Our Particular Community, Easter 5 (A) – May 14, 2017

[RCL] Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

The Scriptures this morning draw us to reflect on what it means to be community. We each have our own communities that we come here from on Sunday, but we are part of the larger community of the Christian faith—a community in which we can gather and from which we can gain wisdom, rejuvenation, and identity. Within each of our larger units of community, there are smaller ones, such as our families, our friendship circles, our schools, our churches, and our workplace communities. We define these in very particular ways.

But this way of defining a community is not a new thing that we in contemporary society invented. It has been going on from the time people could group together to share the responsibilities and burdens of survival. Identity in tribal cultures came from community, not from individual accomplishments. One thing that tribes knew is that they were stronger together and that to go off alone, you would eventually lose your mind or die.

In Jesus’ time, people identified themselves with being Jewish or Roman or Samaritan or one of the many other cultures and nations that were intermingling under Roman conquest. Jesus himself was Jewish and worked within the framework of being Jewish to call people back to God.

When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate a very particular definition of what it means to be community: We are the people who believe in the God who has been revealed to us decisively in Jesus Christ. As we say in Eucharistic Prayer A, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” This separates us as a community, just as it separated the community for whom the Gospel of John was written.

Our Gospel of John wasn’t written in one sitting. Instead, it was written over time to address the developing religious and pastoral needs of a particular community. We don’t know exact times, but given the evidence of what was happening in the social and historical context, we can understand this Gospel as originating in an early Christian community struggling to separate itself from first century Judaism—that is, sometime between 75-100 CE. The religious turmoil within emergent Judaism after 70 CE, when the Jewish temple was destroyed, is critical; the Gospel of John’s focused talk about “the Jews” and its prediction of expulsion, persecution, and martyrdom for believers readily displays the intra-Jewish conflict of the time. John’s community saw themselves to be a persecuted religious minority, expelled from the synagogue, their religious home, because of their faith in Jesus.

Of course, there were other religious beliefs swirling around during that time. The early Christians were also living within a Hellenistic society—meaning that much of the worldview held at that time was that of the Greeks—the principles, ideas, and pursuits associated with the contemporary Greek culture permeated the Mediterranean world. The way the Gospel of John was written is also influenced by this fact. This Gospel was written to a particular community in a particular time and place so that they could define themselves apart from the other religions that were around them. This Gospel helped define them as a community.

Things haven’t changed much since then. We have different religions and philosophies swirling around us in this modern age, too. So how do we define ourselves as Christians now? How do we live as Easter people? Defining ourselves doesn’t mean that we throw stones at others. Defining ourselves means that we live out our lives in a particular way as community so that people can clearly see what being a Christian means. In our lesson from the Book of Acts today, this meant that even unto death, Stephen echoed Jesus, asking God to receive his spirit and to forgive those who were murdering him. Stephen’s faithfulness compelled him to behave differently than someone who did not follow Jesus.

In our American culture, we are not persecuted in the same way that Stephen was or how Christians are treated in other parts of the world. This is nice and comfortable for us, but it often makes it more difficult to show the world how a community that follows Jesus defines itself. The media makes this even more difficult when it highlights Christians that manifest bigotry, hate, and judgment on their neighbors, lumping us all into that category together. How do we continue to define ourselves in the midst of this? How do we show that we are God’s people? What makes us different from Habitat for Humanity or the food bank? They do good works, too, right?

In our Gospel lesson, we have part of the answer. We know the way to the place that Jesus is going because we, by definition, claim to know Jesus as God incarnate—God with us—God’s own son. Jesus was always going to return to God the Father because they were inseparable. Jesus himself was and is simultaneously the access to and the embodiment of life with God. This is our particular belief that helps define us as a Christian community and because of this belief, we are to love Jesus by doing his works and by keeping his commandments: love God and love one another.

How have we defined ourselves in our own community as Episcopalians? What does it mean to be Episcopalian? When we begin to lose our own identity and lose our saltiness, we need to be recalled to the larger community of The Episcopal Church and to the extended Christian community.

As Christians, we are not called to be like everyone else and as Episcopalians, we have our own distinct flavor. Bishop Brian Prior of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota asks this question in his blog from May 2014: “If someone were to stop at a gas station and ask where your church was, how would the gas station attendant answer?” Great question. Would the attendant look at you blankly? Give a vague answer? Or would he or she say, “Oh, that church! That’s the church where this, this, and this happens!” What is our identity in the wider community? What do we want to be known for?

