This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Unitingt Church on 14th May 2017, the fifth Sunday after Easter in year-A.
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10.
Several weeks ago, I described myself to you as “a preaching-nerd” when I spoke about how I enjoy discovering the ways that the lectionary has set up the weekly passages of scripture for the purposes of establishing a theme. Today’s set of readings present us with the theme that the Bible suggests a variety of understandings of stones. For Stephen who was executed by stoning, stones are bad things. For the Psalmist who calls upon God as his rock, rocks are good things. So, rock equals good, and stone equals bad? Got that? Well…well unfortunately, it’s not that simple since Peter speaks of Christ as the living stone; one who was rejected by mortal beings but is exalted by God.
In today’s reading from the Psalms we read of how God is a rock of refuge for the worshipper (Psalm 31:2), and “indeed” God is a rock and fortress (Psalm 31:3). My commentary points out that the Hebrew word translated as “indeed” is used seven times in Psalm 31 to introduce a new verse. This God, the rock, is one who can be relied upon and trusted in, this word is solid, and solid indeed! Standing on this assurance it is no wonder to me that the psalmist is confident to say in Psalm 31:5 “into your hand I commit my spirit”. We know that this statement is not the famous last words of the psalmist, especially since even this psalm has twenty-four verses and this is only verse five. The assurance that God is worthy of our trust, worthy to hold our spirits in safekeeping, is assured by the wisdom that God is both the rock and the proven deliverer. “God has saved me before; more than once in fact, so here and now I take the step of faith to commend my whole life into God’s hands and safekeeping.” What a word of confidence that it, and what an example to us all! The psalmist asks of God in Psalm 31:15 that in God’s steadfast love that God would “save me from my persecutors”. Not only do I trust God in my own life and its adventures says the psalmist, but I trust God where it comes to other people and their potentially harmful interactions with me. It is no wonder then that in the very moment of his murder by his persecutors each of two men pray the words in Psalm 31:5, and with his final breath commits his spirit to God.
The writer of 1 Peter says of Jesus that he was rejected by humanity, yet was chosen by God and is precious and that the same can be said of us if we follow Jesus. The world outside sees our faith as wasted and our activities as irrelevant and inconsequential. But in God’s economy the worthless rocks and scattered gravel that the world sees is revealed to be living stones which build a spiritual house. Where the world sees a pile of broken brick God sees and experiences a house of worship whose cornerstone is Christ himself. God sees the other stones of that house, that house with Christ as cornerstone and capstone, as you and me, him and her, and them over there making another wall in that other denomination’s house today. God sees unity and worth in who we are and in what we do when we are connected to each other and connected through each other to Christ who is our sure foundation. 1 Peter says that if the cornerstone of your belief is in Jesus then you will be part of what God builds upon the foundation of your belief: but if you don’t believe then that same stone becomes a barrier, a stumbling block, and you’ll be tripped up in your disbelief. It is made even more plain by 1 Peter, those who stumble do so because of disobedience; but those who believe, those who are part of what God is building upon the foundation of belief in Jesus Christ, become a royal and holy gathering tasked with the proclamation of God in speech and action. We who were once a bunch of rubble, boulders and bluemetal are now a single unified, strong tower and palace, a temple and a house with a common identity and a unified task. This is monumental stuff church, pun intended, because the Church is a monument to God’s glory, and it is true in metaphorical speech because the Church takes on the identity given to the Jewish nation. We, the Christians of 2017, are a royal and holy community: we have received the same promise made to the tribes of Hebrews a thousand years before Jesus’ life. What was spoken over them is spoken over us alongside them two thousand years after Jesus. And more so this is true because of Jesus, and is true for us because of our belief in Jesus.
So, to summarise what we have so far:
- God is a rock.
- You are a living stone. With the rest of us, you form a monument which has its foundation upon God, the rock.
The manner in which Stephen met his death mirrors the death of Jesus in many details. The rock of which 1 Peter speaks as being rejected by humanity is shown here in the first murder of a Christian for being a Christian. To put it somewhat ironically the one who trusts in rock of Israel is being stoned to death by the priests and Levites of the Pharisees.
When Stephen cries out with his final breath in Acts 7:59 he says two things of Jesus; that the life of Jesus is worthy of emulation, and that Jesus is the Lord Godself. I’ll unpack that a little bit for you, and in my unique and peculiar style I’ll give you the second one first. So, secondly, Stephen speaks of Jesus in language that Jesus himself, and the psalmist, used of God. Where Jesus and the psalmist commit their spirit to God in prayer Stephen commits his spirit to Jesus. Stephen prays as if he believes that Jesus is God, or at least worthy of the same ascription to majesty as the Father. Of course, we know this, this is why he is being executed in the first place, but there it is in black and white on page 891 of the Bible in front of you. And firstly, Stephen’s last words are almost word for word the last words of Jesus. What Jesus did is what Stephen does. If asked “WWJD?” Stephen would answer “in your final breath commend your spirit to God.” And that is what Stephen did, with the unique extrapolation at that stage, of naming the LORD in this circumstance as Jesus.
In my persona as preaching-nerd, and a man who finds the lectionary fascinating, I am delighted that our reading set for today ends at Acts 7:60. Whenever I have seen this passage marked in a Bible, or heard it read aloud, the block of text typically continues to 8:1. Stephen dies, but somewhat more importantly it seems, Saul approves of the murder. But not today. Not today, thank you lectionary. Today the focus is not on Saul the persecuting Pharisee who will go on to cause havoc amongst the Christians before being knocked off his horse and then going on as Paul the preaching Christian to cause havoc amongst the Pharisees. No, today the focus, by ending at Acts 7:60, is the last words of Stephen and his ascription that amidst and amongst the flying stones of his murderers it is God in Jesus who is the rock which is steadfast and sure.
I pray that none of us, you or I, face death by judicial stoning nor by any other form of avalanche. But I do pray that each of us, you and I, would cry out to God when the time comes and commit our dying selves into the hands of the steadfast God. May it be for us that our last words can be “into your hands, my Lord I commend my all”.
And that would have been a wonderful place to finish this sermon. But there is more to say. Just a paragraph, so relax. As much as I hope that you will emulate Jesus in death, as Stephen emulated the dying Jesus in Stephen’s own death, my prayer for you is that your prayer of commitment to God’s surety as rock is uttered well before your final breath. The time is NOW to commit your spirit into God’s hands, and then to live for years and decades with that surety at your back and on your heart and mind. As beautiful as the picture is of Stephen dying with Jesus, and dying for Jesus, he only got there because he lived for Jesus first.
So, live for Jesus. God is your rock, and is your rock right now. Commit your spirit today.