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Readings: 5th Sunday of Easter

09 May 2014

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Genesis 8.1-19;] Acts 7.55-end; 1 Peter 2.1-10; John 14.1-14

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. Amen.

I DO NOT want to find out how I would cope with watching someone being stoned to death. What was it like for those disciples who braved the crowd and their own distress to watch? Why did God allow it? What sense did the good news of the resurrection make? It makes me wonder about Saul, there in the front row, approving of it all. It is a disturbing picture.

Luke casts Stephen's death in the mould of Jesus's death. He wants us to understand that Stephen, the first Christian martyr, followed his Lord to death not only in commitment, but also in conduct. So both faced accusations by the populace at the instigation of leaders; both had the assurance that they were going to be with God; and both prayed for forgiveness for those causing their deaths.

In contrast to this vivid and bloodthirsty story, which led to persecution and the scattering of the Church, we have the measured calm of the conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Hearing the reassuring words "Do not let your hearts be troubled," we are immediately in calmer waters, and in danger of seeing this as little more than a leisurely theological and philosophical debate about heaven and the vision of God, forgetting that John presents this as Jesus's last proper conversation with his disciples before his death.

If, under the pressure of ambient fear at what is about to happen, you had an hour in which to say all you wanted to your family and friends, what would you say? Jesus's demanding instruction was a command to be active in stopping their hearts from being afraid. Then he answered Thomas's and Philip's questions about how they could be sure of the way to God's house, and how they could see the Father.

The question of seeing God is a key one throughout John's Gospel, from the prologue's "No one has ever seen God: it is God the only Son who . . . has made him known," to the end when the disciples see but do not always recognise the risen Jesus. In healing the blind man, Jesus used physical sight as a metaphor for spiritual sight.

In this Easter season of resurrection, it jars to hear of an angry crowd, a nasty martyrdom, a young man who positively wants to see another stoned to death, and fearful disciples commanded not to let their hearts be afraid. Putting Stephen's martyrdom, or any similar terrible contemporary event, in dialogue with Jesus's promises is a challenge to which we must rise.

Easter gives a different frame of reference to stories that, on their own, justify fear and despair. Reframed by the Easter story, while the horror of what is wrong is not diminished - stoning can never be made right or sanitised - the power of Jesus's resurrection brings hope of new life in the midst of death.

Stephen's vision of God's glory is the outworking of Jesus's promise to his disciples: "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."

He could add: "You know the way to the place where I am going," because he himself is the way: all Stephen had to do at the moment of death was to pray: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." By describing Stephen's assurance, Luke puts flesh on the bones of Jesus's promise to the disciples, and reassures us of the reliability of our hope.

But we cannot abandon Saul, the young man seeking the blood of Christians. The Bible does not prettify Saul's past just because he becomes a hero in the future. Yet God turned him round. This Easter, the challenge is to let the story of Stephen's horrific death belong with the comfort that Jesus promised his disciples before he died.

The only way I know to reconcile the two, letting each add profound depth to the other, is to see both through the lens of the death and resurrection of Jesus. How else can we hold together life and death in our own stories, or the stories we hear in the news?

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