Here are some further questions to ponder this week: What do we value about being Christians in our community? What is God calling us to as the Episcopal presence in our community? How do we define ourselves, as the community for whom the Gospel of John was written defined itself?

May God give us wisdom and courage to live into the answers. Amen.

The Rev. Danáe M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFTA is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is serving part-time as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. She is also the Director of The Episcopal Center for Embodied Faith, a website repository for resources for the intersection between our bodies and faith, and a proud member of Thank God for Sex, a psycho-educational group that puts on community education events to promote healing for those who have shame around their bodies, sexuality, and faith.Mother Danáe uses art, music, drama, poetry, and movement in counseling, spiritual direction, and creation of ritual, especially for pregnancy and infant loss. She is an alumna of The Young Clergy Women Project and has written for their online magazine Fidelia’s Sisters and their Advent devotional published by Chalice Press, as well as being a contributing writer to the Episcopal Church’s online ministry “Sermons that Work.” Mother Danáe is also one of the contributors of the book Still a Mother: Journeys through Perinatal Bereavement that was released in February 2016 by Judson Press. Additionally, she developed and produced the verbatim play “Naming the Un-Named: Stories of Fertility Struggle” with playwright Amanda Aikman. Her favorite past times include hiking with her husband and beloved dog, reading, traveling, visiting with family and friends, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke. o Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

Mother Danáe uses art, music, drama, poetry, and movement in counseling, spiritual direction, and creation of ritual, especially for pregnancy and infant loss. She is an alumna of The Young Clergy Women Project and has written for their online magazine Fidelia’s Sisters and their Advent devotional published by Chalice Press, as well as being a contributing writer to the Episcopal Church’s online ministry “Sermons that Work.” Mother Danáe is also one of the contributors of the book Still a Mother: Journeys through Perinatal Bereavement that was released in February 2016 by Judson Press. Additionally, she developed and produced the verbatim play “Naming the Un-Named: Stories of Fertility Struggle” with playwright Amanda Aikman.

Her favorite pastimes include hiking with her husband and beloved dog, reading, traveling, visiting with family and friends, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke. o Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

Download the sermon for Easter 5(A).

Building the Kingdom, stone by stone, 5 Easter (A) – 2014

May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10John 14:1-14

“I go to 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.”

It sounds so wonderful. It sounds perhaps like what we imagine heaven to be. If that’s so, then it’s a future place, a place that we will “go to.”

That may be part of the promise Jesus was making to his disciples. The other part is in his answer to Thomas: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Yes, we are promised eternal life, but we are also promised that we are already housed by God, fed by God, carried by God. We already have a foot in that place Jesus prepared for us if we but look around, look within and listen. But as nice as that sounds, doesn’t it often seem difficult to imagine that in this world, we should be seeing evidence of Jesus being the way, the truth and the life? If people truly believed that God is very much with us, wouldn’t “the world” be a different place?

Jesus often talked about the Kingdom of heaven being here already – it’s here and now – and that we must be in the process of building it. But we aren’t terribly far away from the kinds of things that happened when our church was still in its formative era.

Today’s reading from Acts shoves a dangerous and dark shadow into our Easter joy. Stephen, even though he was filled with the Holy Spirit and evidently giving witness to what a life lived in imitation of Jesus should look like, is stoned to death by an angry crowd. They covered their ears and shouted. Isn’t that a frightening image? A manic crowd, hostile to goodness. Why? They couldn’t imagine that God would become manifest in Jesus, live among human beings, die on the cross and rise. We might think to ourselves, “How sad. They had Jesus right in their midst and they missed him. We certainly wouldn’t have!”

Yet, look at what happens today. Groups of lay people, priests and sisters are brutally murdered by guerilla groups with machine guns or machetes because they are working for freedom or education or they belong to the wrong tribe. Where is this Kingdom of heaven? For that matter, where is Jesus? Has he gone to prepare a heavenly place for us and forgotten to come back?

Do our hearts become troubled? Yes, very often they do. We wonder how we can build our faith to the point where we can believe in a different world – where we can see God in the midst of hardship.

Look at Peter’s letter and believe that we can drink that pure, spiritual milk that God offers us. That’s where we can begin again, regardless of how old we’ve become in the church. We are offered that nourishment in many ways – through prayer, through the words and symbols of our liturgies, through the example of those who love us into loving ourselves because they believe in God’s love for us.

