“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me
will also do the works that I do.”
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Let not our hearts be troubled, O God;
teach us to put our hope and trust in you.
Guide us in your way; keep us in your truth; enfold us in your life
that your works of love, justice and mercy
may be done in us and through us.
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A message from Sunday morning
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, year A
May 10, 2020
Acts 7:54-60: When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 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. 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. (NRSV)
John 14:1-14: “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.”
8Philip 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.” (NRSV)
1 Peter 2:1-2, 4-5, 9-10: Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. 2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
…..10Once you were not a people,
……….but now you are God’s people;
…..once you had not received mercy,
…..…..but now you have received mercy. (NRSV)
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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
There is a troubling and tragic line in our first reading this morning. But before I go there, I want to acknowledge that the current death toll in the U.S. on Saturday evening was 79,696. Twelve thousand more have died since last Sunday.
I trust you have seen the information that those who are dying are disproportionally older, poorer, and non-white. The numbers in nursing homes and prisons – both workers and residents – are distressingly high. These are people our society tends to regard as less important than others. The White House has a rigorous testing procedure and is now testing daily, but the White House Press secretary said this week that, for the rest of us, testing was unimportant.
This is one of our deep and troubling sins as a nation: we think some people matter more than others. I don’t need to go through all the familiar inequalities in our country. And maybe it’s something endemic in the human heart that I matter more than you, and my family matters more than yours, but the attitude that some are less is inconsistent with biblical faith.
I want to say that again: the attitude that some are less is inconsistent with biblical faith.
I don’t know whether our president is undermining the rule of law in our country or simply nakedly profiting from the truth that our system has always been tilted towards some and away from others. Too often, whether in law or the economy or in health care we seem to regard some as if they don’t really matter. That’s why two white men can shoot down a young African-American jogging through their neighborhood, and no one asks any real questions for two and a half months. It’s why Trayvon Martin is dead for being black and wearing a hoodie. It’s why Sandra Bland is dead in prison for failing to signal a lane change. It’s why Stanford student Brock Turner served only three months in county jail and went home to his parents in Ohio. It’s why Jeffrey Epstein bought his way out of prison for so long and why O. J. Simpson got to go home after killing Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.
We can go on. The story is long. It’s why J. Edgar Hoover ordered the surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and listed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a black nationalist hate group. It’s why Native American lands were stolen and its people sent to reservations. It’s why Angel Island was used to quarantine and interrogate Chinese immigrants in order to refuse them admission. It’s why Japanese citizens were sent to internment camps during World War II. It’s why our president called Mexicans rapists and drug dealers and opposes medical care for all citizens.
Some people matter more than others. It’s not slavery, alone, that is our nation’s original sin; it is the belief that some matter more than others. Some are not really people. So our president calls neo-Nazis and gun-toting protesters with swastikas “good people” and Democrats and news reporters “human scum”. It’s why Sara Palin said only some Americans are “real Americans.”
Some people matter more. Others matter less. It’s why we can tolerate hunger in America, why we can tolerate poverty, why we can tolerate hate, and why so many seem so willing to tolerate death by COVID-19.
On the one hand, we have vast numbers of people in this country risking their lives to protect others – doctors, nurses, health professionals, and all the support staff – fighting to keep people alive, or struggling to connect the dying with their loved ones – and yet our leaders dismiss leading health experts because they disagree with the president or say something truthful that embarrasses or contradicts him.
How can the president’s feelings matter more than the lives of our fellow citizens? And how can my desire to get a haircut or go surfing matter more than the lives of my neighbors?
When Scripture talks about the judgment of God, it almost always speaks of God’s judgment on the nation. God allows our sins to come back on our own heads. But because such judgment is corporate, falling on the whole community, the consequences don’t fall on those who are most responsible; it falls on those who are most vulnerable.
During the terrible drought at the time of Elijah, the widow of Zarephath is perishing for want of food, while the king worries about his horses.
It is the most vulnerable who suffer. And suffering came to Israel because the core values of the society had gotten twisted. The prophets rail against idolatry not because God is concerned with correct worship, but because the values embodied by the idols are contrary to the commands and instruction of God.
God’s vision of a just society is overthrown when people’s fundamental allegiance is to wealth and power, when the king is above the law, when profit matters more than human life, when we close our eyes and ears to the well-being of others. So I will say again: the attitude that some are less is inconsistent with biblical faith.
The troubling and tragic line in our first reading this morning is this: “they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.”
The event being described by Luke is the martyrdom of Stephen. The followers of Jesus in Jerusalem are portrayed to us by Luke as a single community united in the apostolic teaching and mutual care. But there are signs in the narrative that divisions existed. The biggest challenge was the language and cultural divide between those residents of Jerusalem who had roots across the empire but had come to live in Jerusalem, and those who we might think of as more “native born”.
