Sermon Seeds: Enduring Witness/Courageous Faith

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year A

Lectionary citations
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5,15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Acts 7:55-60
Additional reflection on John 14:1-14

More reflection materials are available on our Facebook page at Sermon Seeds.

Weekly Theme:
Enduring Witness/Courageous Faith

Reflection on Acts 7:55-60 and 1 Peter 2:2-10
by Kathryn Matthews Huey

We all share the desire to find our way home, whether it’s at the end of a long day or at the end of a long journey, a long time of wandering, of alienation, of homesickness and pain. That may be why so many people speak of finding a church “home” when they find a congregation that welcomes them and feels like a place in which they can grow their faith. Of course, if a church only puts us at ease with our lives as they are, our presuppositions and our comforting compromises in faith, then perhaps we’re speaking of accommodation rather than challenge and spiritual growth. Nevertheless, for many people, finding a church home means finding a safe haven, a refuge, a fortress, and a rock. The church may be the one place, the one way, in their life that they experience God’s protective love in a hostile and dangerous world.

It’s in that safe haven that we receive, like little babies, the spiritual milk that we need to grow our faith. We ourselves become part of the very “structure,” the home, the spiritual house that First Peter speaks of. If we remember that his audience was a group of dispossessed people, people who had no unifying dignity and identity apart from being a church, the power of these words expands in our hearing. What a transformation, from “no people” to “God’s people”! Have you ever felt like a “nobody” and then a “somebody”? Have you ever felt outside and alone, and then part of something greater than yourself? What would it sound like to your ears, if you thought you were “nobody,” and then became part of a “chosen race,” and words like “holy” and “royal” were used to describe you? What would it feel like to come out of darkness into the “marvelous light” of God?

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the violent reaction of a mob (who undoubtedly saw themselves as religiously faithful) to a sermon by “the first ordinary Christian to follow his shepherd to the slaughter,” Stephen, the early-church deacon with a “shooting-star ministry,” as Barbara Brown Taylor aptly describes it. Stephen was supposed to be serving tables (working at coffee hour?) but he got it into his heart and mind and spirit that he needed to climb into the pulpit and preach; as Taylor says, “Once he had hands laid on his head, all the grace and power that poured into him spilled over as signs and wonders” (“Blood of Martyrs” in Home by Another Way).

When Stephen re-told the story of his people and reminded them of their long history of ignoring the prophets, including both Moses and Jesus, that mob turned on him and killed him, while Saul, the future martyr and apostle, watched their cloaks. This short story is important in several ways, scholars observe, most memorably, perhaps, for bringing onto the stage Saul, the persecutor-Pharisee who will share something in common with Stephen, according to Paul Walaskay. It’s ironic, Walaskay observes, that Saul (Paul) and Stephen, both Greek-speaking Jews, both see the problems of legalism in religion, although Saul the Pharisee at this moment in time, we are told, “approved” of Stephen’s stoning (Acts of the Apostles, Westminster Bible Companion). The martyrdom of Stephen is also an important moment in the overall story, Nancy Claire Pittmann notes, as it “ignites a general persecution in Jerusalem (8:1), impelling the witness to the saving acts of Jesus to move beyond the boundaries of its birthplace toward Rome” (New Proclamation Year A 2011).

The dramatic details in this short story remind us (certainly not accidentally) of several moments in the life of Jesus, with echoes from the Transfiguration (he must have looked radiant when he saw the heavens open), the Baptism of Jesus (again, the skies opening), and the surrender of his spirit on the cross and the forgiveness for those who did not know what they were doing. Timothy Hare’s commentary on this text suggests that preachers help their congregations with the difficult – and core – issue of forgiveness, by encouraging them to “look upon their enemies through the loving eyes of God,” to be “more aligned with God’s heart” as they set their own hearts on forgiveness, which is really “an act of God,” not something we are able to do by sheer willpower. Hare offers several helpful approaches to the text, including a reflection on “the relentless nature of God’s love,” and our call to “follow God’s priorities and to embody God’s love” (Feasting on the Word Year A).

For some reason, Stephen’s sermon does not go over as well as Peter’s had, on Pentecost, a vivid illustration of the reality that our witness is better received in some times and places than in others, and falls on more (or less) hospitable ears. We may have no way of knowing the results of what we do and say, and some days are better than others in the life of the church. Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this text, “Blood of Martyrs,” explores the unpredictable and unpursuable qualities of martyrdom: “I do not think you can seek it anymore than you can avoid it. I think it just happens sometimes, when people get so wrapped up in living God’s life that they forget to protect themselves.” She provides examples of other “ordinary” Christians: Bonhoeffer, Romero, and Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who worked on voter registration during the Civil Rights era: they did not seek martyrdom but simply lived out the gospel in their particular circumstances, even if it cost them their lives (Home by Another Way).