Perhaps the most powerful way of growing in the spirit is through sharing the Eucharist and believing that Jesus left this with us so we could touch him and know he is in us. There is the power. There is the mystery that explodes within us if we just open our hearts and minds to all God reveals to us. There is the well of power that helps us continue looking for ways to build that Kingdom of heaven here while we wait to take our place in the world to come.

Peter reminds us that we are chosen, we are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God. Do you believe that? Do you really?

If not, how can we help you to begin to grasp the meaning of those words?

When people do begin to believe these words, they find themselves doing amazing things. We might first think of those people like Stephen who give their lives for what they believe. But then we must also think of ourselves who may be called to build the kingdom in different ways, through teaching, writing, through the example of our integrity, and genuineness.

Jesus never promised a safe and trouble-free life for those who followed him – far from it. He was always very honest about the fact that “the world” would most often cover its ears and shout, and sometimes throw stones. But if we try – if we believe that we are chosen, that there is truth in the saying that one candle brings light into the darkness – then we are building, piece by piece. We are adding stone upon stone, and we will feel the difference in ourselves.

We need to be careful, however, not to think we have to complete the building of the Kingdom either all by ourselves, or at least in our lifetime. Our human desire to be successful, complete, wholly satisfied, can be a stumbling block for us just as rejecting Jesus was a stumbling block according to Peter.

The Kingdom here will never be finished, it just continues to grow. We are a part, a critical and unique part, but not the whole. There is always more to learn and more to offer of ourselves to others. Evil will never cease trying to destroy the goodness of a holy place. And so the need to continue building ourselves up, but also to work together, pray together, become that holy nation, a holy community, right here with those sitting with and around you.

Each and every one of you is called. Each and every one of you is invited to follow Jesus who is our way, our truth and our life.

The Good News is that Jesus is with us. He has promised never to leave us. We are holy. We are chosen. We are God’s beloved.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

To become transparent to the light, 5 Easter (A) – 2011

May 22, 2011

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

The New Testament contains a number of stories in which Jesus appears to people after his resurrection from the dead. However, the Easter message of the New Testament is more complex than these stories taken by themselves. The entirety of the New Testament was written from a post-resurrection perspective. The various documents represent diverse efforts by the first Christian generations to set forth the significance of our Lord’s victory over death.

They do so, not only through the use of story, but by presenting potent images that have been reborn to fresh meaning through the resurrection event. Let’s consider three of these images found in today’s readings:

• Our passage from Acts portrays Jesus as “standing at the right hand of God,” occupying a place of supreme honor beside the heavenly throne.
• Our reading from First Peter features Jesus as a cornerstone that is rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.
• Our selection from John’s gospel presents Jesus as making ready a place where we can abide in the house of his Father.

So: supreme honor, the cornerstone, our abiding place. Here are ways that scripture presents the risen Lord so that we can recognize his significance for us and for all people. Let’s look again at each one of these images.

First: the image of supreme honor. The Acts of the Apostles recounts the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Like Jesus himself, Stephen, when he is about to die, prays that those responsible for his execution will be forgiven.

What enables him to do this? Moments earlier, Stephen cried out, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” He recognized Jesus in the heavenly place of honor.

Here is the same Jesus who, a short time before, had been put to a shameful death. The Jesus who rose from the grave with the wounds of crucifixion still visible on his body. Yes, that Jesus.

The Father has delivered him from destruction and exalted him to heaven. Death’s control has been shattered. Moreover, every power has been compromised by this exaltation. Because Jesus reigns on high, no throne on earth can be absolute.

This is good news for Stephen as his end draws near. He recognizes and rejoices that because Jesus is alive and reigns, death will have no dominion over him.

Next comes the image of the cornerstone. The First Letter of Peter offers instruction regarding traditions about Jesus. The Lord is acknowledged as the precious cornerstone that aligns the new creation where Christians serve as building blocks in the construction project that God now has under way.

What’s being raised up is a holy site, a new temple where people offer themselves as living sacrifices. This house built by God replaces every previous temple. It inaugurates a new order in the relationship between the divine and the human.

Christ the cornerstone was at first rejected. The compassion of God, the truth of God, the wisdom of God as embodied in him was more than people could tolerate. They stumbled over what was meant for their salvation. They scorned a precious gift.

Yet divine power was manifest in patience and persistence. Raised from the dead, Jesus became the first and final person in a new humanity, a fresh creation, a bigger and better building project to serve the purposes of God.

