The fifth Sunday of Easter? Yes. In the liturgical calendar, Easter lasts for seven Sundays. As the Godly Play curriculum puts it, Easter is such a great mystery that it can’t be kept in one Sunday — it overflows for six more!
This is the end of the story of Stephen, the first martyr. The story begins in the last part of Acts 6, describing him as “full of grace and power,” performing signs, and falling into argument with some members of the local synagogue. They, disapproving of his ideas, brought him to trial before the council. He began his defense with a lengthy history of Israel, beginning with Abraham. His telling of the story of Moses sets Moses up as both prefiguring Jesus — a savior who is rejected by his people — and promising the coming of Jesus — the greater prophet who was to come. Stephen goes on to remind the council that Israel has consistently rebelled against God and rejected those sent to her, and for this reason was exiled — an exile that continued still, as even though the people had returned to the land, God had not yet come to dwell with them again.
His audience is enraged; the lectionary reading picks up there, with Stephen seeing in a vision Jesus at the right hand of the Father, and ends with his committing his spirit to Jesus and asking forgiveness for those who were stoning him. His last words echo two of the seven last words of Jesus from the cross — he, too, said “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” and “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
I wonder if Stephen could have told the story just as truthfully, but in a way more likely to win over his listeners? But maybe that’s what he did at first, in the discussions preceding his trial. I just hate to assume anyone is really willfully set against God, refusing to hear the Spirit, desiring only their own power and success. I would rather assume folks like these were faithful followers of the way they knew, serving God in the way they understood; after all, doesn’t it still seem like there are plenty of people out there who are living as good lives as they know how to do, and who likewise have not chosen to follow Jesus? Is the information about Jesus — that he is the promised “Righteous One,” the fulfillment of the Law — really clear enough that no one is without excuse?
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
The Psalm echoes that last word, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Perhaps both Stephen and Jesus intended not only to give themselves into the Father’s hands, but also to call to their hearers’ minds the entire psalm, a cry to God for refuge in trouble, alternately confident of and grateful for his deliverance and protection, and pleading for deliverance and protection in the midst of sorrow, pain, and persecution.
1 Peter 2:1-10
This reading echoes the theme of Jesus being the chosen one but rejected by many. The author seems to be arguing that those who are pure-hearted, who truly seek to know God and his salvation, are those who have “tasted that the Lord is good” and find Jesus precious instead of a stumbling block. In other words, it is necessary to believe first, in order to find confirmation that your belief is right. I kind of get that… and at the same time it is a little creepy to me. How many have redoubled their efforts to believe in and follow their cult leaders, or their diet guru, or anyone else or any other program, thinking that the reason it’s not yet working, the reason they still have doubts, is that their faith is too weak? And that the reason other people don’t believe, criticize their belief, argue with them, is because those others simply don’t believe? How do we articulate the good and necessary side of “believing is seeing” without opening the door to the dangers and creepy side?
He goes on to say that those who disbelieve were destined to do so, just as those who believe were chosen to do so. Oh what havoc has been wreaked by these and other such words! Would God really create people and deliberately destine them to disbelieve and die? What the hell for? I fail to see how the population of hell adds to God’s glory. I suppose it is possible to interpret “destined” in another way — as the logical, natural consequences of the way they have been living, the cumulative result of each refusal of God, each turning from his way, each piece carefully added to the false self, each self-blinding from the needs of others. In a similar vein, my spiritual director and friend Fr. John has been reading various authors who argue that “chosen” may refer not to those elected for salvation, leaving all others elected for hell, but to those who are living into the Kingdom now, those through whom God is carrying on his redeeming work, work that will continue to reach out to all people — the leaves of the tree of life in the end of Revelation , AFTER the lake of fire, are “for the healing of the nations” — suggesting there is a lot more time for people to come to God than we have traditionally expected.
Believe, believe, believe — because I tell you to. How can you possibly have any doubt or questions? Didn’t you see me? Didn’t you see what I’ve done?
I sort of doubt that Jesus was as incredulous and frustrated as that summary sounds. At least I hope he has more compassion for those of us to whom not everything is obvious, or who sincerely have trouble seeing what is right there.
And then the whopper at the end — whatever you ask (in my name) I’ll do. Repeated, no less, for extra emphasis. Clearly this is not to be taken literally at face value — because I don’t think he’ll do it if I ask Jesus to miraculously finish my knitting project or make me able to tune my dulcimer in less than an hour. So the “in my name” part, as some have argued, might be the key — if you don’t get what you ask for, it wasn’t really in his name. Except that seems a cop-out. Could it be related to the previous statements about doing “greater works than these” — that it is Kingdom requests that will be granted? Still seems to lead to the same place — anything that fails must not have been a real Kingdom request.
For those who are as the author of 1 Peter describes, there is much in this passage that is comforting, reassuring, strengthening — we will be brought to be with him again; we need not fear or be too upset by what troubles us; we have come to know the Father. How I desire this faith — as long as it is true and real and good, and not the kind of dangerous and creepy manipulation and deception that I fear. I am pretty sure it is not. There is the Cross, after all.