her honor and memory. In the process of putting together some brief remarks I, of course, sorted through hundreds of memories including some about church. She was a Sunday regular but because we had Sunday School when I was young, it was quite rare for me to be in church with her. But I have a clear memory of kneeling in the pew next to her one Sunday morning and hearing her recite the Prayer of Humble Access from memory. Wow, I thought. I mean, we kids knew the Lord’s Prayer by heart. Knowing all that other stuff by heart must make God really happy.
But I now realize that knowing words by heart and reciting them by rote can dull their meaning. Too often we zoom right past Christ-has-died- Christ-is-risen-Christ-will-come-again without even letting the words register.
Human nature complicates reassurance in another way as well. We sometimes want – or even demand – more in the way of reassurance, more certainty, more proof of what is promised. Thomas speaks for many of us when he says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
And Philip, too, speaks for us when he says, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Jesus provided them with wonderful words of reassurance, but I suspect he knew it would be up to his friends to ultimately figure some of it out for themselves. That challenge to them seems clear when he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Troubled, frightened, quarrelsome, and questioning though they could be, I rather doubt that Thomas, Philip and the others in the room let those words slip into rote memory and recitation.
Now at this point it would have been great for the disciples – and really easy for us – if Jesus would just leave things at that by providing convincing reassurance that everything is going to be really, really OK. But no. Jesus warns them – and us – not to be comfortable and relax, safe in the knowledge that in the end there will be a room for each of us in our Father’s house. Instead Jesus makes it quite clear that we need to be prepared to take on difficult tasks.
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Stephen must have known this when he had a vision of Jesus and God together in heaven. The writer of Acts tells us of the people, “They covered their ears and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
What do we learn from this. It was a violent act against a believer who said he was able to see heaven. And if we are promised a dwelling place in heaven, how can this happen? Can it happen to us? The stoning of Stephen should shake our souls the way it shook the soul of the young witness named Saul who, of course, came to be known as Paul. And it should remind us that we, too, will face adversity as we are called to do the work we are given to do.
So, for us gathered together in troubling times for worship in a church named for St. Paul, remember that there is difficult work to do; that we are reassured that a place has been prepared for us in Heaven; and, Easter people, that the mystery of faith underlies it all. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.