Today we heard about St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew who was converted to Christianity by the apostles and appointed a deacon in Jerusalem. The fact that he was already considered an outsider made it exponentially more dangerous for him to preach about Jesus -and Stephen knew it – but he did it anyway and he died for his witness.
We think of people who die for their principles as being brave, but I sometimes wonder if Stephen’s death was necessary. Couldn’t he have just dialed down the rhetoric a bit? Preached to more receptive converts? Moved to a less hostile town? We may admire his courage, but we can’t help but wonder about his common sense. What would compel someone to knowingly put himself in a life-threatening situation if he didn’t have to? But people do. Not just ancient, seemingly remote people like Stephen– but saints in our own time. We can go online today and be inspired by Christians who die for refusing to renounce their faith. But would we – could we –do the same?
It’s hard to know. I don’t know if the disciples fully knew what they were getting into when Jesus tried to talk to them about who he was and what would happen when he was gone- when he went to a place he called, “his Father’s house.”
We all have our own ideas about what “home” means. For many of us “home” is associated with a place, but for others “home” is a person or a state of being. “Home” can be the place where you were raised and nurtured. It can be wherever your loved ones are. Right now, as we enter our tenth week of shelter-in-place precautions against the coronavirus, home is the place we really, really want to escape.
But where is Jesus’s home? That’s what Thomas wanted to know – where was Jesus going? And how were his disciples going to find him? These seem like reasonable questions, but when Thomas asked, Jesus told the disciples that they already knew the way, because he was the way. He was their home. Those are probably the most confusing directions ever. Thomas asked Jesus where to go and Jesus instead told him how to live. He told his disciples that God’s kingdom is not a physical place but a state of being, a relationship -that God’s household is a dwelling made not of cloth or bricks, but of mutual loyalty and love. God’s “home” is a committed relationship grounded in faith and located in the collective soul. This is something that people forget when they argue that their current inability to access a church building somehow means they can’t be part of Christian community. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. Your home is God – and I will show you the way home. Then Jesus tells the disciples something even more astounding. He says that if we truly believe – if we recognize that he is the only home we need – we will receive the power to do greater works than his, and that the world will see the glory of God through us. That’s a remarkable suggestion – that if we believe in Jesus, we will have the power of God. Think how that promise resonated with the poor and oppressed people who followed Jesus. Think how that belief has sustained demoralized and subjugated people for thousands of years since. This promise of power is one of the primary reasons that Christianity grew as quickly as it did. It’s the reason that people are still willing to die for it. It’s the reason that people are willing to kill for it. And it’s also the reason people think that they can harness the power of God for their own purposes.
My husband and I once took a trip to South Korea by Military Airlift Command. MAC flighting was a great way to travel to places you could never afford to go otherwise. Basically, you packed your bag and showed up at an air force base and when a flight came up to where you wanted to go, you got in line and, if you were lucky, you got on a plane. We got a flight out fairly easily, but when we were ready to go home, we found out that there were a lot of people who were considered higher priority to get on a return flight than us joy-riders. So, every day we packed our bags, checked out of our hotel and went to the base – and every day we didn’t get a flight out. Now, this was before ATMs and cell phones, so after a few days we found ourselves down to about ten dollars in traveler’s checks and living off Dunkin’ Donuts and granola bars. We had started considering just paying for a flight back home when met a young couple who were in the same predicament we were. When we told them we were thinking of buying plane tickets, the young woman said, “Didn’t you just tell me you are Christians”? “Yes,” we said. “Then why aren’t you praying”? she inquired. “We are praying,” I said, “but we’re not necessarily expecting God to get us on a MAC flight. We figure God probably has bigger things to worry about.” “Well,” she huffed, “I guess you don’t have much faith, do you”?
I’ve thought about that incident many times over the years. She believed that we lacked faith because we didn’t assume that God would provide us with what we wanted simply because we asked. But it wasn’t that we didn’t believe that God could provide what we needed. We just didn’t think that we had the right to decide if what we really needed was to get on a MAC flight. Such differing views on prayer are still enacted among Christians everywhere. We wonder if it’s okay to pray for our own needs, and, when we do, we ascribe different meanings to the relative “success” or “failure” of our efforts. But that’s not the way that today’s gospel tells us to look at things. Instead, the writer tells us that, for Jesus, the words of our prayers matter much less than our intentions when we pray them. It is not what we ask for that is important. It is why. Do we pray because we think we know what we – and others – need? Or do we pray to share our concerns with God, knowing that, because God loves us – because we are in a relationship with God, we are already given everything we really need. That is why the one prayer that never fails is simply, “Your will be done.”
I think anyone who is in a committed relationship can understand this. Whether it’s a romantic partnership, parenthood, or a treasured friendship, sometimes you do things just because the person you love asks you to. We clean up after sick people, watch movies we have no interest in, and stay in when we want to go out for other people -simply because we love them, just as Jesus loves us and opens the door so that we can find our place in God’s household.
God asks only one thing in return. God asks for our love – for us to love God and one another. This requires faith – and faith is not a sudden revelation or an intellectual decision. Faith is a journey. We have to grow into salvation, letting ourselves be built into spiritual houses – houses without walls. We are part of God; God is our home. That is all – and that is everything. It’s not about doing things right. It’s about accepting God’s divine love and sharing it with others, and to do this we have to open our eyes and witness God’s creation. We need to see and believe that the order and complexity and beauty of our world cannot be random. We have to acknowledge that the challenging, confusing, and amazing people with whom we share our lives belong to God just as much as we do. We must admit that there are places inside of us that cannot be filled by earthly things.
For many of us, this feels like a nearly impossible task. Some of us can’t even imagine such a belief. That’s why we have to imagine it with each other. We may even have to imagine it for one another, showing and telling each other what we see and what we know in our hearts. Then we can like Stephen gaze into heaven and allow ourselves to be emptied of fear and filled instead with the Holy Spirit. The power that comes with being in relationship with God is not the power to know things or have things or even be things. It is much greater than that. It is the power to love others as God loves us. And that is worth dying for. AMEN.