FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Give us grace to love one another, to following the way of his commandments, and to share his risen life with all the world, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a victim of mob violence. Like his Lord, he died with a prayer on his lips for the forgiveness of his murderers. The story is terrifying on several levels. Mobs are scary. People swept up into mob hysteria are capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty they would probably never commit on their own. Mobs are not driven by any coherent ideology or particular religious sentiment. They are inspired by appeals to raw emotion, to the most primal fears we harbor. As irrational as it may seem, the mob always sees itself as the victim and its victim as the aggressor. It believes that it is acting in self-defense. The opponents of Stephen stirred up the people with the claim that Stephen was heard to “speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They told the gathering crowd that he was threatening to “change the customs Moses delivered to us.” For a people under Roman domination, whose faith and customs were in fact threatened with extinction and treated with contempt by their occupiers, these were fighting words. Stephen was for this mob the face of everything they most feared; the representative of a future that terrified them. Of course, Stephen was not really an enemy of Israel’s faith as he tried to make plain in his defense. But don’t look for rationality in a lynch mob. All you will ever find is blind, white hot, irrational rage. As we all should know, anger is only fear that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Violence is anger that cannot find words to express itself.
It seems to me that mob psychology is strikingly similar to the movement frequently referred to as “populism.” In his recent book Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, defines populism as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people,’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonte’ generale’ (will of the people).” Mudde, Cas, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (c. 2017 by Oxford University Press) p. 6. The only amendment I would make is to say that I don’t believe populism is an ideology of any sort, thin-centered or otherwise. I would define it more as a collective anxiety disorder. Most supporters of Donald Trump (the face of populism in the United States) I have spoken to recently don’t even try to defend his overtly racist remarks or justify his sexual predatory conduct or explain away his undisputed lies. They are not necessarily committed to or interested in his political agenda or policies. They are drawn instead to his outbursts of rage that give vent to their own pent up resentments. The Trump supporters I know well have a deep seated conviction that they are losing the America they love, and that it is the fault of an elite establishment bent on undermining their values, mocking their religion, robbing them of their livelihoods, destroying their communities and selling them out to foreign powers. They are convinced that conspiracies are being hatched every day behind the scenes by “America hating, God denying intellectuals.” Donald Trump is for them a monkey wrench hurled into a hostile and malevolent governmental machine that is ruining their lives. He is their escape from a dark and threatening future back into the safety of a bygone era when America was “great.”
Parenthetically, the half dozen or so supporters of Donald Trump I have spoken too in some depth are hardly a statistically significant swath of the the electorate. Moreover, I don’t pretend to understand all that is in their minds, let alone those of millions of other Trump supporters. I will also add that these folks are right in saying that there is something very wrong with our country. Despite recovery from the recession of 2007, too many sections of the country have been left behind to struggle with massive unemployment, decaying infastructure and broken institutions. To the extent that the Trump campaign has shown a light on these problems and brought them to national attention, it has done the nation a service. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that, while populism can illuminate deep seated problems with our government, economy and society, it offers nothing helpful in the way of solutions.
From a biblical perspective, there are two problems with populism. First, any movement grounded in fear is alien to the life of discipleship. “Perfect love,” says the Apostle John, “casts out all fear.” I John 4:18. Populism is driven by fear of the outsider, the elite, the foreigner, the unconventional. It locates the source of evil in some “other.” By contrast, disciples of Jesus understand that sin is universal. The line between good and evil does not follow the contours of nation, race, ideology, political affiliation or religious identity. It runs right through each human heart. As psychiatrist and philosopher M. Scott Peck points out, “it is in the solitary mind and soul of the individual that the battle between good and evil is waged and ultimately won or lost.” Thus, the war on evil does not entail extermination of evil people by good people, but instead consists in one’s own struggle with repentance, faith and regeneration. Disciples see their enemies not as threats to be feared and destroyed, but as neighbors and fellow sinners in need of the same redeeming love to which they themselves cling.
The second problem with populism is its backward focus. Salvation is not to be found in the past. Hope that is focused on a return to the Garden of Eden is doomed to frustration. That way is closed to us-forever. Even if by some wizardry it were possible to travel backwards in time, we would not find there any “golden age,” but only the sin and failure we know today. The era when America was somehow better, purer and greater than it is today is no more real than the Israelites’ exaggerated memories of the fleshpots back in Egypt. The Promised Land cannot be found by turning back. It lies exclusively in God’s future. The past is a dead end and those intent on restoring it are running a fool’s errand.
