St. John 14.1-14
Right in the middle of the Church’s season of Easter, right in the middle of our Alleluia-laden celebrations of new life – we have this morning from the Acts of the Apostles the first story of a person put to death for being a follower of Jesus Christ. I that really necessary? Didn’t we get enough of that death and destruction junk during Lent? Those who put together the lectionary, however, seem to think this story of murder most foul is an Easter narrative, so let’s find out what’s up with that.
We’ll start with a bit of the back-story on Stephen. We hear in the Book of Acts that the first Apostles found themselves so busy studying, preaching, and teaching, that they decided they needed to chose seven people to collect, prepare, and serve food within the community; those seven were called διάκονοι – deacons – meaning “table waiters.” Now Stephen, one of these deacons, in addition to being a waiter, seems also to have done some powerful preaching that attracted the attention of a certain religious leader named Saul (Now, who could that be?) who was none too keen on what Stephen was proclaiming – namely that the Gracious God of Abraham and Moses did not dwell in the Jerusalem Temple or in any dwelling made by human hands but in Jesus the Christ. And so this Saul guy proceeded to do what was necessary to have Stephen sentenced to death by stoning, which brings us to today’s portion of Acts which tells us that Stephen, his death only moments away, looks up and beholds the Crucified and Risen Christ sitting at the right hand of God and how Stephen, with the rocks battering his body, how Stephen, like Christ from the cross, prays that his murderers be forgiven – “Lord do not hold this sin against them” – something I’m quite certain that, unaided, most of us would not be able to do were we in a predicament such as Stephen’s. As for myself, I would be praying to be delivered from this cruel and painful death.
So what’s up with Stephen, getting killed rather than delivered from death? Why wasn’t it like we hear Jesus saying in today’s Gospel, “I will do whatever you ask in my name . . . if in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”? Didn’t Stephen know about this saying? Or did he, in the heat of the moment, forget to ask for deliverance from this awful death? And what about the many, many, many others in the early Church who were put to death because they were followers of Jesus? Thomas and Philip, who in today’s Gospel are within earshot of Jesus, surely heard Jesus say, “Ask anything in my name, I will do it.” But they too end up being put to death for being followers of Jesus – did they not pray when they were in their time of trial? I know! They must have forgotten to add, “in Jesus’ name.” But now that I think of it, there are all sorts of things I have asked for in Jesus’ name . . . and nothing has happened. What’s up with that anyway?
At least a part of “what’s up with that anyway” has to do with what the phrase, “in Jesus’ name” really means. First, it’s most assuredly NOT a set of magic words – like those on the kids’ Transformer Cards. It’s not like something taught to Harry Potter and crew at Hogwarts – NOT an incantation that must be practiced until one can say it in such a way that its true power be unleashed. New Testament scholars tell us that the Greek phrase ἐν τὤ ὀνόματί μου would be better translated, in the image of my spirit. “Whatever you ask in the image of my spirit – I will do that,” Jesus says. To ask Jesus that the car whose fuel gauge is on empty make it to the next gas station before it runs out of gas is quite certainly not the sort of prayer that’s in the image of Christ’s spirit. And kneeling down in prayer before a football game to ask for victory in the name of Jesus does not even come close to being a prayer that is made in the image of Christ’s spirit. Nor does praying for a really hot boyfriend that isn’t married this time qualify as a prayer prayed in the image of Christ’s spirit.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled – In my Father’s house are many dwelling places, and I go to get them ready for you.”
This morning’s Gospel begins with Jesus telling the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled – that he is going to prepare a place for them – so that where Jesus is, they may be also – “and you know the way to where I am going,” says Jesus. Thomas, ever the practical disciple, objects. “We don’t know where you’re going – how can we know the way?” Jesus doesn’t exactly clear things up when he tells them that it is he, himself, Jesus, who is the way to the Father. And can’t you just see Philip rolling his eyes with exasperation as he says to Jesus, “Well, just show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied!” Jesus, in turn betrays his utter amazement over how obtuse his companions are. “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still don’t get it? Oy, weh ist mir!! You see me, you see the Father. I am in the Father and the Father is in me, and what I do the Father does and what the Father does I do. In other words – you want to know God – listen to me, see what I do, walk where I walk.” And all of this on the night before Jesus is handed over to the most hideous, shameful death imaginable at the time. “Watch as I am betrayed and taken. I do not fight. I do not curse those who hate me. I do not condemn anyone. I turn the other cheek. And I forgive – forgive even those who do what no god made in the image of human beings would ever let happen in the first place, let alone ever forgive.” But the God and Father of Jesus does forgive those who kill Jesus, who is himself one with the Father, the Father whose heart is love most divine.
And there, right there, you have both the image of Christ’s spirit and what it is to ask – to pray – in the image of that spirit. It is to ask, to pray, for the strength to turn the other cheek, it is to ask for the strength to forgive, and it is to ask that our hearts be like the heart of Jesus on the eve of his death – to trust with Jesus that as horrible as even the easiest death is – let alone slow death by torture – to trust that death – death which will come to all of us and which drives all our fears and anxieties – to trust with Jesus that in the final analysis death will be as easy as moving into a premium hotel – to pray in the image of Jesus is to trust that death will be as easy as moving into a brand-spanking-new hotel. Yes, you heard right. Jesus assures, Jesus promises: “Do not let your hearts be troubled – In my Father’s house are many dwelling places, and I go to get them ready for you.” To be sure, to ask in the image of Jesus’ spirit does not take away the time of trial – rather, it may very will bring on the time of trial as it has for so many of Jesus’ companions throughout time. To ask, to pray in the image of Jesus’ spirit does mean to pray that at the hour of death we know and see our way home and that knowing and seeing our way home we forgive all who have wronged us even as we are and shall be forgiven all our wrongs.
So, for Stephen, his prayer is made in the image of Christ’s spirit and is answered – the prayer that is made for us as well by the Holy Spirit who knows our every need and who forever prays through us with sighs too deep for words, that prayer is always prayed in the perfect image of Christ. And that prayer is granted: Stephen declares that as death approaches he sees his way home and beholds the unity with God in Christ Jesus that is about to be fully his. And seeing his beloved Jesus, the perfect image of God’s heart of infinite and perfect love, and Stephen in Christ already one with the God of love – of infinite love even for those who are bashing in Stephen’s skull – Stephen, filled with Christ, forgives.
And so it already is for you. In your time of trial, the Holy Spirit who knows your every need will pray through you and for you, in the image of Christ’s spirit – and you will see and you will know and you will make your way home – and with death upon you, you will have no fear – for Christ does and will dwell in you, and you with Christ will rise with the Easter morning sun – and it will be as Jesus says – as easy as moving into a brand-spanking new hotel – only it’s completely free – you don’t have to have frequent flier points or belong to some premium rewards program or present some certificate of merit. All that stuff matters for nothing in the house of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. So you see – the martyrdom of Stephen – it is an Easter story – a story of how we are free to go even unto our graves praising God for Christ who shows the way home is risen – and so are you – already this day and one day fully so. Alleluia. Amen.