Stephen’s sermon speaks of the foundations of faith that had been laid down long ago, strong foundations, deep roots, powerful witnesses and lives to remember. The people’s shared experience, their walk with God, including the times they failed to listen to and heed the Stillspeaking God, provided stones sunk deep into their collective religious memory. The reading from First Peter, though, calls the people themselves “living stones” and refers to a precious cornerstone, addressing those who must have felt that they had been nobodies in a hostile world and needed a safe and welcoming place, a home. In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the language of place, too, when he promises to prepare a dwelling place for his followers, who were bound to encounter the opposition and loneliness experienced by the dispossessed in First Peter and the martyrs in the Book of Acts.

Today, people of all kinds find their way – hungry, seeking – to our churches, and when they arrive, they hear us tell a story, whether or not we’re aware that we’re telling one. Emerson Powery calls Stephen’s narrative style of preaching “one of the primary ways that one shapes and revises the identity of a community. Tell the story!” (Feasting on the Word Year A). The story of Stephen’s stoning is one of the most vivid memories from my childhood religion classes (one might say it shaped my identity), and the picture of his death (with Saul standing there, holding the cloaks of those casting the stones) has long outlived my ability to recall the answers to all those catechism questions that I so conscientiously memorized. The underlying message was clear: being a faithful Christian can get you killed, but you must be brave and persist to the end. But what about those of us who are not called to sudden martyrdom? Is there any value to the idea (from the French, I believe) of “little deaths” in this regard? Perhaps we need to die to selfishness, pride, and the thirst for control and revenge (which are very much the same thing, in a way).

The United Church of Christ, for many years, has challenged us to “imagine another world is possible” (our Neighbors in Need 2006 theme) and to “imagine what’s possible” (the theme of General Synod 28). Gary Neal Hansen’s commentary reminds us of this the need for powerful religious imaginations when he challenges us to go beyond our usual categories of thought about what it means to be faithful, to be open to seeing and feeling God at work in the world around us – we would say, to listen for the Stillspeaking God as well – and then to be open to the transformation of our lives and of the world (that “other, possible” world) that God can bring. That’s the good news we share, not simply doctrinal statements that we’ve learned in school, but the good news of a God at work in the world God loves (Feasting on the Word Year A). Some people (not all) may want to say to us Christians, “Show me, don’t tell me.” Can we take a long hard look at our lives and see the effects of being shaped by God at work in our lives, and our openness to being formed by that loving, potter-God?

Your church is called to be a safe haven, a refuge, a place of dignity and identity for those who seek a church home, with beliefs, stories, sufferings, and joys sunk deep into the foundations of your church’s shared experience. In what ways is the Stillspeaking God calling your church to become more welcoming and more energetic in conveying and embodying that welcome, no matter what it costs? We have it backwards if our desire to welcome people is in order to increase our membership: welcoming is who we are and have always been: “Because of its peculiar faith and its identity formed in hurt, the church is a unified community capable of a risking hospitality.” But it’s not our church, or our home, that we open to others: “The householder, God, has sole authority over admission at the doorway” (Brueggemann et al, Texts for Preaching, Year A). One of the struggles of the church is to root out the conviction that we somehow “own” the church, that it “belongs” to us in some way. Would it offend or affect us and our behavior if we truly embraced the belief that God is the householder in this “church home,” not us? What is “the hurt” that formed our identity?

Another thing to consider is our identity in a world that often blurs into the life of the church – the world of materialism and success and growth and prosperity is awfully easy to emulate in the life of the church. Barbara Brown Taylor sees in the stories of Jesus and Stephen a common thread of uncomfortable truth about what constitutes “Christian success,” and what doesn’t: it’s “not converting other people to our way of thinking; not having the oldest, prettiest church in town; not even going out of our ways to be kind and generous, but telling the truth so clearly that some people want to kill us for it” (Home by Another Way). Do we try to imitate the methods and tactics of the world around us when we take on the challenges of church life, or do we seek other sources of wisdom and strength? What are the boundaries that define us? How does the word “boundary” strike us when we talk about the church?

