Easter 5, May 22, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore
It's been a long time since anyone tried to stone me for a vision of heaven. I figure it's an indication of a lack of faith or zeal, but I count it a good thing. I'm not sure I would really relish that kind of martyrdom. "Martyr" means "witness," however, and there are lots of different ways to give witness. Happily for me, and for you, the most effective "martyrdom" is the most natural and the most genuine thing in the world. It consists of nothing more or less than the effect the Kingdom has on your world.
The effect the Kingdom had on Stephen's world ended rather badly, I should say—not for Stephen, mind you, he made out rather well. He got heaven right off the bat, he got a name and a reputation, and he got the great satisfaction of finally being proven right. Those who stoned him, however, did not fare so well. We know of two groups of them. One was a group of one - one Saul of Tarsus. It wasn't long before Stephen's martyrdom fired this young man up into a missionary zealot, but before he could really get things rolling he had an encounter with the same Jesus near Damascus and ended up preaching the very thing he set out to destroy. We know him as St. Paul, the Apostle. Humble pie always starts out bitter (though it always ends up sweet.)
The other is the unnamed group of hoodlums who actually pitched the rocks. All we know about them is that their lives went on apace. If the Gospel lesson today means anything at all, they, too, will one day stand before the God of Stephen and give account, for when Jesus declares, "I am the truth," he lays claim to all truth for all time, and in all places wherever it is found, even the truth that Stephen was an innocent man.
The effect the Kingdom had on the community of believers to which the epistle of I Peter was written no less significant. The Kingdom makes us something special in the world, it says, and that something special has an effect on the wider community. To those who are being called into the life of God it is good news, Gospel, but to those who refuse it, it becomes a stumbling block, for when Jesus declares, "I am the life" He lays claim to everything that shares the life of God with us, and in our communities, no matter where, when or how we stumble across it.
The Kingdom stretched Thomas's geography almost to the breaking point. Thomas and the rest were stunned at Jesus' declaration that He would be leaving. It cast before them a web of confusing possibilities. Do they fight? Do they run? Do they hide? Do they pretend it all didn't happen? Do they pretend they didn't know Jesus in the first place? Knowing Jesus precludes all of those things and places before them a different sort of map. I remember many years ago walking with my father on visits among the Tsachi people in western Ecuador. The Tsachis do not live in villages, but rather on their individual farm plots, like so many Texas ranchers. He knew the paths, but to me they all looked alike. I learned that the best map I had was my father's back. As long as it was in front of me we would get to where we were supposed to go. Otherwise, I was in trouble.
The key to getting to the Kingdom is not a map but a person. Wherever we see the traces of His passing, there is the door to the Kingdom, for when Jesus declares, "I am the Way," He lays claim to every signpost that points to God, wherever or whenever it may appear, and however we might notice it, for it not only points to God, but to Himself.
Visions of heaven no longer get one stoned to death these days, but the effects of the Kingdom still rock the world. When you forgive your enemies as they are doing you harm you change the world for good. In 1955 five young missionaries attempted to reach the violent and warlike Waorani Indians in eastern Ecuador. The Indians attacked the defenseless men and left their spear-ridden bodies on the jungle beach. The widow of one missionary and the sister of another, because they were defenseless women, managed to contact them peacefully. They offered the killers forgiveness, a concept the Waorani did not understand. But in time their violent ways were set aside in favor of the Gospel of peace. In the 1980's a young Waorani man, product of the Waorani church, made a trip down river to another village still caught in the cycle of violent revenge killings. He became martyr number 6, even as he forgave his own kinsmen who killed him. The Gospel now urges people in that village as well to set aside their spears.
When you become known as a caring, loving community it changes the world for good. Last year I sat with two men in their 70's on the porch of the school in Pedregales, Honduras. I love visiting with the older men that come to the clinics. They speak with measured tones and carefully chosen words, everything they say is worth hearing. They told me in heart-felt words how appreciative they were that we had gone to the work and expense of getting to their village with doctors and medicines. "It is clear how much you love God," they said. This is the one thing the world has in very short supply and the one thing the Church has to offer.
When your geography stretches arms of love around the whole world it changes the world for good. We come from all walks of life. We are all different from one another. Some of us are younger, some of us are older, some are single, some are married. Some are politically liberal, others are more conservative. Some have special needs, some seem blessed beyond measure. Some are better at one thing and others at something else. Yet here we are, all gathered together in God's house, under one roof, worshipping the same God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, seeing the truth and the life and the way differently at times, yet always somehow a reflection of Jesus Christ. Here we stand together, shoulder to shoulder, and the grace of the Kingdom stretches a common mantle over all of our shoulders, to serve the world in His name. Our uniqueness’s are evidence of grace. Christ wears a myriad of faces, seen in one another and the people who populate our worlds. As we see the face of Christ in those around us we most powerfully serve the world in His name!
The Kingdom will change your world, but that’s OK. God’s changes are always for the good. Jim Elliott, one of the five young missionary men martyred by the Waorani in 1955 said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose!”