Our May 10 Sunday worship service is available on video through Facebook. You may view it without being a member of Facebook.
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The Sunday 8 am service on May 17 is scheduled to be streamed live on the DeSoto Redeemer Facebook page. We will post a direct link to the recording here as soon as it is possible after the service.
May 10 Sermon, Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55-60 Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10 John 14:1-14
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” That is our Christian hope. That also was the hope of St. Stephen.
St. Stephen was an early Church deacon. His responsibility was the caring of the widows and the poor, classic Church work. Evidently, he was also a preacher. He is considered the first Christian Martyr, and traditionally, his Feast Day is Dec. 26th, the day after Christmas, which on years when we celebrate his Feast Day makes it really a depressing occurrence. We hardly ever hear about St. Stephen, except at Christmas when they sing “Good King Wenceslas” who goes out on “The Feast of Stephen.” Why, he comes up today, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, I’m not sure. Unless the story is leading up to the Conversion of St. Paul (called Saul in the lesson today); or, because he is considered “one of the companions of Christ;” and in his death he echoes Christ, forgiving his executioners and giving up his spirit. His story begins in the Sixth Chapter of Acts, and ends at the end of the Seventh.
Stephen’s preaching got him in trouble with a group called the Freedmen. They couldn’t win an argument with him, and they instigated to have him arrested. They only accepted their own point of view. He was dragged before the Jewish council and had a trial that is in many ways similar to Jesus’ trial. There is a difference, however. While Jesus was silent at his trial, Stephen defended himself. His defense makes up the majority of Chapter 7, as he reviews Jewish Biblical history, and points out how the people kept falling short. Then, he preached Christ. His preaching had an interesting effect, vs. 54 just before today’s text, “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” Then the covered their ears so they wouldn’t have to listen to him, and took him out and stoned him to death. Stoning was the penalty for blasphemy, and he had been accused of blasphemy against Moses and God. I didn’t know you could commit blasphemy against Moses. I thought it was only reserved for God. One of the accusers is a young, zealous Pharisee named Saul.
What is amazing to me today is how little things have changed in the relationship of religions. There is an amazing intolerance. We watch the news, we see the same things. True, the world tends to go in cycles, and we are once more in one of the bad religious cycles. There has been a rise in the last several decades in fundamentalism, often fanatic fundamentalism, starting about the beginning of the 1970s. When we hear the word fundamentalism, we often think of certain Christian groups. That is incorrect. Fundamentalism affects all groups. Religious zeal is fine. The problem with most fundamentalist groups is they tend to be people who have nothing to live for in this life, so their only hope is in the next. So, things of this world don’t really matter to them. They are hoping for rewards in the next. The other problem that they have is their understanding of God is too small. They feel that they have to protect their God, and even act for him. In the last several decades, there has been a rise in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and (ironically and bizarre) Buddhist fundamentalists (I grew up with Buddhists, you have no idea how strange that concept is). There is nothing inherently wrong with being a fundamentalist in any religion. But when a fundamentalist religious view turns fanatic, then they may take on the trappings of what we now call a terrorist. Watch the news! There is nothing stranger to behold than religious people killing other people for their beliefs in the name of the love of God! That is the love of God? Especially when you consider all of the major religions of the world have laws and rules against killing people! Want to talk about sinfulness to the extreme, in absurdum? This is it!
That is also not what we have been taught. When Jesus sent the apostles and the seventy out to preach, he told them to tell the people the message of the Kingdom of God. He said that if the people received it, great! If not, they were instructed leave that place, and to knock the dust of the place off of their feet as a testimony against them. That’s it. We cannot convert a person by twisting their arms behind their backs, or beating people over the head with the Gospel (like some groups seem to believe), or as some terrorist groups try by blowing things up. No. We are told to simply bear the message. It is the Holy Spirit that gives the gift of faith. We are ambassadors of Christ, not God’s Battalions (I actually heard that term a couple of weeks ago. I find it strange, trying to militarize Christianity). We bear witness with our words, which bears God’s Word. And with something else, by our examples, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he answered with two: Love God and love your neighbor. That is often how we most bear the Christian message to the world, by faith active in love. I also believe it is the most effective witness, living your faith. In this time as many of our neighbors may well be facing distress, now is precisely the time when we should reach out with God’s love, maintaining social distancing and other health restrictions, of course. Many people have lost their jobs and need assistance. It can be greater or lesser degrees of help, down to the “giving of a cold glass of water.” But, it is a means of sharing God’s love to all. Check on your friends and neighbors. It is a means by which we may bear witness to our God, and our faith in God.
There is evidence of this in Stephen’s story. Following this story, the young zealous Pharisee Saul rides to Damascus and encounters the Risen Christ. He becomes the great Apostle Paul, the author of more books in the New Testament than anyone else. But, he never forgot the witness of Stephen, nor his culpability at his execution. That is why Paul always referred to himself as “the least of the Apostles.” He fully committed the rest of his life to our shared belief that Jesus Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through” him. Paul’s mission and preaching came to sound very similar to that of Stephen’s. His blindness was turned into sight; and his flaws to right as he came to know the light of Christ. May we also follow their examples, declaring that Christ is the Risen Lord of all (that is our hope and belief), in all that we say and do, and so reflect the love of God to all people as the Spirit gives us ability; and so that the Holy Spirit may work in them.