What makes us a distinctive people? In what ways could a visitor tell the difference between your church and the surrounding culture? On the other hand, in what ways might the surrounding culture have valuable gifts and support for our life in the church? In what ways do we – must we – stand apart and declare ourselves different? When have you experienced the church as “the headlights” and when has it been “the tail lights” in the journey toward justice and righteousness, as Dr. King once said? In other words, when has the surrounding culture led the way and the church, ironically, had to catch up? (One might think, for example, of the ordination of women.) How has the Stillspeaking God, at times, spoken to the church through outsiders? (Think of the ancient example of Ruth, the Moabite widow, speaking to Naomi, and imaging the unconditional and persistent love of God for her.)

When have you and your congregation experienced the Stillspeaking God as a refuge, a rock, a fortress? What is the call that you hear, like Stephen, that impels you to preach? Is it ironic that, in these readings, “stones” can build but they can also kill? Who really lived and who really died in the story of Stephen? Where is true life in this story, and where is death?

In his commentary, The Cultural World of Jesus Year A, John Pilch turns to John Dominic Crossan’s translation of the familiar “I am the way…” verse from John: “I am the authentic (truth) vision (way) of existence (life).” Pilch says that Jesus embodies and “demonstrates absolute, total, and universal love” for all and his “life, teaching, and behavior do indeed present people with ‘an authentic vision of human existence,’ that is, a model of the way human life ought to be lived” in order to “encounter God, who is Love.” This was a consoling message to the early Jewish Christians, who could have experienced great anxiety over losing their spiritual home (the synagogue) because of their belief in Jesus. How is it a consoling message to members of your church, and the wider church, today, and how do you hope to embody that witness to world that desperately needs good news?

Additional reflection on John 14:1-14:

Preachers might put this passage in context in two different ways: these words of Jesus, spoken at the Last Supper, are his farewell speech to his followers, but they’re also heard by us on this Fifth Sunday of Easter, one week after we reflected on the familiar words of Psalm 23 that sing of God’s tender, loving care for us. Holding both of those settings in our hearts and minds, we hear these words in new and more profound ways, not as a litmus test for determining who is saved, and who isn’t.

Unfortunately, most of us hear only that one verse (14:6) of a long and exquisitely beautiful good-bye from a teacher who is wrapping things up, in a sense, with reminders and coaxings and reassurances to his much-loved but weak disciples. We know what it feels like to hope for a review from the teacher before the final exam. Jesus the Teacher will face the test and measure up, but his poor students will fail the very first time around. We’re grateful that they, like us, are given another chance, and the Spirit to help them.

Gail R. O’Day provides background on “the farewell speech” in the ancient Mediterranean world; she reminds us of familiar stories from the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 49; Joshua 22-24; I Chronicles 28-29, and the entire book of Deuteronomy), but we don’t often hear these stories of Jacob, Joshua, David and Moses mentioned in sermons on this text from John. Jesus, however, is doing much the same thing with his followers before his death: speaking not only to those present but to those who would come long after, including us today.

The farewell speech in John (a very long one, interrupted at least once) brings into sharp focus the theology of the Fourth Gospel (in case, we sense John is thinking, anyone missed the message all along). O’Day says that John follows in the path of earlier writers, including the author of Deuteronomy recounting the last words of Moses to the Hebrew people, through which “the traditions of Sinai and Moab are given a fresh hearing, a ‘re-presentation’ in a new setting, because they are presented as being spoken in this moment for this people” (John, The New Interpreter’s Bible). Even though Moses’ speech was written hundreds of years after their ancestors had entered the Promised Land, the people of Israel could hear these words afresh, find themselves in the story, and understand that God was still speaking to them in their own place and time. The voice of Moses was powerfully authoritative for the Jewish people, and the voice of Jesus is full of power and authority for the readers and hearers of John’s Gospel in every age. We sense that he is speaking to us, in our moment, as his people, as his beloved flock.

If we wonder what this last speech is about, we might go back to the beginning of this long evening before his death. John begins chapter 13 with Jesus’ awareness that “his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” And here is the key to what was in the heart of Jesus, in that very same verse: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” This speech, in a sense, is a love letter. It remi
ds us of the words of Henri Nouwen, who urged us to “love Jesus, and love the way Jesus loved.”

The evening is disrupted by the drama of Judas’ betrayal, but it also begins with Jesus’ teaching by example before beginning this long speech: he washes their feet and tells them to be humble servants. The undercurrents of the evening churn up anxiety in the disciples, and we hear Simon Peter and Thomas trying to make sense of it all. Throughout the entire speech, Jesus reassures them with words of love and care and promise.