How does one preach in the age of populism? I guess the same as in any other age. The good news of Jesus Christ is always good news and about the only unique thing disciples of Jesus have to talk about. Nevertheless, each era presents its own set of temptations. We must at all costs avoid succumbing to fear. That is not an easy thing. There are some real dangers on the horizon. Military confrontation in Asia and the Middle East; loss of health care for the poorest and sickest among us, discrimination and violence against racial minorities, immigrants, sexual minorities and women. I am not suggesting for one moment that any of these threats are not real or should be taken lightly, ignored or left unchallenged. Nonetheless, responding out of fear and defensiveness with the same angry, caustic and inflated rhetoric inherent in populist culture only transforms us into a mirror image of what we claim to oppose. Disciples of Jesus should know that behind the anger and violence is a frightened person whose world is changing faster than s/he can cope with and in ways s/he finds hard to comprehend. Underneath the aggression is a plea for understanding and acceptance that invites the same compassion and forgiveness Saint Stephen expressed in his final moments.
Here’s a poem about the martyrdom of Saint Stephen by Daniel Berrigan.
That day stones fell
I stood and died
unknowable, a mound of dust for heaven
to make man of.
That day stones beat
like stone beasts for a forced entry
to eat my heart: I prayed awhile
then opened brief and tossed them meat.
They ate and died of it: unproofed against
my living phial, great love.
stones flew like hail of stones at first:
my dolorous flesh took their brute will
but stones transformed
to tongues, whispered at every wound:
That day stones flowered
to dark rose-field Christ walked and gathered.
Source: Selected & New Poems, (c. 1973 by Daniel Berrigan, pub. by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 46. Daniel Berrigan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, New York in August 1939 and graduated in 1946. Thereafter, he entered the Jesuit’s Woodstock College in Baltimore graduating in 1952. He was ordained the same year and appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse in 1957. Berrigan is remembered by most people for his anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. He spent two years in prison for destroying draft records, damaging nuclear war heads and leading other acts of civil disobedience. He also joined with other prominent religious figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to found Clergy and Laity Against the War in Vietnam. In February of 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam and returned with three American prisoners of war he convinced the North Vietnamese to release. Berrigan died on April 30, 2016 of natural causes at a Jesuit health care facility in the Bronx. He was 94 years old.
This account of the execution or, more accurately, the lynching of Stephen is the concluding episode to a much longer narrative reported in full at Acts 6:1-Acts 8:1. Stephen is one of seven individuals appointed to oversee the distribution of food to “widows” within the Jerusalem church community. As Professor Gerd Ludemann points out, “Many pious Jews settled in Jerusalem in the evening of their lives in order to be buried in the holy city. Therefore the care of their widows was a problem which came up frequently.” Ludemann, Gerd, Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts, (c. 1987 Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pub. by Fortress Press) p. 74. Thus, the church’s practice of providing for its widows had Jewish antecedents. Oddly, however, Stephen seems occupied not with such mundane administrative work but rather with “doing great wonders and signs among the people” and disputing with representatives of the “synagogue of the freedman.” Acts 6:8-10. Stephen’s arguments enrage his opponents who bring him before the Jewish high council on charges of blasphemy. His lengthy defense recorded in Acts 7:1-53 so inflames the anger of those present at the hearing that they drag him outside of the city and stone him to death. Stephen dies with a prayer for their forgiveness on his lips. As a consequence of this event, a great persecution arises against the church in Jerusalem scattering the disciples throughout all of Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:2. But so far from silencing the church, the persecution results in the spread of the gospel and the continued growth of the church. “Those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” Acts 8:4. This is the context of our reading.
Stoning was the punishment of choice for idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7); human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5);prophesying in the name of foreign gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5);divination (Leviticus 20:27); blasphemy (Leviticus 24:15-16);Sabbath breaking (Numbers 15:32-36);adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22-24); and disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). In 1st Century Judaism the sentence of stoning was rarely imposed and then only after strict legal procedural requirements were satisfied. The punishment could be administered only upon the testimony of two competent witnesses. Between twenty-three and seventy-one judges were required to adjudicate such a capital case, depending upon the offense. A simple majority was required to sustain a verdict. It does not appear that these procedures were observed in the case of Stephen whose death looks much more like the fruit of mob violence than a judicially ordered execution. Stoning, it should be noted, remains a legal form of judicial punishment in Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria (in one-third of the country’s states), Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In actual practice, however, stoning is usually carried out by vigilantes or violent mobs.
