May 14, 2017

Hold It Not Against Them

Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, faithfully followed in Jesus’ steps even to the point of death.

The Book of Acts identifies Stephen as a servant leader in the early church. Set apart as one of seven deacons who oversaw what was, in essence, a “Meals on Wheels” type program for poor widows, Stephen also performed “great wonders and signs” and boldly preached the Gospel. When his preaching offended prevailing religious sensibilities, however, a crowd seized him and demanded from him a defense of his actions. He gave them, instead, his last sermon.

Standing before the high priest, Stephen began by repeating the great story of God’s relationship with God’s people, a story that everyone in the room knew very well. He spoke of God’s covenant with Abraham, of blessings bestowed on Joseph, and of the Exodus from slavery with Moses at the helm. He talked about kings and prophets and of the higher law on which was built the system of rituals and sacrifices in which Stephen, like the others, participated.

Again, the crowd and the religious leaders knew this story as well. In Stephen’s telling of it there was no offense. But when he said that, through Jesus, God had added a new chapter to the story, the common ground on which they were standing fell from beneath Stephen’s feet.

The preacher didn’t pull any punches when he reached his rhetorical crescendo.

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.
Stephen’s words so enraged the crowd that they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then 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.
In death, however, Stephen’s influence continued to spread.

The first martyr in a generation of martyrs, the composure and strength with which he faced his end inspires persecuted disciples to this very generation.

Beyond his witness, Stephen’s confidence that death could not separate him from God’s love and that Jesus would receive his spirit also remains a source of hope for believers.

If you’ve ever found comfort at a graveside in the thought that nothing, not even death, can separate your departed loved one from God’s love, then you’ve been blessed by Stephen’s legacy, too.

For our purposes this morning, though, there’s a third element of Stephen’s story on which I’d like to focus. It’s the last thing he said, the words he prayed as his enemies took his life: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Last week, we heard the story of the Emmaus Road, the place where Jesus walked with two disciples who, in their minds, were already walking away from him.

If you know that story, or if you remember what took place in the Upper Room, the garden, or on the Cross, you know that it is not in God’s character to delay blessing fragile and broken people until they get their act together.

Jesus did not wait to lay down his life and take it up again until the world, or even his closest friends, understood what he was all about.

He did these things knowing well that the recipients had not—indeed, that they could not—earn his gracious gift, but he blessed and gave and loved them, nevertheless.

Saint Stephen’s prayer shows us what it looks like when we allow this quality of God’s character to flower in our own lives.

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Disciples who know that their eternal hope is built on the foundation of a love divine that they did not earn understand that following Jesus empowers them to imitate, embody, and incarnate the same love by God’s grace.

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Stephen could pray these words because he knew that when Jesus prayed a similar prayer on the cross it wasn’t just for the benefit of the Roman soldiers who crucified him, the community that rejected him, or the friends who abandoned him. It was for all of us—for Stephen, for you, for me, even for our enemies, and those whose hearts are blind to Christ in their midst.

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

This is the prayer of a heart filled with God’s grace. It’s also the prayer of a heart that recognizes hatred and revenge are dead ends. It’s the prayer of someone who knows that to clench one’s fist in anger is to choke the life out of one’s own heart.

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Inspired by grace, trusting in grace, this is the first intercession of Christ and his Church on behalf of a fallen world.

When we intercede—when we pray—for the poor and sick, for the brave and the fearful, for our enemies and the people who would deny God’s love, we’re not asking God to make them go away or to smite them with fire and brimstone. We’re following in Stephen’s steps, asking God to bless and meet them on whatever road they’re traveling.

Tempted as we are to reduce the work of worship, especially our prayer life, to obtaining and holding on to our own little piece of eternal life, Scripture and the Great Tradition invite us to see what we do here as fulfilling God’s promise that, through the community of faith, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

As Christians, we pray on behalf of others—we intercede for the world—because this is the world that God loves and blesses. This is the world for which Jesus lives.

In a lovely book about the connection between worship and spirituality, Philip Pfatteicher expands on this thought.

There is no finer example of the responsibility of the church than in…understanding the purpose and scope of the intercessions. The congregation, prompted by the Holy Spirit, prays not for itself only but for all—in need, in joy, in grief, in pain—and the congregation gives thanks not only for all that God has done for them but for the good things that God has done for and given to others…(p. 192)
With Bono we affirm that God’s blessings “aren’t just for the ones who kneel.”

With one of the church’s great hymns we declare that “Christ for the world we sing.”

With the whole creation, as Saint Paul tells us, we yearn “for the revealing of God’s children”, who, though weak, pray with the Spirit’s help, that the world will be set free from bondage and redeemed.

Speaking of interceding on the world’s behalf, of God’s gracious gift for sinners, and of Saint Paul’s perspective on these matters, there’s one more thing to say about Stephen’s legacy.

Paul, also known as Saul, was there, looking on with approval, when the mob overtook Stephen.

