Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 14, 2017
Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:1-10, John 14:1-14
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In first-century Judea, there were problems. First and most pressing was the problem of the Romans. The Romans, who had conquered their country and ruled it with an iron fist. The Romans, who imposed heavy taxes on ordinary people and used the money to build huge palaces and fund the very army that was oppressing the Jewish people. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Romans were monotheists who wanted everybody else to worship their gods. So while technically they allowed the Jewish people to worship their own God, the true god, they also pressured people to worship Zeus and Hera and Athena and all the rest. They mocked Jewish customs and beliefs, and under this pressure many people turned away from their heritage. Everything that had once made Judea great was under siege, and people were abandoning the very core of what it had always meant to be Jewish.
And then came along this new sect of Jewish people, who followed a guy named Jesus who had stirred up a lot of controversy. And after his death, they … didn’t go away. They declared that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Worse than that, they claimed that this Jesus was God’s own son! They worshipped this Jesus as God! While still claiming to be good Jews! Now, as any Jew could tell you, there is only ONE god, and that God is the Holy One of Israel. There is no other God. To claim otherwise was blasphemy. And here are these people who still claim to be Jewish, who still claim to worship the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, who brought them home from exile, and yet they ALSO worship someone else? Sure, they claimed Jesus was the Messiah sent by God, that he was part of the God their people had always worshipped, but that was ridiculous. This whole business of worshipping three people—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—it was nonsense. No matter what these Jesus-followers claimed, they must be pagan polytheists, just like the Romans. The good and faithful people of God knew what God wanted of them, and it wasn’t this. They knew who God was, and it was not this Jesus dude. They knew what God wanted them to do, and it was to resist pagans and all who tried to turn people away from the worship of the one true God. They believed they knew what God wanted with such fervor that they could not see the new thing that God was actually doing in their midst.
And so they put Jesus’ followers on trial for blasphemy, starting with Stephen. They couldn’t protect themselves from the Romans, but by golly they could get rid of those Jesus-freaks. They were so certain that they knew what God wanted that it never occurred to them to wonder if God might be doing something new. They were so certain they knew how God worked in the world that when God took an active and direct stand in front of them by giving them Jesus and raising him from the dead, they looked at God’s redemptive work in the world and saw only the work of evil, trying to destroy God’s people. God spoke his Word to them directly, and they couldn’t hear it because they were so certain they already knew what he would say. I read this story, the story of the first martyr, and I want to believe that in that time and place I would have been Stephen, faithful to God even to the death. But I have to ask myself, would I have been the crowd? Would I have been one of the ones who was so certain I knew what God wanted that I attacked the people who were actually doing God’s work?
This is something that has happened throughout history. God sends people to spread his work and do his will, and when it doesn’t fit into the nice neat assumptions people have about God, they reject it. They say, no, God couldn’t possibly work that way. In ancient Israel, people who worshipped God killed or attacked or imprisoned God’s prophets for pointing out the sins of the people. In the first few centuries of the Christian era, people who worshipped God killed the followers of Jesus like Stephen in our reading today. In medieval England, Christians burned people at the stake for distributing Bibles in English. In 16th Century Germany, Christians killed Reformers for trying to bring new life to the church and get rid of corruption. Every time God has sent people to do a new thing, to breathe new life and salvation into the world, a lot of God’s people have rejected it, at least at first.
This is something we should be wary of. We live in a time of great upheaval and change. Things are not ever going to go back to the way they used to be fifty years ago. Some of the changes are good, and some aren’t. But as we decide how to respond to all this change, we should be careful to remember that God is at work. I guarantee you God is working in the world to bring his Word and his love to all people. And it may look like what we’re familiar with, but it may not. What God is doing in us and around us may fit our expectations, or it may surprise us. It is not our job to dictate what God can and can’t do, what is outside the boundaries of what God can want to do. When people—even deeply faithful people!—try to do that, they have often been wrong. Just as Stephen’s attackers were wrong in our first reading. They weren’t evil people. They were devout followers of God genuinely trying to do what they believed God would want. But they were so caught up in their own expectations of who God was and what God wanted that they couldn’t see what God was actually doing right there in front of them. And so they killed Stephen.
But even if we get things wrong, even if we mistake what God is doing in the world or blind ourselves to his actions, that doesn’t mean there is no hope for us. Even if we go as far astray as anyone possibly can, God can still reach us. There was a man there, when they killed Stephen, named Saul. Saul was a deeply faithful follower of God. Saul loved God, and Saul had studied the holy Scriptures, and Saul believed with all his heart that killing Stephen was the right thing to do. After Stephen’s death, Saul went and attacked other followers of Jesus, too, and that wasn’t enough so he went to other cities to persecute the followers of Jesus there. Saul was consumed with hate for those he believed had betrayed God. But Saul’s hate was not the end of the story.
One of the cities Saul travelled to in order to persecute Christians was Damascus. But on the way there, God struck him blind and gave him a vision. I have no doubt that God had tried to reach Saul before, that God had tried to turn him away from the path of violence and hate, but it wasn’t until God struck him down on that Damascus road that Saul realized what God truly wanted of him. God struck Saul down and gave him a vision, and then sent a follower of Jesus to open his eyes. And Saul realized what he had been doing, changed his mind, and became a devout disciple of Jesus Christ. Saul was the one who followed God’s call to go out and spread the good news of Jesus to Gentiles, not just to his fellow Jews. While preaching to the Gentiles, Saul used a Gentile version of his name—Paul. That’s right, the guy who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament, whose words we read in worship almost every Sunday, he started out not only opposed to Jesus but actively working to kill Jesus’ followers.
God works in mysterious ways. And God does things we don’t expect and could never have predicted beforehand. God is constantly working new ways to bring his love and salvation to the world. We don’t always understand what he’s doing; we don’t always like it. Sometimes, we let our own expectations blind us to what God is doing. When times of change and turmoil come, may we be like Stephen, open to God’s will and faithful to the last. But if we find ourselves in Saul’s shoes, may God give us the same grace he gave Saul: to turn us around, give us hearts for God’s love, and send us forth to be God’s hands in the world.