This text gives us a look into the anatomy of violence. The whole incident begins with a dispute in which Stephen’s opponents find themselves frustrated in their attempts to persuade him that his arguments are wrongheaded. Unable to meet Stephen’s arguments, they resort to attacks on his character. They call him a blasphemer and bring him before the council. But Stephen continues to press his point until his enemies are so enraged that they actually plug their ears against his reasoning. Predictably, they finally resort to violence. Violence is the last desperate attempt of a frustrated debater to silence an opponent whose arguments he cannot meet. It is what happens when we run out of words.
By contrast, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his executioners, mirroring Jesus’ prayer in Luke’s passion narrative. Luke 23:34. As the first Christian martyr whose death is recorded in the New Testament, Stephen’s witness has inspired and shaped faithful witness to Jesus in the face of persecution throughout the generations. It reinforces my long held conviction that non-violence is not a peripheral virtue, but a central tenant of the gospel witness. There are things worth dying for, but according to Jesus, nothing is worth killing for. In the face of violent persecution, the church’s duty is to die-as did its Lord.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-8.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 9-18
- Expression of confidence, vss. 19-20
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 21-24.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether.
Verse 5 parallels both Stephen’s dying prayer in Acts 7:59 and that of Jesus in Luke 23:46. Ultimately, the psalms leave the execution of justice in the hands of God. While the psalmists can be quite explicit in their desire to see vengeance upon their enemies (See, e.g., Psalm 137), they nevertheless leave its implementation in the hands of the Lord where it rightly belongs. Pacifism is not a creation of the New Testament, but the human embodiment of the heart and mind belonging to the same God lifted up in the Hebrew Scriptures.
“Thou art my God; my times are in your hands.” Vs. 14. Verses like this are the source of both comfort and consternation. The verse seems to say that my life is in God’s hands. If I know God as merciful, compassionate and intimately involved with me, that should be comforting. It is comforting when times are good and I know who to thank for it. The problem is that I must then account for God’s management in times that are not so good, even terrible and tragic. Some deal with this by suggesting that God sends trials to strengthen and instruct us. There is a degree of plausibility in that approach. Who of us would deny that the most valuable lessons in life are learned through facing challenges, overcoming difficulties and working through problems? Even the most horrible circumstances can (though they don’t always) make us stronger, wiser and more mature. But do we really want to say that God sends sexual predators to molest children so that they can grow through the experience? Not me!
Some theologians deal with this problem by arguing that God does not micromanage creation. God sets up the universe with certain parameters, natural laws and creaturely limitations and then graciously gives us our freedom to live and make our own independent choices. We are, of course, responsible for the choices we make. Some of those choices lead to tragic results. Of course, God is not a detached watchmaker whose task ends when the watch is completed, set and wound up. God is not indifferent to all that takes place on this planet. In fact, God is deeply grieved by events such as genocide, natural disasters and epidemics. But God does not intervene or only intervenes to let us know that he feels our pain. That might make God less of a villain in the eyes of some, but I am not convinced that having a distant and grossly neglectful parent is much better than having an abusive one.
It seems to me that if we are to get out of this conundrum, we need to think differently about God’s power and God’s saving intervention. In some respects, God gave up being almighty as soon as God spoke the word, “Let there be.” Like a child conceived in love, the creation makes a claim upon its Creator. As soon as there is something or someone that is not God, God is not “omnipotent” in the sense that God is the only power there is (though it is proper to say that God is omnipotent in the sense that God is a potent force in every circumstance). Just as a child grows in complexity and variability, so also creation and its human inhabitants exercise growing potential-for good and evil. This presents God with a choice: 1) that of exercising coercive power to compel creation to comply with God’s desire for it; or 2) that of exercising persuasive power through continuous acts of faithfulness and expressions of love. What God wants is for his creatures to love him as he loves them and to trust him. That is the kingdom in which God would have us live. But God cannot get that result by coercing us. God will not reign over us as a Caesar on steroids. If God cannot implement his reign through love, God will not reign.
I believe this is what Paul has in mind when he insists that the “weakness” of God is in reality the power of God. See I Corinthians 1:18-31. God’s power is God’s refusal to be drawn into the cycle of violence to which coercive force always leads. Rightly understood, divine power is not the ability to “make the kingdom happen,” but the patience to continue loving, forgiving and inviting us into the kingdom in the face of all our hostility to it. The power of Jesus’ disciples is the conviction, borne of God’s own conviction and demonstration through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, that love outlasts violence. The weakness of God (which is in reality God’s strength) is the patience of Christ’s Body living under the peaceful reign of God in a violent world. Suffering, loss and even martyrdom are not the exceptions, but the rule for disciples of Jesus. To be in God’s hands is to take up the cross through which God reigns.
“Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk.” Vs. 2. This is a profoundly feminine image of God the mother, feeding and nurturing her children with “pure spiritual milk.” The disciple is as dependent upon Jesus as a newborn living on its mother’s milk. The image of the “living stone” follows immediately thereafter with an allusion (made quite specific further on) to Psalm 118:22. Like a stone rejected by builders which later turns out to be the cornerstone of the structure, so Jesus is the rejected Messiah who turns out to be the cornerstone of the new age. Attention then turns to the disciples who as “living stones” are built into a “spiritual house.” Vs. 5. This image then gives way to that of “a holy priesthood” offering “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ.” Vs. 5. Unpacking all of this is a daunting task.
The stone is a double image. For the faithful, it is a pillar of strength and, as our psalmist observed, “a rock of refuge.” Psalm 31:2. For unbelievers, however, the rock is a source of stumbling. Vs. 8 citing Isaiah 8:14-15. Even a rock that makes one stumble can be the occasion of salvation, however. If you are running head long down the path of self-destruction, tripping on a stone and landing flat on your face is the best thing that can happen to you.
Verses 9-10 apply to this Christian community in Asia Minor a laundry list of honorary titles for Israel taken from Exodus 19:6 and Isaiah 43:20-21. Yet this church, whose composition is significantly if not predominantly gentile, is reminded that she comes into the heritage of Israel by the gracious invitation extended to her through Jesus. “Once you were no people; but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” Vs. 10. Of course, this message is even more urgent and essential for the 21st Century church that is all but exclusively gentile!
This reading is a frequent sermon text at funerals. Jesus’ assurance that there are many rooms in his Father’s house and that he goes there to prepare a place for his disciples is a powerful and comforting image for all who face the loss of a loved one. Those of us who cut our biblical teeth on the King James Version of the Bible will recall that the word for “room” (mone) is there translated “mansion.” The actual meaning of “mone” is far more modest and thus the RSV rendering of that word merely as “room.” This should not detract from the magnitude of the promise, however. Jesus is offering far more than real estate here. He is promising to make a place for us in the Father’s household. That has ramifications not only for the hereafter, but for the here and now. Eternal life begins now as the disciples begin to believe in Jesus’ promises and shape their lives according to that belief. As St. Augustine puts it, “[Jesus] prepares the dwelling places by preparing those who are to dwell in them.” Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Tractate LXVIII, 1, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, (c. 1978 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 322.
Jesus makes the remarkable claim that his disciple’s know the way where he is going. Vs. 4. Understandably, Thomas objects that he and his fellow disciples do not know the way. Vs. 5. Jesus replies that he is the way. Vs. 6. What the disciples do not yet understand is that Jesus “going away” is not a separation from them, but the porthole to a deeper intimacy and more profound presence. The coming of the “advocate” or Holy Spirit will initiate the oneness between Jesus and his disciples for which he prays in John 17. “The answer given by Jesus [to Thomas] articulates the high Christology of the fourth evangelist. It is not the case that Jesus is ‘away’ from the Father, and must therefore find and tread the way to him; he is the way himself: it is not the case that there is a truth about the Father which Jesus must learn and then pass on; he is the truth himself: it is not the case that the Father has eternal life which he will give to the Son when the Son reaches his home, so the Son can then bestow life; he is the life himself. And no other approach to the Father can be made than the one which has been opened in the incarnation of the eternal Word.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 504.
In what I imagine must have been a tone of utter exasperation, Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” Vs. 8. Jesus replies that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. Vs. 9. This is a remarkable statement and one that should shatter every notion we have about who and what God is. Jesus, who will soon surrender without resistance to the temple police and die helplessly on the cross is all there is of God to see. There is nothing more, nothing hidden inside or concealed. What you see is what you get. Yet this Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Vs. 6.
It should be clear by now that in declaring himself the “way, the truth and the life,” Jesus is letting his disciples know 1) that his departure is in fact the prelude to his return in a fuller, more robust presence among his disciples than they have known throughout their days of following him on the way to the cross; 2) that the way to the Father is through fellowship with him soon to be had through the coming of the “advocate.” The message of Ascension is on the horizon here. Jesus’ ascending to the right hand of the Father is his coming to fill all creation with the fullness of God. The last supper is not Jesus’ going away party.