Readings for Fifth Sunday of Easter 20 April 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary
For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Easter 5 March 20 2008 Textweek
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; I Peter 2:11-25; John 14:1-14
Whenever I sit down and write notes for the sermon I begin by writing at the top of the page, today’s date and then the liturgical date, Easter 5, and it dawned on me last night that it’s a very simple ritual that provides context right at the beginning of engaging the Word. It puts today alongside the fifth Sunday of Easter, the fifth Sunday of the Resurrection; they sit there side by side. Mark Twain, I think, captures the importance of that same context when he says, ‘The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes’.
The first reading gives us an account of the stoning of Stephen. Already on the fifth Sunday of the Resurrection we’re already given a reality check; we’re brought up short and we’re taken away from that simplistic idealisation of the early church. At the same time, it gives us some important parallels, it rhymes with the past. In verse 55 and 56, ‘filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened…”’ The first part of that reading rhymes with the narrative of the Transfiguration. In the every day of his church experience - his following, his accepting of his calling in following Christ - Stephen encounters the mystical experience of Transfiguration. It rhymes with his life.
Verse 57 then goes on, and in verse 57 there’s a deliberate not hearing: ‘they covered their ears and they rushed against him’, which rhymes with the experience that was the response that Jesus encountered. And then if you read through that last part, verses 58 to 60, they clearly rhyme with the whole paschal narrative of Easter. If you read those verses you’d think you were reading about the Crucifixion rather than the stoning of Stephen. These rhymes in the life and death of Stephen are there to be found in the present.
In the rhythm of our lives and in the rhythms of our very being we will find ourselves contextualised in scripture. And what stands out from that very short reading is not the rhyme of the Transfiguration, nor is it the rhyme of Easter, but rather it’s that verse in the middle, verse 57: ‘they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him’. Just as we choose what music we want to listen to, so also we make choices about the rhythm of life that we will follow. The Divine is eternally revealed and our response to that revelation is always active. We cannot opt out of divine revelation; we will choose either to hear or we will choose to cover our ears; we will choose to follow or we will choose to rush against.
The second reading from 1 Peter tries to make some sense of these choices, the choices that we have as we respond to the call of the divine, as we seek an orientation, our orientation towards God, and it’s quite a difficult reading because it is grounded in such a specific historical context, which is a very good reason to look for the rhymes in it rather than the rules in it. Verse 11, ‘abstain from desires of the flesh’ which rhymes with ‘abstain from that which is only self-seeking, from that which disturbs the soul. Verse 12, ‘conduct yourselves honourably among the gentiles’: ‘among the gentiles’ rhymes with ‘those who are not like you’, in other words, conduct yourselves honourably with everyone else. And if you go through it this way, verses 15, 16 and 17, it’s very easy to find the rhyme - to find myself spoken of in Peter’s words.
Verses 18 - 20 however, become a little more difficult because they belong to a worldview quite different from our own, to a worldview in an age where slaves and authority and beatings were part of the cultural order. This is not our worldview anymore, although it is still the worldview of many who share the earth with us. It enables us to see, to be reminded that the world has changed, we have changed and so we should be looking again for understanding that which is revealed in the scriptures; we should be looking again at the revelation of the divine in the world.
The last part of that reading, verses 21 to 25, seems to hold a contradiction. In verse 21 we hear, ‘to this you have been called, to follow in his steps’ - you have been called to follow in the steps of Christ. That line seems to contrast or conflict with the verses that follow, verses 22 - 24, because they seem to say that Christ has done it all for us - he came, he suffered for us. And that’s the part that’s worth looking at anew without the classical theology of atonement, the whole idea that Christ died so that we could just ponce around doing nothing, because it’s all been done for us. If you ditch that theology in the same way that we ditched the idea that the earth was flat when we saw it was round, that whole last part reads differently. It becomes an emphasis and an underlining of the call to follow. The motive is clearly the motive to follow. And that’s picked up when we turn to the Gospel reading.
It’s picked up by John and John takes it and he pushes it to its logical conclusion. The notion of follow - where will that end up, where will it go? It says in verse 3, ‘so that where I am, there you may be also’ - that’s the whole point of following, not to just tag along behind, but in order to get to the place ‘where Christ is, there you may be also’. And then pops up the question of Thomas, which is so often our question. The question of Thomas is then answered, and the answer reaffirms the teaching of previous Sundays. In verse 6, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’. I am the gate - I am the way; I am the gatekeeper - I am the truth that opens us up; and I am the shepherd - the life, the life in Christ.
Philip then pipes up and he wants proof. His question is the question in which we find our own. It is the question that keeps us away from the whole idea of following: I want proof. And then we have the Christ question in verse 10: ‘Do you not believe?’ And then we have the Christ answer: ‘the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these’.
And so we either cover our ears or we choose to hear; we either rush against, or we choose to follow. The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these. Let’s see if we can rhyme with that.
The Lord be with you, Peter Humphris.