Sermon by Burton Cooper
Acts 7; John 14:1-14
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven ...
“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened
And the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand!”
But they covered their ears and all rushed against him
(And) they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him
(And) while they were stoning Stephen, he prayed,
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
This story of Stephen, is one of those stories which appears simple, and yet reveals the world in all its moral ambiguity, and reveals ourselves as incomplete, divided beings, torn between love and self-love, showing us to be sometimes lower than worms, other times almost as high as the angels.
Stephen, an early disciple of Christ, the first Christian martyr, causes outrage on the streets and in the synagogues of Jerusalem by proclaiming Jesus as the long expected messiah. He is hauled before the Jewish Council where he has a transcendental seizure, ecstatically shouting out a vision of Jesus Christ at God’s right hand, a vision so offensive to his hearers that he is dragged out of the city, and stoned until he falls down dead. And we are told, as if for good measure, that Saul, the soon to be Saint Paul, looks on this approvingly. This may strike us as vigilante violence, but we would be mistaken in so thinking. The Jewish Council that oversaw the stoning is composed of the scribes and the elders, with the chief priest as its head. It is the high religious authority in Jewish life. We need to resist any thought that the Council is full of hypocrites or corrupt people. It is composed of the establishment, people committed to their religious traditions, to the continuity of their faith as they know it. The problem of these people in authority, a problem not unknown to us today, is not that they are not good --- they only do what seems good in their own eyes --- the problem is they do not know how ungood they are, they do not know how narrow, how small, is their idea of what is good. Good people, thinking they are only doing what is good, do ungood things. We see that all the time. So it’s not any wonder that our world, the world we live in, is swimming ten fathoms deep in moral ambiguity.
Calvin, that profound Reformation theologian, thought of himself as a worm, thought of all of us as worms. That may be a little unfair to us. It’s certainly unfair to the worms. Who ever heard of a bunch of worms gathering together and throwing stones at a fellow worm. Or to be up to date, in these ISIS times of our life, who ever heard of a worm personally beheading another worm, let alone beheading a western journalist before TV cameras broadcast worldwide for all to see. Or who ever heard of a worm who gases his own people, even children. Horrible! How do we bring ourselves to do these things?
I spoke in last month’s sermon about the protagonist of a Walker Percy novel so provoked by a few insulting words of a waiter that he’s overcome by an urge towards violence, barely restraining himself from smacking the waiter in the face. I recently came across an even more telling story regarding our proneness towards violence, this
one by Robert Stone, Vietnam vet and novelist, a story of what happened to foot soldiers in the Vietnam War, what happened inwardly, to their souls, to their sense of self. Writing about these Vietnam veterans, writing, apparently, also, about himself, Stone says, “We didn’t know who we were, until we got here. We thought we were something else.“ We thought we were something else. We didn’t know we could do the terrible things we did in Vietnam, to the Vietnamese people, men, women and children. We didn’t know of our capacity for violence, that we could be provoked into terrible acts of evil. We thought we were something else, better than that. Perhaps, amongst those who stoned Stephen, or even those who some years earlier who had shouted to Pontius Pilate, “Crucify him, crucify him,” there were some who, upon later reflection, wondered who they were that they could throw a stone at a fellow human being, or wondered how they could urge a foreign, hated authority, to crucify one of their own. They didn’t know they were the kind of person who could do such a thing, until “as Stone puts it, “they got there.” Perhaps, later, lying in bed in the dark of night, some of them repented. It’s one of the things we human beings can do. It’s why we think of ourselves as spiritual beings, made up of body and spirit. We, too, you and me, sometimes find out who we are when “we get there.” We can look at ourselves, discover we are less than what we thought, regret what we have done, cry out for forgiveness, know ourselves deeper, darker, more conflicted than we thought --- discover humility as a virtue. When we do this, we come a little closer to the angels.
While Stephen was being stoned, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” We have reached here the far, high end of human behavior, the being a little lower than the angels, though the angel metaphor can mislead us. The story of Stephen’s stoning, his cry to forgive those who have stoned him, is a parallel to the cry of Jesus from the cross (in Luke’s gospel) asking God to “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Of course, Stephen is not the Christ, he is a disciple of Christ, a believer. If we asked Stephen how, when facing death, he was able to forgive his killers, he might well say, “I didn’t know I could do this until I did it, and, in any event, it was not me but the spirit of Christ in me --- for which I give thanks. Like Stone’s Vietnam veterans, except in a different direction, Stephen found out who he was when he got there.
This story of Stephen helps us a little into an understanding of those bold, startling, words that this morning’s reading from the gospel of John puts into Jesus’ mouth: “I am the way and the truth and the life,” says Jesus, words that puzzled the two disciples, Thomas and Philip, and puzzling enough to us, for we could spend the rest of this morning working in vain to get an exact, final meaning to each of these words. As the philosopher Whitehead said decades ago, when it comes to words, particularly abstract words like the way, the truth, the life, “exactness is a fake.” And yet, this we can say with some certainty, the story of Stephen exemplifies a person embodying Jesus as the way, the truth, the life. While being pelted with stones, Stephen finds himself praying to God for mercy, forgiveness towards his tormentors. We know that mercy, forgiveness is part of the spirit of Christ, as is love, compassion, concern for the well being of others, caring for justice for others as much as we care for justice towards ourselves, a sense of humility, a sense of our brokenness, our need for repentance, a sense of our limitedness, and yet also, a little paradoxically, a contrary sense that there are always heights beyond our vision, indeterminate possibilities for greater goodness, more justice, peace, community, and, also, tragically, possibilities for new, even more
destructive evils. These are norms, understandings of our faith, beliefs to live by, to live towards. It is the spirit of Christ not only as the way, but as the life, for these norms give meaning to our lives, give us a sense of worth beyond ourselves, give a sense of importance to our actions which otherwise would simply perish into the past, ultimately into oblivion, without our faith that God values these actions, takes them into God’s own being, everlastingly --- and also of course give us a life in which we can freely confess our failures, ask God for mercy, forgiveness, find we have the possibility for healing, renewal, a fresh start.
Christ, also, is the truth, not only the way and the life but the truth. It’s a difficult affirmation in today’s culture because we so fear that what cannot be validated by the scientific method has only a shaky claim, if even that, on truth. So what are we to say, we people of faith, to justify our claim that Christ is the truth.
This is what we can say, what, I’m sure, we do say to ourselves, even if unspoken; and, should they ever ask, what we can say to others: living the way, that is what validates the truth of Christ. For when we participate in a community which seeks to open itself to the spirit of Christ, letting love and compassion be our ultimate norms, we find we are being drawn out of ourselves, saved from the all too self defeating consequences of our self-love, and drawn into a life that looks to build up community and overcome conflict. When we say Christ is the truth we are affirming creative love as the truth to live by; we are affirming love as the power that can overcome the evils and divisions that afflict us; and finally we are affirming that the spirit of Christ, which is the spirit of God, the spirit of love, is not only our norm but our judge, for in our restlessness, our ambitiousness, our pride, our insecurities, our strivings for power, we are initiators not only of great good but of evils. But we are not to lose courage. The way forward is to celebrate our good and acknowledge our ungood. Confession, repentance, fresh start, that is the life of the spirit under a God who forgives not seven times but seven times seventy. And, wondrously, sisters and brothers in Christ, as if in a flash, we find all this to be true.
Thanks be to God’s grace for this mercy.
Thanks be to Christ.