5th Sunday of Easter

April 20, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
Reading 3: 
1 Peter 2:2-10 or Acts 7:55-60
Reading 4: 
John 14:1-14
By Barry A. Woodbridge

Acts 7: 55-60
The spectacle of Stephen’s martyrdom closes the longer passage of Acts 6:8 – 8:3. A capital indictment has been brought against Stephen. The charges were blaspheming Moses and blaspheming God. The problem was there was no such capital punishment for blaspheming Moses! That means the prosecution has brought to trial a case of capital punishment without having sufficient grounds and being unable to argue persuasively to that end. None of that matters, for Luke’s use of this trail serves at least two other literary purposes: first, it allows the longest  summary of  history of the people of Israel leading up to the Jesus event in Stephen’s account in Acts: 7:1-53, and secondly it dramatically lays down the fatal traumatic incident to account for Saul’s future conversion.

One way to characterize Stephen’s account of God’s work among the people of Israel is as a “history of disobedience” (see Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002] 130). Beginning with Moses, the people did not listen well: “our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead they pushed him aside” (v.39).

As Stephen concludes his account of Israel’s plight, he names his accusers as perpetuating the exact same responses: they have “uncircumcised” ears (v. 51), and they become murderers of those who speak truth to power (v. 52).

Ironically, the horrid mob scene which results (with neither a closing argument from the accusers nor any final verdict in the case) comes with three visceral physical events. They grind their teeth at Stephen (v. 54). Like a case of juridical ritualized bruxism, this act has precedents in Psalms, where the wicked themselves watch for the righteous, plot against them, gnash their teeth against them, and seek capital punishment. (Ps. 37: 12, 32). Then they “cover their ears” (v. 57) as a result their “uncircumcised ears,” and a signal of their inability to deal with the enormity of the judgment against themselves. It becomes a defense mechanism. Thirdly, they “rushed together against him” (v. 57), pushing him aside like their ancestors in verse 52. This rage and mob behavior parallels Luke’s account of the mob that drove Jesus from the Nazarene temple to the brow of the hill where they would push him off (Luke 4:29).

Clearly, Stephen is to be identified with the suffering and punishment of Jesus, and endures a similar irrational violence done to Jesus and the prophets.

But who are these mobsters driven beyond their ability to cope with propositions of faith in too sharp a contrast with their own belief structures? Luke tells us they are “libertinos,“or “Freedmen” ( Acts 6:9). This fact doubles the irony that those who were former slaves, powerless, and subject to the prejudices of those in power, now forget their heritage and fall into the pattern of reacting the only way they know how. Forgetting order and reason, forgetting any mercy for the minority’s view, they throw rocks at the skull of their opponent. They smash the centers of language, reason, and even faith which they can no longer tolerate.

So Stephen dies like Jesus, an innocent but entirely faithful person (for, contrary to the charges of blaspheming Moses and God, he spoke in great support and reverence of both). His last words of forgiveness and commending his spirit to God (vv. 59-60) echo the last words of Luke’s Jesus (Luke 23:34,46).

Interpreting martyrdom can be a challenge today. These words will be heard just days after the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis. King spoke truth in such a way that it often invoked blind rage against him as well (the gnashing of teeth may have given way to spitting as the cultural symbol of ultimate rejection), and sometimes rejection from within the Christian community. We may be best challenged to speak a faithful account of our own nation, even when that includes some history of disobedience. And when we hear some completely contrary account to our own experience, in that heated, volatile moment we would do well to receive the “fullness of the Spirit” to assimilate the shock to our senses and reason before we use our mouth, or teeth, or act on our raging emotions alone. This could include even progressive Christians hearing interpretations of these very same texts (especially this week’s gospel lection from John) so contrary to our sensibilities that we feel outraged that our own faith has been co-opted beyond recognition!  We do not relinquish our right to strong dissent and to present our interpretation as vigorously and cogently as possible. Even then we resist immediate a priori contempt that silences any possibility of dialogue.

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-1
Psalm 31 contains themes that would reflect those of the lection from Acts.

“I am the scorn of my adversaries” v. 11

“…deliver me from the hands of my enemies” v. 15

“..you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues” v. 20

“The LORD preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughty.” v. 23

“Into your hand I commend my spirit.” v. 5

Apart from these thematic links to the death and martyrdom on Luke-Acts, the psalm teaches God’s gracious, faithful, and abundant response to our cries. This crying out for the psalmist and for Stephen was in extremis. How do we “cry out” as a normal way of living?

We of the more refined liturgy often lack any significant way of crying out, or expressing dependence on God in any holistic way that connects mind, body, and spirit. A congregation may do well to ponder that need. We need to develop or be shown new and meaningful ways of expressing dependence on God. If in worship we share sacrificially in our offering of time and money, that may signal our intentions to depend on God, but it can also create a convenient way of lulling us into imagining we depend on God when that is not our pervasive way of functioning at most other times. We need reminders and even visceral means of transcending our own personal preoccupations to exult, rejoice, and even sigh with emotions too great for words as we reorient ourselves to “cry out” and then to “wait for the Lord.”
1 Peter 2:2-10
The epistle lection combines multiple metaphors of how the growing Christian community defined itself as distinct from its surrounding culture it participates in. It is in every way growing: growing by healthy nutrition of scripture and instruction; by brick-and-mortar growing connections in the nexus of community life, by participation in a chosen royal priesthood (yet one open and added to daily by all those coming to follow “the way”; by recognition and acceptance by God as God’s own people (rather than as aliens estranged for not having the requisite beliefs or rituals).

One might use the criteria of organic growth in these verses as a starting point for a congregational health check. There are now many resources available for this, so much so that there is temptation to sap energy for mission with continual self-evaluation and internal measurement. Taking one’s temperature can be a healthy act done once a quarter, not once an hour.  

John 14:1-14
John’s Jesus issues final reassurances to his disciples, and through them, to the community remembering these words. Nothing can prepare us totally for the time of separation from the one who has meant life to us. Jesus offers some means of handling that grief when it occurs. His encouragement somewhat alters the normal stages of grief. We are to expect he will come again (verse 3) and will usher us into the realm he participates in himself. There is comfort (vv. 1-3), guiding presence, and empowerment (v. 12) for those who choose to follow the One who precedes them into a future mode of being.

John’s Jesus uses this farewell discourse as the occasion for one of the “I am” statements that has become to be so central and yet so controversial for defining the Christian community:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (v. 6)

Is the first person pronoun used as the exclusive agent, as in “I and only I”? Is it to be heard as the great “I am” spoken to Moses, such that it implies all God’s creative expression in all times and place? Is it to be read in its particularity that no come comes to this particular expression of God as Abba-Father as it is laid out in John’s prologue (John 1: 1-18) except as Jesus himself practiced that kind of unique relationship with God?

More than most interpretative challenges, one’s own presuppositions are going to engage, guide, and define the outcome of this task. To understand better that process and outline some of the common outcomes, Ron Farmer, in his exegesis of this passage, prepared an appendix to this issue in the link to the year 2002 above. This provides an excellent reflection on three ways this statement has been interpreted. Studying this will definitely enhance our ability to hear the text. Sometimes we will just need to announce our presuppositions first, proclaim our faith as we understand and live it, and then just as Whitehead did in his introduction to Process and Reality, state that as enormous an undertaking as this is, we reserve the right to have our current view superseded as more light is given us by future interpreters of this same text. As with Peter, the question of  “How can we know the Way?” defines our lifelong journey. We need deep rich dialogue with each other; we need the same with those in differing faith communities; and we need, above all, humility to remain faithful in the task of following the way, the truth, and the life.”