Saturday, May 13, 2017
Easter 5A-2017 May 14, 2017 “Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’” Our lectionary crafters have given us as a gospel today on this 5th Sunday of Easter, that is the gospel reading that is most often chosen by bewildered and grieving families as they plan a loved one’s funeral. “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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 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. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Strangely appropriate today as we mark a very definite ending here. The context of this gospel is also important to us. This portion of John’s gospel is known as “the farewell discourse.” Jesus has told his disciples that he is going to be betrayed and handed over to die. The disciples are understandably bewildered, frightened, shocked, saddened and in denial as they hear Jesus say these words to them all gathered together in the upper room where they are about to eat their Last Supper. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Jesus says this to those whom he loves because he knows that things are about to get very much worse for them before they get better. That is the nature of this life of death and resurrection that every follower of Jesus is baptized into. We see this truth writ large in the story of Stephen and the beginning of the early followers of Jesus in Jerusalem that is today’s Acts reading. Again, context is important here. Stephen has been chosen by the community of believers in Jerusalem as one of the first deacons, selected to serve the community to free up the 12 apostles to “focus on prayer and …serving the word.” Stephen and the others are selected because they are “men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” And Stephen really lives into this, the writer of Acts tells us: “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” But the leaders of the synagogue take issue with Stephen; they argue with him but cannot stand up to him, so they form a plot against Stephen. “They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses…” against him. So, standing before the council, Stephen preaches a sermon about the salvation history of the people of Israel: about Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses and the way that God worked through all of them to bring about salvation, now come to fulfillment in the person of Jesus. And Stephen’s preaching enrages the people in the council, and they take him out, and they stone him. And as devastating a blow as that must have been to the early Christians in Jerusalem, it does not end there. Stephen’s death begins a severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and all but the apostles become scattered throughout the countryside. Saul begins “ravaging the church” by going into peoples’ houses and dragging men and women off to prison. It definitely gets much worse for the church in Jerusalem. But, history tells us that this moment in time is the real beginning of the spreading of the good news beyond Jerusalem, as “those who were scattered [go about] from place to place, proclaiming the word.” It was the church father Tertullian who named this truth when we wrote, “The blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the church.” Truly, in the pattern of death and resurrection, it often gets worse before it gets better. There’s a passage of scripture that Bishop Gray quoted at various times over the course of his Episcopate. I was thinking about it last week, and so I went searching for it. It is another way of summing up the heart of this cruciform life that we are called to, the pattern of death and resurrection that is found in all of our lives, whether we embrace it or not. The passage is from the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph, as you know, was his father’s favorite, and so his brothers sold him into slavery where all manner of indignities happened to him which culminated in him being falsely imprisoned in a foreign land. But God intervenes and positions Joseph, through the use of his special gift of interpreting dreams, in a position where Joseph is able to save an entire generation of people in Egypt and beyond from famine. At the end of the story, when Joseph and his brothers are re-united, the brothers are concerned that Joseph will enact revenge upon them for their mistreatment of him, and Joseph responds, with a clear statement of resurrection and forgiveness: “What you meant for evil, God meant for good…” We put our hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We know, even when things seem to be at their worst that God’s love is stronger than anything, even death. We trust the truth that is found in both Joseph’s and Stephen’s stories: What other people mean for evil, God can and will use for good. And we know that sometimes, things have to get worse before they can get better.