The Acts reading (Acts 7:55-60) is very dramatic; the stoning of Stephen. It is also the first we read about Saul who later experienced a very miraculous change and became the Apostle Paul the servant of Christ.
But today we focus on Stephen. This tragic event follows on from Stephen giving a most articulate history of God’s involvement in the lives of men and women throughout the ages and simply includes Jesus as the natural continuation of that Godly presence in our lives. This was a very faithful and brave thing for him to do at this time, speaking as he did before people with strong alternate views.
The reaction of the people was violence towards the messenger.
The reaction of Stephen we read in verse 5&6:
“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
And in 59 and 60 we read:
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.
Tragic physical consequences in deed, for telling the truth; but let’s also look at the Spiritual events taking place.
At this time of enormous faith, Stephen sees the heavens open, and he sees Jesus at the right hand of God. It is a rare glimpse of the Holy Spirit revealing Jesus in his glory, delivering on his promise to a faithful servant.
It is extremely easy often from our human view to see only the tragic violence of this world and fail to see the wonder that is the Spiritual love of God working through our most desperate circumstances. Stephen in this account is the exception to that human blindness.
See this rope, now imagine that it goes not just outside the doorway, but that it goes on and on and wraps around our planet an infinite number of times.
It’s long isn’t it?
Well that actually represents our existence in God’s terms.
Now see this bit that has masking tape on it, that is the part of our existence that represents our life as we know it here on earth. With all the worries and concerns that life brings.
You know, we are born, then we begin to worry about our;
- schooling, learning things – passing exams,
- growing up with the good the bad and the ugly,
- getting a job, losing a job, looking for another one.
- finding a partner that will put up with us,
- the problems of raising kids and worrying about how they will cope in life,
- getting on with grumpy people,
- anxiety about wars and violent world leaders,
- retiring and not sure about how far our Super might last,
Yes sometimes, like Stephen, there will be more serious circumstances in life, as are the happy events that form the wonderful memories we love to reflect on.
All of these things fit into this little bit of our existence. My 70th birthday fits in there somewhere as well – not sure where!
The rest of the rope represents our ongoing Spiritual existence in the presence of God. Is that not a wonderful concept for us to focus on?
Just one aside also that I picked up in this reading is the faithfulness of Gods promise to answer prayer.
Stephen asked in his final prayer that those involved are forgiven. We know one of those involved and we know how he was not just forgiven but blessed to the point of becoming an Apostle of great renown in the Christian movement, even up to today – the Apostle Paul.
So with all our life experiences, God wants us, like Stephen did, to focus on His promises
- the promise of Eternity; and,
- the promise of His presence with us, in our total existence, irrespective of what we are experiencing.
In our Gospel reading, John 14:1-3 it recounts Jesus’ words;
“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.”
This is what Stephen is experiencing;
“I will come again and take you to myself”.
Again in John, in response to Thomas’ question Jesus said in verse 6;
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
“the way, the truth and the life”,
“I will come again and take you to myself”.
These verses are the promises that Jesus gave that are being fulfilled for Stephen in the Acts reading today.
I don’t know how you manage when you’re in a strange town and ask for directions – but when someone says to me “Take the first on the right, then the second on the left, cross the square, go past the church, take the third on the right, and the road you want is fourth on the left” – I’m more lost than when I first asked for directions.
But suppose the person says “Come, I’ll take you where you want to go”. In that situation, the person to us is the way so we have greater confidence.
By being human and experiencing life with all its joy and pain, Jesus identifies himself with all of our experiences of life. He not only told us to love one another, he demonstrated that love with his life and his death.
He didn’t just give us directions to read and follow as best as we can. He gives us a lasting relationship which reaches even beyond life.
Look at the promises he gives in the last verses of the gospel reading –
“Anyone who has faith in me”, says Jesus, “will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father…I will do whatever you ask in my name”
It is interesting at that point to turn back to the previous chapter to see what Jesus had been doing just before he spoke these words.
We read –
“He wrapped a towel around his waist and began to wash the disciples’ feet”
and he goes on to say in the next chapter that;
“greater love has no one than this – that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
He didn’t just say things, he did them, he revealed the truth that God loves us – in and through all the experiences of life – the joyful ones and the pain – filled ones.
It is when we invite him into our lives that we discover that he is; “the way, the truth and the life” – the foundation, the enduring promise, the source of our inner confidence that no matter what life throws at us, nothing can shake or take away that knowledge that we are loved and accepted by God.
I think that the combination of these two readings today is a reassurance that the strength and energising power and love of God are always there, irrespective of the severity of our circumstances.
That when we believe in Christ, we live in the physical world and also in a Spiritual environment which radiates the empowering Love of God – that same love revealed to us by Jesus.
He surely is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen