Easter 5: 14 May 2017
The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson
Acts 7: 55 – 60
Psalm 31: 1 – 5, 17 – 18
1Peter 2: 11 – 25
John 14: 1 – 14
Over the past few days we have been privileged to offer hospitality to Greta Bradman and all involved in her new recording entitled “Home”. She has been profuse in her praise of ‘the beautiful St Peter’s Cathedral’ and the place of this sacred space in her life. Since she first sang here as a student at Pembroke, St Peter’s has been one where cherished memories were formed, and her own singing career unfolded. Many of us are looking forward to hearing her sing this afternoon, accompanied by another Adelaidean whose roots in St Peter’s Cathedral are deep, Josh van Konkelenberg. It is not too late to buy tickets for this afternoon’s concert – and all proceeds will go to the Organ Restoration Fund.
This idea of ‘home’ is one that is deeply embedded in our lives. And it may be one that will help us to delve into today’s four passages from the Bible. There are of course many other themes you could pick up from these readings, but for today, let’s start with the idea of ‘home’.
The opening words of Psalm 31 suggest someone on the run from enemies. “To you, Lord, have I come for shelter…” There follows an impassioned plea to God to deliver, to incline your ear, to save, to lead and to guide. God is described as a rock of refuge, a fortress, a stronghold. If you are one of those people who can multi-task and draw, you may like to sketch these pictures the psalmist has in her mind, even as I continue speaking. I wonder what your rock of refuge is, your fortress, your stronghold? And what are you running from, scared of, seeking sanctuary from? Many of the psalms echo the sentiment found in Psalm 31 – the idea of finding sanctuary, peace, a place to call ‘home’ in God.
The evocative cry, so well-known from Jesus’s cry on the cross, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” is one of complete trust in God. When there is nothing left to do, nothing else one can do, it is into God’s hands that we commit ourselves – and come home.
We’ve read only the last few verses of Acts chapter 7 today, but we should really go back and read the whole chapter to get the full story. Let me recap briefly. Stephen was one of seven men appointed by the early church for the specific task of caring for the widows and orphans of the Hellenists – those Greek-speaking Jews who seemed to be in danger of being overlooked. Interestingly all seven of the named men, who serve as role models for our modern deacons, have Greek names. Acts 7 opens with Stephen in trouble. He has got himself off-side with some powerful people and is arrested and brought before the Council, where he is given a chance to speak.
His speech is long and impassioned. It is something of a masterpiece in recital of the history of God’s ancient people, the Jews or Israelites. Beginning with Abraham Stephen traces the long and often tortuous route of the Israelites to their ‘home’ with God. The journey takes us from Mesopatamia (modern day Iraq) into slavery in Egypt, and the giant figure of Moses the rescuer and on to the great King David, ancestor of Jesus. Stephen picks up the way in which the prophets were treated by those who should have known better, and likens his own accusers to those who persecuted the prophets of old. Stephen clearly was not one to mince his words calling them ‘stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears.’ Unlike Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) Stephen’s words made those who heard them ‘become enraged and grind their teeth’. Don’t you love the graphic language? What a contrast. When Peter speaks, people flock to repent and be baptised and become members of the new community, the church. When Stephen speaks, people pick up stones and kill him, and begin the persecution of the church.
Notice the contrast between Stephen – his faith in God, his willingness to forgive his executioners, and his final commitment of himself into God’s hands – and the brutality of the onlookers. A vision of the glory of God, forgiveness following the example of Jesus Christ, and the highest form of trust at the very point of death, is contrasted with the anger, the covering of their ears and the sheer violence of a mob-stoning.
Stephen has gone down in history as the first recorded martyr, one who dies because of his faith in Jesus Christ. To him is given a place in heaven. Despite the hatred and violence against him, he has ‘come home’.
Years after Stephen’s death the people to whom 1 Peter was written were struggling to make sense of their faith in Jesus. He wrote to people who had no place to call home, aliens and exiles he calls them. The opening verses of the letter read thus: ‘To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.’ To really get it, we need to remember that after Stephen’s death a ‘severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.’ By the time of Peter they have gone a lot further. It is these people, aliens and exiles, whom Peter addresses.
And what does he say? Essentially that they should be model citizens, quietly living their lives without drawing attention to themselves. They should conduct themselves honourably among the Gentiles, giving no cause for offence, and being seen for their honourable deeds which will, in the long run, bring glory to God. “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” We can probably cope with most of that, though some may struggle with the emperor bit (especially if he or she is of a different political persuasion), but the next few words are more difficult to accept. “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference…” It is a fact that slavery is a part of life in biblical times. It is simply accepted that people were ‘owned’ by others. Which is odd really given how much of the Old Testament is about being set free from slavery (go back and look at the psalm again). But there it is.
As I thought about this apparent anomaly, and acceptance of slavery, I found myself thinking of the concept of KPIs – key performance indicators used by companies to measure their success. What sort of pressure do KPIs put on employees? How ‘free’ is an employee in an environment where performance and profit are all pervading? Perhaps slavery in our day comes in forms other than just people trafficking. The ‘Company’ can effectively rule a person’s life quite as much as the ancient slave-owner.
Interestingly Peter uses this idea of the obedient slave to segue into the example of Jesus. Drawing on the ancient and mysterious ‘suffering servant’ found in Isaiah, Jesus is likened to the one who willingly suffers rather than retaliates, does not return abuse with abuse, does not threaten when suffering, but ‘entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.’ There is a lot in the last paragraph of today’s extract from 1 Peter 2 – but it ends with the idea of a home-coming. The suffering and obedient servant offers his life for us so that, like sheep who have gone astray, we might be ‘returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.’ Here the home-coming is not a rock of refuge, the mighty fortress of the psalmist, or the glory of God into which Stephen committed himself. It is the sheepfold, with, as we heard last week, Jesus as the door to the sheepfold.
And so to a few verses from St John. They are so well-known, principally from funerals, we may need to step back a bit and try and look with fresh eyes. In John 14 Jesus has a lot to say about place and home. He is going to prepare a place in his father’s house which has many dwelling places. You know the way to the place, he says to his disciples. This leads Thomas to remonstrate that they do not know the way to this place. To which Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
This is not a physical place, not like the temple in Jerusalem, or St Peter’s Cathedral which so many of you have described to me as being ‘home.’ No, this place that Jesus refers to is quite simply to live in the very presence of God. Being so attuned to God’s will and ways that everything we do is what God wants. Even more, when so attuned, anything you ask in my name, says Jesus, will be done, so that the Father may be glorified. Not for a moment do I believe this means literally anything I ask, God must do – only the prosperity cult followers believe that. Rather, it has, surely, to do with living a life so aligned with God’s will that anything and everything we do will be what God does and wants. And that, surely, will only fully come about when we are truly ‘home’, and gaze for ever at the glory of God.
In the meantime, we are on a journey. We know the way, and the truth, and the life. We are baptised into that way, truth and life. It is our calling as Christian people to live that way, keep that truth, enjoy that life. We are not yet home, but we are on our way there.