When we hear scripture proclaimed in worship, we hope and pray and trust that the Holy Spirit is speaking through it to us actively. Not that we are only hearing historic texts, but that our belief that God continues to speak to us through these images and stories will be confirmed in our midst today.
Hearing the Bible read this way, we must also remember that the way we read it in worship is in snippets. Small pieces chosen with the intent of presenting one, or perhaps several, ideas, themes, stories, and lessons to a group of worshippers. But these stories were not written as isolated tales of a few sentences. They are part of a larger whole. The compilers of our worship lectionary assume that you and I are also reading the Bible as it presents itself. That we might sit and read the Acts of the Apostles or the Gospel as told by John from beginning to end.
It can be easy from week to week to forget some of what we’ve heard and the broader arcs that the lectionary compilers are trying to make clear to us. For example, over the past three weeks since Easter, our readings from the Acts have been about all of the people who came to know of Jesus through the preaching and teaching of the apostles; who were baptized; who gave up all of their money and property to the community’s good and who lived in the breaking of bread, the teaching of the apostles, and in prayer. These people are the model for our own baptismal promises. And today we hear the story of Stephen, a deacon in this early community, who is murdered for his preaching about Jesus.
The story of Stephen’s martyrdom is powerful no matter how it is told, but what does it mean after four weeks of stories about the resurrection, the growth of the Church, and the beautiful relationships in that community of our ancestors in the faith? We will put a bookmark there for a moment and come back to it. For now, we need to spend a few minutes thinking about the rest of the context here.
In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, we hear an extended discussion between Jesus and the disciples about Jesus’s identity and what Jesus is doing for them. And, of course, for you and I, also. Jesus is going ahead of the disciples to prepare the way for them. To prepare a place in God’s kingdom, to show them the road to get there. Jesus is our guide from wherever we are to where we are meant to be: dwelling in the Kingdom of God.
So often we hear the disciples ask Jesus for directions. How do I get there? And Jesus replies in one of two ways: Either with instructions that are much more demanding than the asker anticipated—such as giving up everything you own to follow Jesus—or by replying that they cannot follow him yet, but he will return for them and show them the way. When we hear these responses that Jesus gives, the talk usually turns quickly to judgement. What happens to the young man who cannot give up everything to follow Jesus? Does he ever enter into God’s kingdom? When Jesus returns to show us the way, what if I am not ready to go? What if I cannot follow? Will I enter into God’s kingdom? What of my neighbour, who I do not like very much? Surely they will not be entering into God’s kingdom. And so on.
When we hear Jesus talk about the demands of those who would follow him, our anxiety about judgement rises up quickly. When we hear statements like “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” we immediately begin to draw lines and try to determine who is on the way and who has fallen off. We read Jesus’s statements about salvation and God’s kingdom as exclusionary. We forget that Jesus’s language about God’s kingdom is always that of promise. Our decisions are not about whether God will open the door for us; God has promised that much. Our decisions are about whether or not we will choose to step over the threshold into the light of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. This is where Christians find themselves standing in this life. Perched at the place of decisions, the place of judgement, the crossroads of life and death.
There is an element of judgement in these interactions with Jesus about the life that is to come. No doubt about it. But judgement, as we humans do it, is not judgement the way God does it. When we judged Stephen, for speaking of the kingdom of God, of true authority, because he spoke in a way that was unfamiliar and made us uncomfortable, we judged him deserving of death. When God judged Stephen’s words and actions, God judged Stephen worthy of eternity in the glory of heaven, clad in white among the martyrs who forever sing praises. Our judgement is so often the way of death. God’s judgement is always the way of life.
We have judged our neighbour and found them wanting. We condemn them to a life of pain, loneliness, and fear, We judge our neighbour and find them unworthy of food, clothing, or shelter. When they, trying to preserve their lives, seek a corner in which to survive surrounded by dirty blankets in a bus shelter, we shake our heads and tut tut tut about their poor choices. About their lack of a plan to better themselves. We talk politely about what a shame it is that the lawmakers we chose aren’t doing more to take care of our neighbour on our behalf. And if they can’t solve the “problem” of homelessness, surely they could move it somewhere else so that we don’t have to be uncomfortable for a few moments when we see it on our way to church. For these neighbours, just as we chose for Stephen, we have chosen death.
You and I, as individuals, are not going to house every person who needs a place in this city. Even if our whole diocese committed itself to the cause of homeless people, the need is so great that we may not be able to help everyone. But God’s inquiry to us in scripture is not “When did you solve homelessness? When did you abolish prisons?” God’s question is “When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was naked, did you clothe me? When I was imprisoned, did you visit me?”
The story of Stephen’s martyrdom is important, following hot on the heels of the stories about the growth of the Church, because it reminds us that following Jesus is not all baptisms and feasts. If we truly believe that Jesus has laid out the path for us and that we are to follow, it means that one day we will find ourselves in front of our own crosses. We will be asked to give up something that is dear to us for the sake of our neighbour. We will be asked to lay aside our judgements and accept the judgement of God.
Jesus’s invitations to eternal life in the Kingdom of God are, most assuredly, promises. That invitation is ours for the taking. But, just as we remind new Christians in baptism, the way to eternal life lies on the other side of death. We pass through the valley without fear, because God is our defender and guide, but we pass through the valley just the same. Spring flowers filled with resurrection and new life grow out of seed and soil that lay where they were planted last year, where they lay dead, under snow, for a whole winter.
We stand at the crossroads. If we follow our own will, we will again stone Stephen into martyrdom and read about deaths of homeless people by exposure in our city. If we follow God’s leading, we will find ourselves in places that make us uncomfortable, that frighten us, that cause us to do things we never might have imagined. But we will find ourselves there with God, with one another, and stepping into the eternal life of all that is beautiful, good, and true.
Which way shall we follow?