Almighty God,who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Risen Christ, your wounds declare your love for the world and the wonder of your risen life: give us compassion and courage to risk ourselves for those we serve, to the glory of God the Father.
Eternal God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life: grant us to walk in his way, to rejoice in his truth, and to share his risen life; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But 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. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.
‘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.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
Sermon on Easter 5
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.
What strikes you when you hear these words? I don’t know about you, but I am all at sea, lost in amazement and wonder at Stephen’s love, his love of God in Jesus and the love Stephen is showing to those who evidently hate him. Why else would they have stones in their hands ready to hurl at him? But how could he die with that loud cry on his lips?
First of all, I cannot imagine myself praying to Jesus while stones and rocks fall down on me, when pain is all I feel and know. Can you comprehend that? I am sure you can understand that Stephen went down on his knees, under the blows of missiles falling upon him. You can also understand the loud cry of his soul. “Lord, receive my spirit!” Like those soldiers lying wounded on the battlefield crying out “Mother!” You would cry out for mercy as well, wouldn’t you? We all ask God for mercy in that moment of extremity, don’t we? However, would you call upon God’s mercy – would your last words be a blessing on those stoning you? Wouldn’t you in your last everydayness shout out a curse? Wouldn’t you condemn those who were hurting you beyond measure in your final moment? What would be the last words on your lips? – I don’t know that I could bless those who were stoning me. I would be tormented at that final moment (if my conscience could be wakened in such dire straits), because these words of Jesus would accuse me, “Bless those that curse you.” I would have failed in my duty of love at the last. I would be so unlike Stephen, the first martyr.
I am supposed to bless those who have condemned me, cursed me and are attempting to murder me, but can I? Like so many, I would be perplexed. I am just like Thomas. What am I to do when in that situation, where does life lead when the stones start hurtling their way toward my head – didn’t Thomas say to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Confusion reigns in my soul as I replicate Stephen’s end.
Jesus demands elsewhere, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” Perhaps we do not know Jesus as well as we should. Are our hearts and minds troubled? He tells us not to worry, doesn’t he? Perhaps we are not as strong as Stephen as he cried out his prayer of loving compassion in his last moment.
Stephen is one man who knew where Jesus was going, isn’t he? AND Stephen was able to follow him on the way – he was able to pursue Jesus on that hard way of temptation and trial, the path that leads through moral debt and spiritual temptation every moment. Yet, just like the disciples, we ourselves blunder on in our own ways, often without any consciousness of our extremity, often without any conscience at all. Here we stand like Stephen amidst the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and yet we need to utter our final word. Will it be the curse of the crowd, or the blessing of the saint?
On the other hand, I wonder whether we are like Saul? Do we stand behind the crowd which rush into precipitate action towards the Stephens of our own time? Do we hold the coats of that throng as they throw away the life of an innocent with their stones?
I wonder – is this the moment when Saul began his transformation? Is this the moment when Saul’s conscience is woken, when he finally separated himself from that crowd of condemnation with holy enthusiasm? Did Saul become Paul at this point of his life – when he was blessed with Stephen’s last breath?
I would suggest that we change with those moments of blessing through the curse of our lives – when we realise those random acts of kindness shown toward us and those we have given away ourselves. When Stephen’s last breath begged the Lord not to hold this vile act against the crowd, did Saul begin his journey to a new being in Christ, a person who could preach the love of God over all other attitudes, the love of God which transforms all life into care for the other and for self, just as Jesus commanded while he taught his disciples, those disciples who did not know where they were going? The experience on the road to Damascus was prepared for Paul as he held the coats of that dreadful crowd, when he heard Stephen’s voice of blessed reconciliation.
I would say that the moment of blessing is when hearts are changed. But are we fully aware of that transformation? When do we realise our destination, our ownmost possibility. We, like the disciples, ask “where is Jesus leading us?” More likely, too often we don’t even want to know where we are heading. We hide in the crowd of unconsciousness, not aware of our destination until that moment of grace, and even then it may take some time for us to realise it, some time before we are aware of the epiphany in our own lives, just as Saul took time to become Paul.
As the light dawns and as the scales fall from our eyes, we have a new vision. – Our sight is transformed. That is our own Damascene moment, when everything drops away and we are alone with the vision of life in all its fullness. It is so very different to what we expected when we were in that crowd, isn’t it?!?
I think we have all understood this transformation now. Now that we have experienced the isolation of “the lock-down”. It has forced us to be alone. There is no distraction of constant contact, no retail therapy, no having more than we could possibly need. The controlling crowd is gone. Everything has been stripped away and we are living out our own lives of quiet desperation alone with no distraction.
The lock-down has forced us to reflect on the Whence and Whither, the perennial problems of life which philosophy and religion confront. Whence do we arrive and whither do we hasten? Why have I been thrown into this particular moment of time and space? How can I extricate myself from this torment of doubt and self-recrimination? Why does Stephen bless me as I curse and stone him to death? What is my end, when Stephen can commend me to God, even as I condemn him in his final moment under the weight of the stone I have hurled towards him? Stephen’s praying for me has called everything into question – whether it is my membership of the crowd or my isolation from everyone. Where I journey and how I do so, are ever before me because of that dying love, than which nothing is greater.
Many have said that they are dreaming more and vividly during the lock-down – perhaps the corona virus has given us back the aboriginal dream-time – when all will have visions, when the origin and destination of our journeys will be clarified. I think it may be the biblical promise of the prophet who said that all will dream dreams and have visions, when the holy spirit will enter into the world and breathe new life into all. When holy righteousness will be our everyday achievement. Let us not squander the inheritance we are being offered today, when Stephen has blessed us in spite of the evil we may have done.