Friday, May 20, 2011

Throwing Stones -- A Lectionary Meditation

Acts 7:55-60



1 Peter 2:2-10


John 14:1-14



Throwing Stones


As children, when taunted or teased, we may have replied to our tormenters: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” It’s not that the names didn’t hurt, but we took solace in the reply. It suggested that we were stronger on the outside than perhaps we were inside. We may have also used from time to time the adage: “don’t throw stones in glass houses.” Throwing stones in glass houses has its own dangers –like breaking windows. Throwing stones, except perhaps when skipping them across a lake, can be dangerous. Stones have many different uses. They can hurt and even kill when thrown at a person, but they also can be useful building blocks, that can form and cap a spiritual building.

If you read these three texts from this week’s lectionary, you’ll notice a number of interesting connections and links. We have the final words of Stephen’s defense, which leads to his death (by stoning). Stones appear in a very different way in 1 Peter 2, which speaks of the living stones that comprise the temple of God, while noting that the stone that was thrown away has ended up being the cornerstone or capstone of that temple. There aren’t references to stones in John 14, but there is a reference to a building program. There are other linkages, which deserve our contemplation as we prepare for Sunday, including the connection between Stephen’s last words and Jesus’ last words as framed in Luke’s gospel.

As is often the case during the season of Easter, we don’t have a primary text from the Hebrew Bible (except for the Psalm). Instead we hear from the Book of Acts, where we find Stephen, one of the Seven, standing before the council (you have to read the prior verses to get the context, for the creators of the lectionary have cropped this text). Stephen has already said too much, and the Council members have reached the boiling point. Now, he drops the bombshell, uttering what must be to the religious leaders blasphemy. And what is the blasphemy that he utters? According to Luke, filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen looks up into the heavens and declares to the council that he has seen a vision of the “glory of God,” and Jesus, the one he had earlier accused of killing, was standing at God’s right hand. That is, Jesus is standing at the place of highest honor – the one they had rejected and had killed. These words, which are blasphemous to the leaders, opens the flood gates, and they rush at Stephen and drag him out of the city and stone him. Yes, they threw stones, and the stones did hurt, breaking more than bones. As they threw stones, Stephen responds with words that parallel those Luke places on the lips of Jesus as he is dying on the cross. The order is different and the nuances are slightly different, but the parallel is clear. Here in Acts, we hear Stephen first commit his spirit, his life, to the care of God (Luke 23:46). And a way that is similar, but not exactly the same to the way in which Jesus responds to the crowd, Stephen prays that God would not hold this sin against them. The difference between Stephen’s prayer and that of Jesus: whereas Stephen prays that their sins would be forgiven, Jesus offers forgiveness “for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Perhaps Stephen believed, or Luke believed, that the religious leaders did know what they were doing, unlike those persons who were crucifying Jesus. Nonetheless, forgiveness is requested by one who identifies himself in death with Jesus. Is this not a word of instruction for us? Is this not the way of Jesus in the world?

In 1 Peter a different stone is thrown. It’s not the stone that executes, but the stone that caps the temple of God. The lectionary passage begins somewhat oddly with a word about longing for pure, spiritual milk of salvation, which is trusting that the Lord is good, the author turns to a meditation on the living stones, chosen by God, which form God’s temple. Those persons entrusted with building this temple – the e stone the builders (religious leaders?) have rejected for this spiritual house is the finishing stone. But, in what would appear to be a reference to the resurrection, this stone the builders rejected, God has chosen to use to complete the temple. It is a stone that finishes the temple, but causes those who will not receive it to stumble, and they stumble because that’s their destiny. Why it’s their destiny is not revealed – it’s the mystery of God. But, while some amongst us throw away the capstone, there are others who will receive it. Those who embrace the stone that God has chosen – that is, Gentiles who have embraced the messiahship of Jesus -- are now a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” It’s apparent that the author of this letter is writing to Gentile Christians and saying to them: you are the new Israel, the new Temple of God, you are the ones God has chosen. Once you were not a people, but now you are. Your whole destiny has changed because you have embraced the one whom God chose to complete the spiritual temple. To us a question is asked: are we ready to embrace this capstone, or will we toss it aside? If we toss it aside, however, we will discover that our place in the temple is not secure. What then is your destiny?

There is no stone throwing in this word from John’s gospel. Here we find Jesus talking with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. The supper is over and now facing arrest and death, Jesus offers a word of comfort. While there’s no stone to be thrown here, there is a building, in fact, dwelling places in God’s house, and Jesus is going to prepare a place for them. Don’t worry, he says, I will come for you and take you to your dwelling place (because of the notoriety of this weekend I must note that this is not a reference to the Harold Camping prediction that the end of the world comes on May 21, 2011) Jesus’ message is this: Don’t worry, because you already know the way. This is too much for Thomas to comprehend. What do you mean know the way – we don’t even know where you’re going! But of course they do know. Then in words that have become infamous in debates about the salvific nature of other religions, we hear Jesus say: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is saying: You know the way to the Father, because you know me. You don’t have to know the destination – just the one who will guide you to your destination. Trust – that is the word Jesus offers to them as he prepares them for what is to come. Of course this statement only leads to another request. Jesus may say that to know him is to know the Father, but Philip wants more: “Show us the Father,” then we’ll be satisfied. The disciples are empiricists, not mystics. They want tangible evidence, and that means producing the Father (as if anyone had ever seen God). Again, Jesus says – if you see me, you see the Father. Don’t you believe that I’m in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak; the works I do, are they not evidence that the Father is in me. You have seen enough, so believe.

I think that if we are going to understand this passage we have to go back to the very beginning (both the beginning of John and the beginning of everything). In the very first sentences of this gospel we are told: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). And this Word that was in the beginning with God and is God, and through whom God created all things – this Logos of God – became, flesh and dwelt among us. Now in the 14th chapter, John is saying very much the same thing – the Father and the Son, they are one. If you see and experience the Son, then you have seen and experienced the Father.

So, if you believe in Jesus, if you follow this way Jesus set before you and which he embodied, then you too will do great works, even greater works than he has done, because Jesus goes to the Father. Yes, because Jesus goes to the Father, the mantle falls on us. Now, is when we reconnect with Stephen’s witness. Stephen’s vision pictures Jesus standing at the right hand of God in all of God’s glory. Now, we read in John – I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father might be glorified. Because Jesus stands with God (at God’s right hand), Jesus can ask the Father anything, and the Father will do it. That is the promise – because the Son of Man sits at the right hand of God. So be careful with the stones you throw! But know also that the stone that was thrown away is the stone upon which the house of God is built, wherein the chosen ones dwell with God. One need not read these texts in hard and fast, either/or, predestinist ways to find in it a word of comfort and strength. One need not be a literalist to take strength in the word that in seeing Jesus we see God and that in embracing him and his ways, we embrace the way of God. Yes, let not your heart be troubled!

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