The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 14, 2020
Scripture: Acts 7:1-2a, 55-60
A Life Worth Living
It is here. More than a moment in time. It’s always been more than a moment in time, though we’ve treated these times as “moments” in the past. How can this time be different? Let’s pray …
Do you remember what we talked about last week? What we learned and were called to do, ourselves? (I’ll give you a moment or two.)
In this first month of summer, June 2020, we’re re-discovering “Life after Jesus – Life in Christ.” That was last week’s sermon title. We’re engaging the very first “community” after Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and the arrival of the promised advocate – Holy Spirit. Not one of the communities that Paul founded, but one of the first communities of the “Way” that were established before Paul began his missionary work. We know that these communities existed, of course, in some way, shape, or form – whether as a separate religious practice or a sect of ancient Judaism – because Paul (then known as Saul) persecuted these communities before he produced any.
So, I’ve given you a little time to remember what we talked about more specifically last week. Anyone? We read Acts 2:42-47, a description of the first, rather “utopian,” fledging Christian community. We read last week that “three thousand persons were added,” baptized, after Peter delivered the very first sermon in this new life “after Jesus,” and “all devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Acts 2:42
I noted that we too often “wrongly” compare ourselves to this perfect first society, to what happened “then.” I suggested that we needed to be asking, instead, what’s happening “now.” The first fellowship of The Way was responding to the “newness” that the Holy Spirit was offering. How are we responding to what the Spirit is offering in our day and time? And what might happen if, and when, we truly receive and respond to that Spirit?
Last week in our scripture reading, Preacher Peter received the best response ever given to someone’s first sermon – 3,000 new baptized members. This morning’s preacher receives the worst response imaginable to what was definitively his last sermon. I found myself envious of Peter last week. I have no such envy for Stephen this morning.
Listen for the Word of God: Read Acts 7:55-60 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let’s back up a moment: In the passage just before our reading, as chapter seven of the Book of Acts begins, Stephen was called to bear witness before the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of the Jewish people in the first century. He has been charged with blasphemy. Those who seized him and brought him before the council, the “witnesses,” said, “We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” 6:14
In the opening verses of chapter seven, Stephen steps before this council and the high priest asks, in essence, “Really?”
Standing before this council, Stephen was perhaps wishing that Peter was close at hand. His sermons seem to evoke more positive responses. But Peter’s not here and Stephen chooses a different tact. Rather than offering a prophetic sermon, he gives a priestly lecture on biblical history to the learned assembly. A lecture that ends in insults and rebukes. Read it later today, the whole of chapter seven leading up to the last seven verses we read. He never mentions Jesus by name, but after speaking to the learned council about Jewish history as if they were children coming to Temple for their first instruction, he accuses them of his murder.
And he dies the first martyr of this new movement called “the Way.”
As this terrible event is narrated, we can’t help but hear the striking parallels that Luke’s telling of Stephen’s last moments in Acts have with his telling of Jesus’ last moments in the gospel. Three times Stephen speaks – you just heard it in verses 56 to 59 – and each time his speech echoes the words Luke gave to Jesus.
Luke really could not make it any clearer for us in Stephen’s fate: The followers of Jesus Christ are to live as Jesus lived, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and sharing the Good News. They may die as Jesus died, confessing the saving love of Christ, professing their faith in the God of Christ, and forgiving those who have done them wrong in any way, even when stoned … to death.
That’s powerful, powerful stuff. We thought last week’s requirement for “life after Jesus” was tough: selling our possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. We thought that was just unrealistic. This week’s life after Jesus lesson makes that one seem quaint. Stephen died living life after Jesus, in Christ.
And those are the most striking words in our short reading this morning, aren’t they? When (Stephen) had said (these things) … “he died.”
And here’s the real miraculous thing: In spite of death this new movement, or Way, continued to grow in number and in spirit. The “witnesses” that carried out Stephen’s stoning, or the Council that allowed it, could not have imagined as they were killing the first apostle that this movement would continue for much longer, let alone spread far and wide, eventually becoming a new world religion. Not when death by stoning was a consequence. So why did it?
As we try to live the faithful lives we’ve been called to in this time – to address systemic racism and structural injustices, to call out the abusive practices of departments designed to protect and serve and the indifference or incompetence of elected leaders, we (unlike Stephen) always, always, count the cost. Would we, are we, ready to die – to be crucified or stoned in ways acceptable in the 21st century?
Why in the world would anyone want to become a “Christian” or remain a “Christian” after hearing about what happened to Jesus or Stephen, or those in the first century “being dragged out of their house churches and thrown into prison?” Why would men and women, young and old, pledge allegiance to a “God” who allows death? In any form?
I’ll tell you: Because this God offers life in a way heretofore unimagined in the world. It was certainly unimagined in the Roman and Jewish worlds of the first century, but unimaginable even today … or almost. And here’s more: I don’t think the life that the men and women, young and old, were offered and responded to in the first and second centuries of “life after Jesus” had much to do with personal, eternal salvation in a life beyond the only one they knew. I believe this new movement, this soon-to-be-Christian community spread, grew, and prospered in spite of death precisely because of the life it offered to its followers in the “here and now.” A life where all are given worth, where possession and goods are used for all as any have need, where bread is broken and shared with glad and generous hearts, and where the goodwill of all people was of primary concern. It was salvation in this life that conquered the fear and death of this life.
The Jewish community under the knee of the Roman Empire and the Gentiles, especially the poor and disenfranchised, most often found death an escape to be welcomed. But a life worth living? A life of family, parents and children, in a community that cared whether you were happy or sad, thriving or struggling? That life was something to die for.
And it still is.
It is here. More than a moment in time. It’s always been more than a moment in time, though we’ve treated these times as “moments” in the past.
“It’s here,” says political activist and social critic Dr. Cornel West: Another moment of reckoning for America. In an interview early this month he mentioned Ella Baker, Rabbi Heschel, Edward Said, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Men and women of different races and religious traditions whose lives provided a connection between justice and compassion. They lived for it. The last died for it. “What we need,” Dr. West noted, “is a nonviolent revolutionary project of full-scale democratic sharing – power, wealth, resources, respect, and a fundamental transformation” of the way things are. Does such a Way of life sound familiar? Whether it ever really existed, it was – and is – what we need in our time, no less than in Jesus’ and Stephen’s time.
None of us, almost certainly and thankfully, will ever be asked to literally die for our Christian faith. But our faith calls us to live into the call of Christ, to measure our priorities against those the first Christians espoused: the common good; compassion for all; taking a stand against tyranny and injustice wherever it is found; and expressing our belief that the goodness of creation is planted more deeply than all that is wrong. It is the assurance of a future such as this that empowers our living right here and right now, in the present life. Stephen, like Jesus before him, died for it. It is our charge to live for it.
We must not leave this time, once again, turning away. The Courier-Journal’s guest columnist, Dr. Ricky L. Jones, reminded us last week that the issues we’re so passionate about changing now “don’t sleep.” Racism, white supremacy, white fragility, and white rage “are gearing up to make a comeback … with a vengeance that’ll make our heads spin,” he says. It’s not a moment in time. It’s a Way of life. Keep awake, followers of the Way. Our way of Life depends on it.
No amen again this week. We still have a bit more to learn, a bit more to live for. For now, let us remind ourselves that we must not get discouraged, that in spite of death, there is life abundant, offered each and every moment of each and every day.
Let us say what we believe …
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / June 14, 2020