Engaging the Word: 5/14/17 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter)

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 By Barbara Klugh

Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14. Go to www.lectionarypage.net for the weekly lectionary text. In this week’s readings, Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr, Peter offers encouragement to the new Christian community, and Jesus promises that his eternal presence will be with his disciples.

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen by Pietro da Cortona, c.1660. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen by Pietro da Cortona, c.1660. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Acts 7:55-60: This week we learn about Stephen, our first Christian martyr, and about how God can use terrible events to advance the kingdom.

Earlier, Stephen was one of seven men who were appointed to distribute food to the widows. He did great wonders and signs among the people. A group from the synagogue debated Stephen and falsely accused him of blasphemy. They seized Stephen and brought him before the council.

As his defense, Stephen gave a thrilling history of the Jews from Abraham to Jesus (a great read—7:1-53). He concluded by equating the religious authorities with their ancestors who rebelled against God, failed to keep God’s law, and opposed the Holy Spirit. Stephen blamed the Jewish leaders for murdering the Messiah. The authorities became enraged. Now we come to this week’s reading.

When Stephen tells the leaders of his vision of “Jesus standing at the right hand of God” in heaven—their rage boils over. They drag him out of the city and they began to stone him to death. Saul, who later became Paul, was a witness. As Stephen nears death, “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.” Stephen’s prayer echoes the words of Jesus as he was dying on the cross—he commended his spirit to God, and asked that God not hold this sin against them.

Our reading ends here, but with God there is always more to the story. After Stephen’s death, a severe persecution breaks out against the church in Jerusalem, and many people scattered in fear for their lives. Now here’s an example of God’s redeeming grace. Yes, the people scattered in fear, but they took the message of Jesus with them. So the gospel spreads throughout Judea and Samaria, beginning to fulfill Jesus’ final words before his ascension as recorded in Acts: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Pulpit Rock, Isle of Portland, UK. Photo by Chris Downer. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pulpit Rock, Isle of Portland, UK. Photo by Chris Downer. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Psalm 31 1-5, 15-16: Our psalm is attributed to David, and is a prayer for protection, trusting in God’s righteousness and strength. The psalmist prays, “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.”

Psalm 31:1-5 is one of the Compline psalm selections in the Prayer Book. Click here to hear it sung by the Pittsburgh Compline Choir.

Apostle Peter,13th Century icon. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Apostle Peter, 13th century icon. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

1 Peter 2:2-10: In this week’s reading, Peter appeals to his readers (including us) to grow in Christian maturity. In order to live with new life in Christ, we need to stop some behaviors. The lectionary doesn’t include v.2:1, which tells us what to stop doing: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.”

Then, using several figures of speech, Peter tells us what to do: “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.”

He says to think of the church as God’s temple, with Jesus as the cornerstone, and we as the living stones. And just as Jesus was chosen by God, we, too, have been chosen and called out of darkness into the marvelous light of God to be his royal priesthood and a holy nation, and God’s own people. My, what an awesome privilege and holy calling we have.

Christ taking leave of the Apostles by Duccio (1260-1318). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Christ taking leave of the Apostles by Duccio (1260-1318). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

John 14:1-14: Our gospel passage this week is part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, which he gave to the disciples after the Last Supper. Earlier, Jesus tells his disciples that the end is near, and that where he is going, they cannot come. Peter wants to know, “Lord, where are you going?”

In this week’s reading, Jesus tells them not to worry. He is going away to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, so they can live with Jesus and his Father forever. When the time comes, he will return for them. And, anyway, Jesus says, they already know the way. Thomas is confused. He said, “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.”

Now Philip is confused. He said, “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.” Then Jesus says, “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.”

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