Christ as cornerstone announces that the universe does not spiral down to defeat and destruction, but by grace spirals upward to victory and life. And everybody, absolutely everybody, is free to join the winning side.

The third image is the abiding place. In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of his Father’s house with its multitude of dwelling places. What’s set forth through this language is not limited to heaven, but is meant to appear on earth as well.

Here an image of place serves to illustrate what relationships are meant to be. Jesus wants each of us to enjoy a relationship with his Father through him. That is what he prepares for us.

The term that is often translated as “mansions” or “dwelling places” can also be rendered “abiding places.” It is similar to the language used when Jesus calls on us to abide in him as he abides in us. The life Jesus shares with his Father, the life we share with Jesus are thus revealed as one and the same life.

Here is our satisfaction. Here is our exultation! The abiding place Jesus makes available far exceeds every other notion of human fulfillment. We are welcomed into the life of God. What more can we have than that?

The Easter message realigns us in multiple ways. This happens through resurrection stories that appear at the end of each gospel. It happens as well through Easter images, among them: supreme honor, the cornerstone, and our abiding place.

If these images hold true, then the world is very different than how we often regard it, and life must be lived in a way drastically at variance with how we often live it.

Because Jesus occupies the place of honor, powerful countries and corporations are not absolute, and small idols are obsolete. Authority belongs to him.

Because Jesus is the cornerstone, the world is not spiraling down to destruction, but is a massive building project where death surrenders daily to new life and those who rise with Christ are many.

Because Jesus provides us with an abiding place, we need not get too comfortable elsewhere, nor may we accept anything less as home. God’s life must be our reality and our hope, encountered in company with one another.

God’s heart is set on making real the community these images announce. Easter means that not even death can stand in the way. We are talking here about something huge: God reigns, and we reign with him.

How can our lives become transparent to this light?

To thrive as a Christian is not easy. However, it is simple. By treating it otherwise, we skate around the challenge and miss the blessing.

Jesus recognizes that our hearts are troubled. In today’s gospel, he addresses not only the first disciples, but us as well. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Believe in Jesus. Believe in God. Put your absolute trust there, not in yourself or some other fallible human or some imperfect institution.

Believe in Jesus, the wounded one, the murdered one, now in the place of supreme honor.

Believe in Jesus, the cornerstone of the vast new creation that is being built right now.

Believe in Jesus, who offers us now as well as later a place to abide in the house of his Father.

Become transparent to this light. And as you do, you may find these images of Easter helpful. They contain both the challenge and the promise.

Or you may reach out for other choices, different images of Easter. Consider this one, which came to Harvard professor Nicholas Wolterstorff as he grieved the death of his son: “Faith is the footbridge that you don’t know will hold up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk out onto it.”

Consider also the Easter image an old gospel song declares:

“Many things about tomorrow
I don’t seem to understand;
But I know who holds tomorrow,
And I know who holds my hand.”

To become transparent to the light, we must have our images of Easter. There are many available, new ones all the time.

Consider these questions during the week ahead:

• What images of Easter help me to be transparent to the light?
• Do I need fresh images so that my faith can keep pace with my experience?
• Where in my life are these fresh Easter images available to me, images that will help me return, time and again, to believe in Jesus, to believe in God?

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

5 Easter (A) – 2005

Those who turn the world upside down

April 24, 2005

Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10John 14:1-14

The dramatic, fast-moving pace set by St. Paul once he made the decision to respond to God’s summons to enter Macedonia continues with this visit to Thessalonica (Thessaloniki in Greek). Someone must have told Paul the story of the city: how it used to be called Therma, and how Cassandros, a general in Alexander’s army, became king and renamed the city in honor of his wife, a half-sister of Alexander. And someone among the devout people he met, maybe Jason himself, must have told Paul about the suffering in the heart of this beautiful city situated as it is in a gulf that has the protection of Mount Olympus in the west and the beloved mountain of the city, Hortiatis, in the northeast. The residences and shops line the deep, natural port and rise gradually toward lovely hills. But in the heart of Thessaloniki there was much suffering. The general, Cassandros, emptied 26 surrounding villages and towns in order to populate the new metropolis, with all the troubles such forced relocations cause to the inhabitants; he wanted a larger city than the old, humble Therma and this was accomplished through the suffering of thousands of poor people. And Thessaloniki herself, his sad wife, was killed by one of her own sons. So the city, which by Roman times in the first century was a glorious place of palaces and public buildings, a province of the Roman Empire, has had a history of suffering which continued into World War II. Archeological evidence shows that by the time of St. Paul it had been inhabited continuously for a thousand years, and other evidence goes back 6,000 years.

