New Testament: Acts (7:55-60)
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, 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.
The Response: Psalm (31:1-5, 15-16)
1 In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame; *
deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Incline your ear to me; *
make haste to deliver me.
3 Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold; *
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.
4 Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, *
for you are my tower of strength.
5 Into your hands I commend my spirit, *
for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.
15 My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
16 Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me.”
The Epistle: 1 Peter (2:2-10)
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
The Gospel: John (10:1-10)
[Jesus told his disciples,] “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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Last week, we began four Sundays of readings form the gospel according to John. That always poses its own set of challenges.
John’s version of the Good News is different from the other three accounts. Not only does it have its own characteristics, but it also has its own characters. Two of them, Philip and Thomas, occur in the reading that we just heard. Neither of them is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. And, typical for John, both of them are confused; both of them misunderstand what Jesus says. I can identify with that: Jesus’ statements in John are often confusing – and challenging as well.
John typically uses the pattern of statement, misunderstanding, and clarification. Jesus says something, the other characters in the story misunderstand, and that gives Jesus a chance to clarify: to expand on what he has said. Usually, he is trying to get his followers to reimagine the world and themselves in a new way. He is trying to help them envision another way of living, another way of being: one that is harmony with God’s intentions for them and for the world, one that brings the fullness of life.
Over the centuries, believers and unbelievers alike have envisioned the world differently, often imagining it as conforming to their own notions of the ideal. Some of those scenarios are in harmony with God’s vision, while others clearly are not.
And people’s reactions to those imaginings have differed greatly as well. They head in one of two very different directions.
Scripture scholar Paul Hanson (Isaiah 40-66, pages 245-6) has distinguished these two directions by observing that there is “a clear distinction between two exercises of religious imagination. One dreams of shalom as an avenue of escape from real life with the effect of disabling people by breaking their will to act with courage and determination on behalf of God’s order of justice. The other envisions shalom as an act of defiant affirmation that no power will thwart the fulfillment of God’s righteous purpose. The former leads to resignation and despair. The latter engenders hope. The former undermines social reform. The latter gives reform a clear purpose by refusing to sacrifice justice to the logic of expediency.
“The vision of the new heaven and the new earth fosters hope even as it elicits incisive action… No goal short of the restoration of all God’s creation to its intended wholeness will satisfy the yearning of the Servant of the Lord.”
It is to that second vision that Jesus calls us in the gospels. It is one in which Jesus has been raised from the dead, but one also in which we have been raised with him. As sharers in his resurrected life, we are empowered by God to serve as Jesus’ representatives in the world, his co-workers as we continue the “greater works” of which he speaks: that work of “the restoration of all God’s creation.”
It is with a keen awareness of that new life, a life that we share even now, that the author of today’s second reading, taken from the First Letter of Peter, applies to us as a community key images that the scriptures apply to the Jewish people. “You,” he asserts (2:9-10), “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” With these powerful affirmations, he links us with our spiritual relatives, the Jewish people whom God has called and continues to call to the work of bringing the presence of God into the conscious life of the world.
That vision says a lot about what we are called to do, but it also says a lot about who we are as people raised to new life in Christ. The early Christians seem to have sensed and embraced that God-given identity, but later generations of Christians seem to have forgotten or even rejected it, if not in theory, at least in practice.
The first believers appear to have reflected that affirmation in their lives, boldly recognizing the fact that all of them were called to be active participants in the life and work of the church. As part of that “chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s own people,” they stood together in the temple, and then in other gathering places, praising God and holding up to God their needs and those of the rest of the world as well; and later, coming together in homes where again they actively and joyfully participated in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.
It was only centuries later, when that keen sense of being raised up in Christ had diminished, that Christians began to focus primarily on their unworthiness instead of on their God-given dignity, on their distance from God instead of on their intimacy with Jesus’ Father and theirs, on kneeling as far as possible from the Lord’s Table instead of on standing near to it as part of the one family of Jesus.
Over the past century, the church has finally begun to put aside those medieval distortions of the gospel message and to reclaim the vision that Jesus holds up to us in John’s version of the gospel, and in the rest of the New Testament as well. It’s harder for some people to change than it is for others. It’s hard to let go of old ways of thinking and acting and to embrace once again the vision held up to us in today’s readings: seeing and acting as people who even now are participants in Jesus’ resurrection. Or, as the First Letter of John (3:1) puts it: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
Maybe St. Mark’s custom here on Flower Sunday can help. As we come forward in just a few minutes to this very plain-looking wooden cross, we can witness it being transformed in just a short time by the flowers that we bring. And maybe that transformation can serve as a catalyst for us to recognize also the transformation that God has made in us by raising us up with Jesus. Because, in him, we have already come to share in the resurrection and have been invited by God to proclaim, with boldness and with joy, the beauty of the new life that we share as children of our one God.