However, we usually don’t hear about the love, care, and promise as much as the claim of verse 6, O’Day says, that is “proof positive that Christians have the corner on God and that people of any and all other faiths are condemned.” On the other end, of course, are those who turn away from the entire gospel (not only John’s Gospel) because they think it sounds “exclusionary and narrow-minded.” O’Day continues: “When Jesus says ‘no one,’ he means ‘none of you’….This is not, as is the case in the twentieth century, the sweeping claim of a major world religion, but it is the conviction of a religious minority in the ancient Mediterranean world. It is the conviction of a religious group who had discovered that its understanding of the truth of God carries with it a great price.” Their faith, she says, had gotten them expelled from their “church home,” so they would have to “carve out a new religious home for themselves,” as a distinct people,  and John’s Gospel expresses “the distinctiveness” of Christians who find their way to God through Jesus (John, The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Still, this is a difficult passage to read and to preach. Next week provides another opportunity, a “part two,” if you will, of this glimpse of Jesus’ farewell speech. What is the spirit of the entire speech? What is Jesus trying to tell his followers, including you and me today, the church today, the world God loves? What’s the heart of his message? Most of us think that if we knew we had only one day to live, we’d want to find those we love most and tell them important things, even though we may have said them many times before. We parents would also want to remind our children of more things we think they need to know. We do this out of love, but the love of God, the love of Jesus, far surpasses even the love of earthly parents.

Speaking of tender love and care: there is a moving sermon on this text by the great Gardner Taylor in the second volume of The Words of Gardner Taylor. Taylor sets the scene and explores the insides of those hearing the last speech of Jesus, including the anxious question of Thomas, who seemed to like certainty and reassurance (don’t we all?). When Thomas asks how they would find the way, Jesus says that he is the Way. (We might ponder the difference in emphasizing “is” over “the.”) Taylor then expands the words of Jesus to embrace us all: “Jesus is the way out. We are all captives and slaves. There is something wrong with our humanity. We feel a disquiet, a deep and true dis-ease. We are not satisfied with what we are; we sense that we are born for some spacious destiny from which we feel somehow barred. We feel trapped…longing to be free.” Greed and materialism, our “new religion,” don’t provide a way out, Taylor says: “Jesus is the way out of our foiled sense of destiny and purpose. He declares us to have august connections, a relatedness to the eternal God, intimate and binding.” Those words, “intimate and binding,” provide something for a sermon to chew on.

But what about the pain and hardship of life? Is it only about waiting until we reach that place that Jesus is preparing? Has he gone on ahead and left us alone, to our own devices? No, Gardner Taylor says, “He is the way through life’s hardness and harshness, its pain and its penalties, its fears and its failings. Jesus is the way through.” What is beyond the horizon, what we long for and are oriented toward (one is reminded of the theology of Karl Rahner and, of course, Augustine), is the grace of a loving God who puts all things and all experiences in perspective. “If Jesus told us anything at all, he told us that this world is not all; we have dual citizenship….He did say that he is the way! The way home! The way to bright glory! The way to sunlit shores of an everlasting country” (The Words of Gardner Taylor, Vol. 2).

So Jesus was going on ahead to prepare a place for us, and we still forget and lose our way as we attempt to follow in his path. Taylor says not to worry; remember last week’s psalm? The shepherd, tender and good, will come back for us, seeking us on the paths and hillsides where we wander. God’s love, made known to us in Jesus, will seek us out. Hope is alive, and new life abounds. In this Easter season, that is the foundation and fount of our joy. 

For further reflection:

Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard. 19th century
“The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.”

Carol Sobieski and Thomas Meehan, “Annie,” 20th century
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” 

Ivy Baker Priest, 20th century
“The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning.” 

Gilda Radner, 20th century
“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, 20th century
“Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.”

George Eliot, 19th century
“Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.”

Lectionary texts

Acts 7:55-60

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. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then 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. 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.

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

In you, O God,
   I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
   in your righteousness deliver me.

Incline your ear to me;
   rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
   a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock
   and my fortress;
for your name’s sake
   lead me and guide me,

take me out of the net
   that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.

Into your hand I commit my spirit;
   you have redeemed me,
O God, O faithful God.

My times are in your hand;
   deliver me from the hand
   of my enemies and persecutors.

Let your face shine upon your servant;
   save me in your steadfast love.

1 Peter 2:2-10

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like 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. For it stands in scripture:
   “See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
      a cornerstone chosen and precious;
    and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
   “The stone that the builders rejected
      has become the very head of the corner,”


   “A stone that makes them stumble,
      and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But 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.

Once you were not a people,
   but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
   but now you have received mercy.

John 14:1-14

[Jesus said:] “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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus 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’? Do 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. Believe 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. Very 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors

Lent and Easter

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence.

There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.