Because the city had a long history of culture with Greek as its language and was strategically located on the Via Egnatia, which stretched from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, it was the perfect place for establishing a church for the spread of the Gospel. St. Paul, a uniquely urban missionary, chose his cities with care. In Thessaloniki he found receptive listeners in the synagogue, and many devout women. St. Luke uses the word theophovoumenoi, God fearers, to describe many who heard Paul. It is possible that they had been attracted by the God of the Hebrews and were observing some of the high standards required by this God in their lives, but had not undergone the required changes demanded by Jewish law in order to become full members of the synagogue. The ground seemed fertile for the reception of the Good News of Christ. (The Greek Orthodox Church today claims Thessaloniki as “the golden gateway” for the spread of Christianity to Europe.)

What is significant about Paul’s stay in Thessaloniki is how peacefully it started and how dangerously it ended. The province of Macedonia was committed to emperor worship. So when Paul was accused of “proclaiming another king whose name is Jesus,” the authorities became worried and did not want to take a chance with someone who was threatening the hold of the emperor in their city. The best phrase in all this passage described so vividly by Luke is this: “These people who have been turning the world upside down.” Paul, the peaceful follower of Jesus Christ did exactly that—he turned the world upside down. Therein lies the victory that makes all the suffering worthwhile. And make no mistake: the Christians of Thessaloniki started suffering earlier than the rest, before the persecution of Christians became fashionable among Romans. The world was being turned upside down: the people who accepted the Good News of Jesus Christ were changing from “malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy and all slander,” as the writer of today’s Epistle puts it, into people who were becoming “living stones” in the edifice of the faith which was to change the world.

The metaphor of the stones in 1 Peter brings to mind the great suffering of our Palestinian brothers and sisters, who always refer to themselves as “the living stones.” The suffering of Christians started early in the history of Christianity and continues in many parts of the world today. Misery in many parts of the globe makes us deeply troubled if not for ourselves then for others who are undergoing such terrors as war, dislocation, genocide, natural disasters that utterly destroy their livelihoods and families, while we in this country contend with hypocrisy, lies, loss of jobs, and an utter disregard for the poor and the powerless. It is sometimes very difficult to remember that we are in Eastertide.

But Jesus tells us in St. John’s gospel, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” This is the part of the gospel that deals no longer with the earthly Jesus but with the glorified Christ after his resurrection and ascension. The writer of the Gospel of St. John, probably a disciple of the great apostle, is writing during the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian, near the end of the first century when persecution of Christians had become vicious and was being encouraged through most of the Roman Empire. So the writer wants to remind his readers of the promises of Jesus. And the message that comes through loud and clear in these chapters of the Great Discourse is that we are not abandoned, that we are not alone, and that the God of Jesus Christ is like the Jesus the disciples have known and loved. This is the most important, the life-giving message of this passage: that God is like the Jesus they have known so intimately — filled with love, mercy, and justice. The gospel reaffirms here in the strongest imagery that the Jesus of history is the Christ of God and eternity.

So let us look around us. Suffering is not all bad — this conclusion is brought out by the courage of the people of Thessaloniki and the courage and endurance of St. Paul and of countless people in the world today who suffer and still believe in God. What is bad and evil is believing in a false Jesus by not recognizing the qualities of the Jesus of the gospels and by misunderstanding the character of God. Whenever an act smacks of injustice toward the poor, violence towards the enemy, vengeance and hatred towards those who disagree with us, then we better recognize that this cannot come from those who have gone through the “way” which is “the truth and the life,” no matter how loudly they claim that they are Christians.

The world was turned upside down by Paul and his co-workers for good, not for evil. The suffering that followed was not a punishment from God but the inevitable reaction of people who wanted to worship men rather than God. We don’t live in a very different world, after all. We still mistake evil for good; we still follow people who call out “Lord, Lord,” but do not do the will of him who sent Jesus to live and die for us.

If Jesus indeed is who he claims to be in this passage, then we better look closely at his life, his works, and his words and determine what it means for us to carry his name — to be called Christians, for his sake and for the sake of a suffering world.

 

— Katerina Whitley is an author and retreat leader. She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.