You see, before he became the great champion of ethnic, economic, and spiritual reconciliation in Christ’s name, Saint Paul was first and foremost a sinner on whose behalf Stephen did intercede.

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

In a letter to a young minister, Paul reminds us that Stephen’s prayer was not in vain.

[Timothy], I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy…The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.
Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

And the Lord heard this prayer and redeemed “a man of violence.”

The Lord heard this prayer and shows us how to live.

The Lord heard this prayer and has grace yet to give.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

May 11, 2017

Easter's Cliffhanger

Three weeks have passed since Easter Sunday, but this morning’s lesson from Saint’s Luke’s Gospel takes us back to the Day of Resurrection.
Now on that same day two of [Jesus’ disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.
In the minds of the travelers, “all these things that had happened” included the arrest and execution of Jesus on Friday, a frantic report Sunday morning of angels meeting several women at his tomb, and the discovery soon after that his body was missing—a bit of information that, as far as they could tell, meant only that even Jesus’ death had not satisfied his enemies’ bloodlust.
While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
The two then proceeded to explain the facts to their oblivious companion, lamenting that they “had hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel”—hope that now seemed terribly misplaced.

“We thought this guy was the one,” they seemed to say, “but we were wrong.”

Have you ever given someone a pompous answer to what you thought was a ridiculously uninformed question, only to discover that they knew more about the subject than you?

If you’ve done that, then you can imagine the shocked looks on the disciples’ faces when the stranger pointed out a serious deficiency in their understanding of recent events.

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As Jesus explained the relationship between the Messiah’s suffering and his glorification, the travelers reached Emmaus where a series of events transpired that not only changed their lives, but charted a new course for the community of Jesus’ disciples and linked forever the simple action of breaking bread and the revelation of the holy presence of risen Christ.

Emmaus is the place where, on the Day of Resurrection, Jesus stayed for a little while. This is where he took, blessed, broke, and gave bread. This is where God’s power opened the disciples’ eyes to the one gathered at the table with them. Emmaus is the place where the disciples confessed that Jesus set their hearts aflame.

What happened that evening in the little village just seven miles from Jerusalem is tremendously significant to you and me. There’s a direct link between the table in Emmaus and the table around which we gather this morning, a link between the simple meal we share in remembrance of Christ and his soul-stirring, eye-opening, heart-warming presence.

That’s why we make Charles Wesley’s words our own today,

O Thou who this mysterious bread didst in Emmaus break,

return, herewith our souls to feed, and to thy followers speak.

Luke’s account of the Emmaus event gives shape to our life, mission, and spiritual practice. However, according to Luke, the Emmaus event almost didn’t happen.

Listen again to this part of the story.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he [that’s Jesus] walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.
This is Easter’s cliffhanger.

Will Jesus stay or go?

Will the full potential of this encounter be realized, or will the disciples miss out?

The resurrection has taken place. The Risen Christ is walking and talking to his disciples. This is true whether those disciples stop him or let him go.

But for Cleopas and his friend, the experience of Easter hangs in the balance.

As John Wesley, notes, “[Jesus] was going on; and he would have done it, had they not pressed him to stay.”

This dramatic moment is no less important than what happened around the Emmaus table, because it speaks to our fundamental experience of God’s presence in our lives.

God’s blessings and mercies abound.

God’s Spirit moves in our midst.

Jesus is present in the poor, forgotten, and displaced among us. Jesus is present as our Shepherd and friend. Jesus meets us at this table, when we gather in his name, and when we serve humbly and love deeply.

Our faith tells us that these things are true.

The heavens are telling the glory of God, but are we paying attention to them?

Are we actively receiving the blessings of God and employing them to build up others, to shine a light in the darkness, and to proclaim, in word and in action, the Good News of everlasting life in Jesus’ name?

The Holy One has drawn near to us, but are we engaged enough, alert enough, to offer an invitation to stay?

Consider this.

Imagine that your dear old grandmother sends you a card in the mail every month with a crisp one hundred dollar bill tucked inside it, yet every month you simply place the unopened envelope in a drawer in your desk.

The reality of your grandmother’s thoughtfulness is undisputed. She really has been generous even though you really haven’t received her gift. You’ve done nothing with it. You’ve used her gift to bless no one, not even your self.

To truly honor the giver, you need to open that gift. You need to say thank you and do something worthwhile with what’s been given to you.

This is the crux of the Emmaus story. The full measure of God’s blessing was not received until the travelers took action.

They urged him [who was Jesus] strongly…So he went in to stay with them.
Oh that you and I would be as engaged and awake and as eager for Jesus to stay with us as the Emmaus travelers were.

Oh that the sparks of grace in our hearts would erupt into the full flame of resurrection faith.

Oh that the Risen Christ would break bread with us and open our eyes today.

Open my eyes, that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me;

place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free.

Let it be so. And let us give thanks to God for this Good News. Amen.