Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Sunday 10th May 2020 (Fifth Sunday of Easter)
Acts 7.55–end; Psalm 31.1–5,15–16; 1 Peter 2.2–10; John 14.1–14
This Sunday’s readings all come to us from times we know only too well for ourselves, times of stress and anxiety: a court room, a last meal, and a message of encouragement to Christians facing increasing persecution. And yet, despite the darkness and tension in all three events, they all speak with hope and trust that God will resolve their suffering. None of them deny or make light of the present reality.
In the first reading today we are taken to the court room in Jerusalem where Stephen, recently appointed as a deacon to help in the distribution of food to Greek speaking converts to the faith, stands accused of blasphemy. Luke tells us that Stephen and his fellow deacons have been appointed to serve needy Greek speaking Christians amidst a growing tension between them and the Aramaic speaking native converts. Luke uses this internal tension to illustrate just how rapidly the Word is spreading out from Jerusalem to the rest of the world. Stephen has been arrested, not because he is involved in the daily food run, but because with Philip, another deacon, he has been actively preaching and debating the faith in the city, and so stirring up controversy.
Luke’s description of Stephen’s trial before the court of Jewish elders quite deliberately mirrors that of Christ. Stephen faces the same charges of uttering blasphemy against Moses and God. He is charged with speaking against the “holy place” (the Temple) and the Law, and claiming that Jesus will destroy the Temple and alter the Mosaic tradition. And Stephen’s prayer as he dies again echoes the prayer of Jesus at his crucifixion, begging for forgiveness for his persecutors.
Luke explains that the stand-off between Judaism and the early church, culminating in Stephen’s death by stoning at the hands of a lynch mob, marks the final move away from Jerusalem as the main focus of the Christian community, and the spread of the Gospel out towards Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Syria. Stephen is the icon of faithful Christian discipleship. He reveals Christ to the wider world, and through him the love and truth of God the Father for all people.
The epistle, probably using material from an early baptismal liturgy, seeks to encourage recently initiated Christians to remember the potential of their new identity. Through their baptism, they now share in the Spirit of the glorified and risen Christ, and are anointed with the characteristics of Christ’s own nature, the true Prophet, Priest and King. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” – and for this end, that “you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you.” Peter once again repeats this idea of the disciple making Christ present, showing the world the presence and activity of God himself. (We have at last reintroduced the anointing with the oil of Chrism to the rite of baptism, confirmation and ordination in the Church of England, which from the beginning of the church’s life has always signified that share we all have in the Kingship, Priesthood and Prophetic character of Jesus.)
The third-century bishop St Cyprian reaffirms this when he says, “every Christian is an ‘alter Christus’, another Christ.” Alexander Schmemann, the great American Orthodox writer, spells out how we might work that identity out practically in our own lives. He sees the vocation of kingship as being worked out in our positivity, living our lives out with, in his words “joy, acceptance and affirmation, and not from fear, rejection and negation.” The priestly charism should be seen in our generosity, a life of self-offering to God and our neighbour, not living simply and habitually as a consumer, a taker. Finally we are to share in the prophetic identity of Christ by always seeking out wisdom and truth, asking for discernment and moral integrity, standing and working for that which is right and just. We are to be icons, living images of Christ.
Finally, in the gospel we see the glory and love of God being revealed within yet another setting of anxiety and uncertainty. Not in the drama of the court room, or the time of persecution for the early Church by Emperor Nero, but at the moment when Jesus reveals his imminent betrayal and arrest to the apostles. And yet we hear those words of reassurance and hope: “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Placed here it is meant to take us by surprise. Jesus’ word of hope follows hard on the heels of three occasions when John has told us that Jesus himself was “deeply troubled” in spirit: standing at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, speaking of his destiny as suffering Messiah to Andrew and Philip who bring gentile pilgrims to him, and now at supper he has just told them that one of them will betray him. So even the gospel is set in the context of the self-same uncertainty and fear, a setting we know only too well at the moment.
The disciples have just heard that their Master is facing betrayal, death, and the catastrophic fall of the rock-like Peter. So it seems contradictory that in this setting Jesus looks forward with hope. But now we hear those striking affirmations, affirmations we often take to heart when all has fallen apart, and we lay our loved ones to rest:
“Do let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go ahead to prepare a place for you and I will come again and take you to myself. I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.”
In one of his poems W. H. Auden matches this strange collaboration of despair and hope, by placing those brave claims of Jesus within the same strikingly realistic context. This verse comes form the moment when the Holy Family are fleeing to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, travelling in Auden’s words to “the Land of Unlikeness”, strange territory, the land we now inhabit ourselves. But Auden reminds us that Jesus is with us every step of the way, and that he will go ahead to prepare a place of rest and joy for us:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage, all its occasions will dance for joy.