From our Gospel reading and what is known as Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.’.
And from the Book of Acts and the martyrdom of Stephen: ‘When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 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.’
I wonder how you are coping in this very strange time? It is a time of contradiction. For thousands of people, there is enormous suffering, pain and loss. Tens of thousands more are working round the clock to care for the needs of others, and several million more are working hard to keep the essential cogs of the nation turning. We have really learned in the past month who are the essential ‘key workers’ and perhaps our understanding of who and what is most important and who and what we should value most has been challenged or even turned upside down. Millions of people are being challenged by staying at home for weeks on end. And yet, this has brought families and communities together in ways that modern life has rarely allowed. We are talking to and engaging with each other and caring for our neighbours, perhaps even meeting them for the first time. But there are also tensions for many with so much time to spare. And of course there is the economic uncertainty – the loss of jobs, the reduction of income, the worry about what this will all lead to, and the economic fallout that will affect us all. And at the same time, we see nature bursting into life – clear skies and clean air; wild animals emerging… it is almost as if the natural world is celebrating a brief respite from the onslaught of human interference.
And meanwhile, we have discovered a whole new world of online connectivity, and the Church is learning a new way of ‘being’ Church. I wonder, in this time, are we as Christians, as ‘Church’, rediscovering what our ministry priorities are really about?– not just being a social club of like-minded people doing good works, but a spiritual resource for the nation, and ministering in Christian love to those around us? Perhaps as we go through this experience, and when it passes, we shall all ask the question: What have we learnt from all of this? And what can we do differently in the future for the better because of it?
In the weeks after Easter, there is a common thread that runs through the words of the risen Lord as he appears to his disciples. The first words he says to his disciples in the upper room on that first resurrection appearance are: ‘Peace be with you’. They are but an echo of his teaching to his disciples throughout his earthly ministry. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his imminent arrest, and his first words to them are: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.’
How much do we truly live by that trust and that belief? When Jesus invites us to believe in him or to ‘have peace’, he is not promising that our struggles will be taken away or that all will be well. On the contrary, they are words of reassurance and strength that in the midst of our struggles, in the midst of the pain; he invites to be at peace and to believe that he is present and that his Spirit is upholding and guiding us through whatever life throws at us. Don’t’ you find that the most inspiring of the saints through the ages and those living who touch our lives, are those who shine with faith and trust in God, and the ability to love and serve in the midst of pain and suffering and loss. And they are many in the world around us today.
But it is not always easy to believe that is the case. If you struggle with faith, you are in good company. Jesus says to those who have been closest to him: ‘ I go and prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and 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.’ But Thomas, dear Thomas, says: ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ And then Jesus says: ‘I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
Here is a wonderful pointer. In Jesus and everything he taught, in everything that he was, in everything that he did, lies the way to the Father. This has often been used as a text to prove the exclusiveness of Christianity and as a negative condemnation of those who are non-Christians. But God of course is much greater than the limitations of our definitions or the capacity of the Spirit of Christ to work outside the sphere of the boundaries we set. The early Church Fathers spoke of the impossibility of describing the essence of God and the incomprehensible mystery of his presence in the world and amidst people. And a great contemporary Orthodox Bishop wrote in 1971: “If obedience to the Master means following him wherever we find traces of his presence, we have an obligation to investigate the authentic spiritual life of non-Christians. For the economy of God’s Spirit makes the presence of Christ possible and the living of authentic spiritual lives possible for all human beings, regardless of any religious restrictions.” If that is so, he continues, then “Christ cannot be owned by some people and not be others, and we have a duty to discern Christ in others.” For God is Love, and love is the cradle of faith. We are called to be Christians, not Crusaders.
The uniqueness of Christ here is that he brings us into a relationship with the mysterious majesty of God, not as a remote unknowable figure, but as a Father, whom we can know and with whom we can have a relationship.
Such a faith as this does not end for the disciples as simply belief. But it is lived out in action. When Jesus appeared to his disciples in the upper room on the evening of the resurrection, he said: “As the Father sent me, so I send you’.
And our reading from Acts speaks of the boldness of that action for Stephen, who we are told was full of grace and power. Despite all that had happened to Jesus, he boldly proclaimed the message of Christ and challenged the corruption of the political and religious authorities, thus becoming the first martyr, which means in Greek, ‘Witness’.
His witness cost Stephen his life. But even in his death, he echoed the compassion of Jesus, crying out as he was stoned to death: ‘Lord Jesus, do not hold this sin against them’. What followed Stephen’s martyrdom was a persecution of Christians in the hope that they might be wiped out. But the opposite happened. The Church grew. And most importantly of all, the leading figure who was present at and approved the murder of Stephen, was none other than Saul, who shortly afterwards, whilst on his way to persecute the Christians in Damascus, would be converted, would change his name to Paul, and would become responsible for the spread of the Christian gospel throughout the Roman world.
What might we learn from these two readings? Many things. But I want to pick out the main lessons.
- Do not be afraid. For Christ is with us in all our trials.Where do we see Christ present in the experience we are facing today?
- God can and will use whatever circumstances we find ourselves for the good, if we can work with him in that. What can we learn from recent events, and how can we use them for the good?
- In what ways does our Christian faith clash with the culture or lifestyles that surround us or with which we are familiar? How can we adapt those for a more Christ-like purpose and for the benefit of everyone?
- Remembering that we are all God’s creatures, can we see Christ in others? And how therefore should we engage with the ‘other’ beyond our community, our nation?
AS we face all these questions, and in a world where there is so much violence and economic uncertainty, Christ’s resurrection words to his followers, and Stephen’s model of faithfulness and obedience remain as relevant today as they ever were. May God bless us in the process of discernment as we listen to his call and play our part in the unfolding future.
55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.58Then 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.59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’60Then 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.
Jesus the Way to the Father
14‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe*in God, believe also in me.2In 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?*3And 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.4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’*5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.7If you know me, you will know*my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’9Jesus 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”?10Do 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.11Believe 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.12Very 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.13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.14If in my name you ask me*for anything, I will do it.