- Parish House
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Larry R. Benfield
One of the hardest places for a member of the clergy to be is at the front door of church after a service has concluded. Yes, there is sometimes the embarrassment of the face with which we cannot match a name, even after years of knowing the person. We are always hoping for your forgiveness. Or there is the usually baseless fear that someone might be upset over something we said in the sermon or most recent newsletter and will let us know. But the hardest moment of all is when someone steps up and compliments us for simply doing the job that the ordained are called to do, as in the priest who has helped someone through an illness or addiction or some heartbreaking event. We are usually too uncomfortable to say thank you simply and sincerely. Instead, we start mumbling words that, if written down in a transcript, would make no sense.
In my life, I have noticed that the rule seems to be that the bigger the compliment, the more difficult the response. Being told that we are special is hard to reply to. Being told that we are very special when we may feel very different on the inside—well, that’s even harder. We tend to deny the worth of who we are.
It gets personal, even away from the front door of churches. Here is my confession: I learned it well early on in life. The self-deprecation that my mother exhibited had an effect on her two children. My sister and I never felt quite good enough or confident enough in social settings as a result of what we learned at our mother’s knees, and it affected us for the rest of our lives; for me especially, in how I cannot engage with strangers in a non-church setting. That is a tough thing to admit on Mother’s Day.
Why would I admit such a thing? Because to understand the reality of our lives is to start finding a way to grow in health and wholeness, and on this day we have something that reflects so many of our own lives in the lesson from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It is the story of the stoning of Stephen, who has been called the first Christian martyr. The set-up for this lesson, which we did not hear, is a long sermon by Stephen in which he relates the history of God’s relationship with the people of Israel, and how it is that the people had kept turning their backs on God. In its own way, the sermon that precedes today’s lesson is a public shaming, not so different from how the deprecation we sometimes experience. It is that “holiness of Scripture as current reality” that I frequently talk about, why we keep reading these lessons year after year.
In the story, immediately after the sermon that we did not hear comes this amazing twist when Stephen says, “I see the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” The crowd is so incensed that they become enraged. Their response is to stop up their ears and take Stephen to the edge of town and stone him to death. Why would they do such a thing?
It is my take on the story that it is because they are human, just like you all and just like my sister and just like me. We run when God gets too close. It is also my take on the story that it is not only Stephen’s sermon that sets up this martyrdom. The book of Acts is Luke’s continuation of the gospel story. Jesus is crucified, according to Luke. The women cannot find his body in the tomb, according to Luke. The disciples meet him on the road to Emmaus in the form of an inquisitive stranger who keeps asking questions, according to Luke. And yet again, according to Luke, Jesus meets his disciples as a flesh and blood person prior to their losing sight of him in the Ascension narrative. And then today, according to Luke, in his second book, after all those appearances, Stephen is in the midst of a crowd who do not trust in God’s love, and yells out, “I see the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” It is hard for them to hear that Stephen might be talking about them. Where the news reporter might see an angry crowd, Stephen sees Jesus.
It is my take on this story that this is a resurrection appearance, perhaps the last one recorded in the New Testament. When Saul is later converted, he apparently only hears Jesus. In this story, the resurrected Christ is making yet another appearance in a manner not that distinct from what happened on the road to Emmaus. This story is not so far removed from what happens elsewhere throughout the history of the church, from the first century until now; the believer sees the resurrected Christ in the face of the most unlikely and undeserving, even in the face of those who oppose the proclamation of the Good News, and the larger society does not like it.
Being told that we are special is hard to reply to; being told that we are very special when we may feel very different on the inside—well, that’s even harder. We do not want to hear it. We deny the worth of who we are. We would like nothing more than to get the person out of the way who has made us feel so uncomfortable. And that is why they stone Stephen. He looks at the people on the verge of killing him and says that he sees the Son of Man. They cannot handle it.
We would like nothing more than to get the person out of the way who has made us feel so uncomfortable. To shake her hand and send her out the door. That is why we push away the very people who tell us that we are lovely. That is why we say no to the church, which in its best days reminds us that we are members of the body of Christ and have the honor and the calling to act that way. No one wants to hear that news; we cover our ears, to use the language of the Book of Acts.
The real question is how to turn this story, the story of Stephen, in the midst of undeserving people, seeing Christ—the “Son of Man” in his language—into sharing good news. And I am not certain, other than to say that in our own lives, through years of worship and reflection and sharing holy meals, we gradually learn how to say thank you when someone tells us how much like Christ we at one time may have looked. It is why our baptismal covenant asks us to vow to stay in church. This flesh and bone is holy. Your flesh and bone is holy. To see such a thing is to acknowledge that resurrection appearances are still taking place. To see such a thing is to acknowledge that through such encounters in our own lives Holy Scripture is still holy. To see such a thing is to acknowledge that when we look in the mirror of our own broken lives, Jesus can still be seen.
It is a hard lesson to learn. Or should I say hard lessons to learn. The days of self-deprecation—and the deprecation of others—are over. To see Jesus changes how we live and how we work and how we play. It changes the decisions we make and the way we spend our money. It changes what we think about the coming of the kingdom of God’ it just might be closer than we have imagined. No need to wait for our physical deaths to see it. Even now, the Son of Man can be seen standing at the right hand of God if we but look around. Even now, ears are being unstopped and the blind given sight. And that is what sharing the good news is all about. Amen.