The language of those from other parts of the empire was Greek. The language of those from the region was Aramaic. And with those different languages were different cultural values. For example, the Aramaic speaking Judeans were more likely to retain the ancient traditions about food. And this soon become a problem: How do you share table fellowship around communion if some are keeping kosher and others are not?
We know, also, that there were concerns about the way food was shared in the community. In the sixth chapter of Acts, the Greek speaking Judeans complain that their widows were not being treated equally with others. In Luke’s account, this leads to the appointment of seven deacons, all of whom have Greek names. It’s clear that these seven were not just those who help with the distribution of food; they were the leaders of the Greek speaking believers. And when trouble arises and Stephen is killed by an angry mob, it is only the Greek speaking believers who are persecuted and driven from Jerusalem. It was these Greek speaking believers who would go on to welcome Samaritans and the Ethiopian Eunuch and Gentiles into the body of Christ. It was these Greek speaking believers who sent Paul and Barnabas on their mission to spread the Gospel throughout the empire. It was these Greek speaking Christians who made Christianity a world religion with doors open to all and not a tight-knit little club in Jerusalem.
The tragic line is that the crowd who heard Stephen speak “covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.”
We live in a time when too many people close their ears and shout. And too often it leads to violence. When we are unable to hear, when we are unwilling to listen, when we shut our minds, closed hearts follow right behind. Then the love of God is lost. Then anger turns to hate, and hate turns to violence. (They dragged Stephen “out of the city and began to stone him.” – Acts 7:58)
The attitude that some are less is inconsistent with biblical faith. So are closed minds and closed hearts. The Christ before us has arms wide open. He bids us live with hearts open, with minds open, with arms open.
I don’t have time to talk about the second reading this morning, but I would just remind you of its opening words: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” (2 Peter 2:1-2). When 2 Peter reminds us that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” he makes clear that we are not chosen for privilege, but for God’s mission in the world: “that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (2:9)
The Gospel reading this morning begins with the familiar words:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In 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? And 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.
The words are familiar to us from many funerals where they can come as a sweet word of comfort in distressing times. But there is something more than a sweet word of comfort here. It is a call to remain faithful.
The word translated ‘hearts’ is actually in the singular. It is not spoken to us as individuals; it is spoken to the community of Jesus’ followers. It’s not about my personal distress, but our shared distress.
When we hear these words, it is the Last Supper. Jesus has just informed his followers that Judas will betray him and Peter will disavow him. These are stunning allegations, full of foreboding. And Jesus has dropped these two bombshells on top of the radical act of washing their feet like the lowliest of slaves, and saying that his body will be broken like the bread (although, John’s Gospel does not include those words).
It is to a community at risk of coming apart that Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” It is to a community at risk of losing its identity as a community bound to Jesus and one another that Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” And the word ‘troubled’ here is used of water that is stirred up, or emotions that are overflowing.
Jesus needs his followers to remain faithful to God and himself. Troubled times are about to crash over them, and Jesus wants them to remain faithful to himself and one another. He has just given them the commandment to love one another and the example of bending to wash feet. He is reminding them of who they are, and what they are to each other.
When Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he is using a many-layered metaphor with allusions to the temple as the house of God, and to the grand estates of the time that could provide for very large households. But the key word is ‘dwelling places.’ The Greek is from the word ‘to abide’ that has been used again and again in John’s Gospel to talk about the relationship of abiding in God and God abiding in us.
Jesus isn’t talking about what we typically think of as heaven. Jesus isn’t setting out to make up the beds and put out the towels for all his guests. Jesus is opening the way that we might dwell in God and God in us.
The way of the cross that Jesus is traveling will draw them into God’s presence like a branch to the vine. It will connect them to God and one another and fill them with God’s spirit. The Life of God will pulse through them bearing rich and abundant fruit. The work of God in healing and reconciling the world will be at work in them and through them.
Jesus is saying, “Don’t lose your way. Don’t be overcome with fear or confusion. Continue to show allegiance to God and my teaching. I am the way to the heart of God. I am the truth of the heart of God. I am the imperishable life at the heart of God.”
What seems like disaster is upon his followers, but Christ will come and stand in their midst and breathe his Spirit upon them, and we will be the living presence of Christ in the world. We will be the open arms of Jesus that treasure every person.
There is a sweet and precious promise in this passage. But there is so much more. Christ dwells in us, in the community of Jesus’ followers, and through us Christ is present to the world.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not lose your way. Remain faithful to God. Remain faithful to me. I am going to the Father, but I will come and abide in you and you in me.”
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© David K Bonde, 2020, All rights reserved.
Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shirakimine_Highland_-_panoramio.jpg oaaioai on Panoramio / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.