Updated: Aug 5, 2021
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 to preach about Jesus -and Stephen knew it. But he did it anyway and, according to the writer of Acts, he died for his witness.
But why? 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 pick up a newspaper or 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” – to his true “home.”
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. I sometimes say, “Home is where the husband is” because we moved so many times as a result of Gary’s military career (and because I love him). For young people, “home” is often the place where the people who have raised and nurtured them can be found –be they mothers- or fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or beloved mentors. Home, Robert Frost said, “is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in…Home is the primary connection between you and the rest of the world.”
But where was Jesus’s home? That’s what Thomas wanted to know – where was Jesus going? And how were they going to find him? But when Thomas asked, Jesus told the disciples that they already knew the way, because he was the way. He told them he was the way they have been allowed to know God. He told them that 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. It is a committed relationship grounded in faith and located in the collective soul. “Know me,” Jesus tells them. “Love me. Trust me – and you will be part of God. And, what’s more, if you do that, you will have power like mine. You will have power greater than mine. I will show the world the glory of God – through you.”
That’s an astounding idea if you think about it. If you believe in Jesus, you 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. I think Jesus’ promise of power is one of the primary reasons that Christianity grew so quickly. I think it’s the reason that people are still willing to die for it. I think it’s the reason that people are willing to kill for it. Because people – Christians –think they can harness the power of God. But I don’t think it works that way.
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. Basically, you packed your bag and showed up at an air force base where you could watch a board of posted flights. When you saw somewhere you wanted to go, you got in line and, if you were lucky, you got on a plane – and you got home the same way – or hoped you would. This particular trip started out well, but when we got to Korea, we found out that there were a lot of people who were considered a higher priority for placement 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, returned to the hotel, and checked back in again. 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, so we were thinking about paying for a flight back home. The next day we went back to the base and met a young couple who were in the same predicament as we were. When we told them we were thinking of buying plane tickets to get home, 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. He 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 I lacked faith because I didn’t believe that God would provide what we needed. But it wasn’t that I didn’t believe that God could provide what we needed. I just didn’t think I had the right to decide if what we really needed was to get on a MAC flight. (And for those of you who can’t stand to not hear the end of a story, what God ultimately provided was a new, promotional direct flight from Seoul to San Francisco, complete with a meal and hot towels and a credit card to pay for it. Amen).
So what was different in our approach to prayer? Was one of us right and the other wrong? The writer of John’s gospel provides a very comforting answer. He tells us that Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Believe in God. Believe in me – because you know me. I am willing to do anything for you. We are in a relationship and because of that relationship I will always answer your prayers as is best for you.
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. How many times have you gone to a movie that wasn’t appealing to you? Or spent the night cleaning up after a sick person? Or gone to church when you had no interest in learning about religion or even God for that matter? That’s love. And Jesus’ love for us opens the door so that we can find our place in God’s household. Allowing himself to be bound to this sinful earth and its imperfect inhabitants in the form of Jesus is God’s priceless gift to us.
But what are we willing to do for God – and is there anything we really can give to God? Peter’s answer is the same as the gospel message – believe. “Grow into salvation…Come to him…Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house -” let yourself be built into God’s house. God wants us to be part of him. That’s all – and that’s everything. Because I have started to believe that our good and bad behavior matter less to God than whether we accept her divine love and share it with others. God asks us to open our eyes and see – see and believe that such complexity and beauty cannot be random. To acknowledge that the challenging, confusing, and amazing people with whom we share our lives are not just replicated DNA. To admit that there are places inside of us that cannot be filled by earthly things. God asks us to accept what has already been given to us. God asks us to believe.
For many people, that’s nearly an impossible task. Many people can’t even imagine such a belief. So we must imagine it with each other. We may have to imagine it for one another. We must keep showing and telling each other what we see and what is in our hearts. We must, like Stephen, gaze into heaven and allow ourselves to be emptied of fear and filled 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 the greatest and most important power of all – the power to love others as God loves us. And that is worth dying for. AMEN.
Frank T. McAndrew (August 3, 2015), “Home is where the heart is, but where is home”? Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-ooze/201508/home-is-where-the-heart-is-where-is-home