Sunday, May 14, 2017

God's Witness Protection Program

Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year A)
Acts 7.55-60; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

In the last half of Eastertide, we focus on identity. Christ’s identity and ours, as revealed through the mystery of the Resurrection. Last week’s Gospel focused primarily on Jesus’ identity and our response to that identity. How Christ is at once the Lamb, the Good Shepherd, and the gate to the sheepfold, whereby we enter into the fellowship of God. Today’s Gospel shifts the emphasis to focus more on our identity in light of the Resurrection. And what that identity means in a deeper sense.

This revelation of Christ’s identity and the promise of what that means for us begins with his disciples. On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus reveals to them what is to happen. That he is to die. Recognizing that the disciples are anxious about this revelation, he starts off by telling them “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (Jn 14.1). In this statement, to “believe” is far more than just intellectual acceptance. It is committing the whole self into God’s care – body, mind, and spirit. It is acceptance – of living into – an intimate relationship with God. One characterized by absolute trust in God and God’s absolute care for us.

Jesus seeks to assure his disciples that even though he will be taken away from them in a physical sense, the ongoing bond between them and God, this bond of trust in the fulfillment of his promise that God will care for them, will provide a security that the world can never take away. Of course, in delivering this discourse, Jesus is operating in God’s time, seeing not just what is happening in the moment, or what will happen the next day on the cross. He is also seeing the reality of what the events of the cross will bring about. He is seeing the larger picture of death leading to resurrection as a means of providing for their ongoing care by God. That they will be assured of eternal life. He attempts to convey this in his next statement to them. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (Jn 14.2a). This is a promise of his eternal presence in the world to come. This is a promise of their own resurrection. It is a promise of our own resurrection. Jesus is trying to tell them that in the Kingdom of God, in his Father’s house, there is a place for everyone.

But Jesus is talking about more than just a place. To “dwell” is also a metaphor for relationship between God and Jesus. He promises that his departure will enable those who follow him to share in that special relationship. That his death, resurrection, and ascension creates the possibility for relationship with God to occur in a deeper, more intimate way. He goes on to tell them that they “know the way” to where he is going, and to where they will ultimately be going.

Of course, as is generally the case, the disciples aren’t getting what Jesus is telling them. Thomas speaks for the entire group: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (Jn 14.5). He, they, are thinking too literally. They are thinking geographically, not metaphorically, not relationally. To which Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Just as last week we heard Jesus use “I am” to identify himself as the gate, so too, in today’s Gospel, he uses “I am” to emphasize that he is the point of access to life and relationship with God. Just as last week we heard Jesus use “I am” to identify himself as the shepherd, so too, in today’s Gospel, he uses “I am” to emphasize that he is the embodiment of life in and relationship with God.

“I am the way.” The way to fully seeing the truth – the truth that he is the Son of God, the truth of what it means to live the Gospel – is to be found through his life and ministry. The way to true life – eternal life – is to be found through his death and resurrection. His teachings, his mission, his servant ministry is the prime example of “the way” his followers are to live. It is following in his footsteps, in his way, that leads to the promised relationship with God as exemplified by dwelling places in God’s house.

Somewhere along the line, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples do get it. At least, if Peter is any indication. Our Epistle reading from the First Letter of Peter provides an explanation of what we are to do, as Jesus’ followers, who seek to travel the way he has laid out. If we are to follow the way that leads to the place Jesus has prepared for us in God’s house. He explains how the way to this promised future translates into our lives in the here and now. For this is not just a promise of life in and relationship with and care by God that we await to occur at some future time. It is a promise that we live into here and now.

In his explanation, Peter also uses the metaphor of house. “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2.4-5). Peter is using this metaphor to convey an image of the church, of a spiritual community, of the communal life of the baptized.

Peter first talks about a living stone rejected by mortals but chosen by God – Jesus. He then implores us to ourselves become living stones. To follow in “the way” of Jesus. That by living our lives in accordance with his teachings, by adhering to his mission, by continuing his servant ministry, we too become living stones. And each one of us, as a living stone, when added to the many other living stones that are our brothers and sisters in Christ, slowly but surely come together to build a spiritual house that reflects the one whom we are called to follow. A spiritual house that reflects the relationship we are simultaneously building with God. A spiritual house that reflects the eternal home in God’s house promised for each of us.

As living stones, just as Christ himself was a living stone and the model for our own lives, we build a temple to God. We ourselves become the temple of God. That temple itself being an image, albeit an imperfect one, of the true temple that is God’s heavenly house. We are “living stones” used to build the Father’s house here and now, in anticipation of our eventually moving into the “many dwelling places” that have been prepared for us at the end of the ages.

And just as in the ancient Jewish Temple, itself an image of God’s heavenly house, there are priests offering sacrifices to the glory of God. But as Peter tells us, now in this post-resurrection world, everything has changed. Christ was the final sacrifice for the salvation of all. The need for priests to offer sacrifices on our behalf is eliminated. (I've just worked myself out of a job.) Instead, we ourselves are the priests offering worship and praise to the glory of God. We are a “holy priesthood [offering] spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And that sacrifice we offer is our very lives. Lives dedicated to Christ.

This is our sacred calling as post-resurrection people. To be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [we] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2.9). To give our lives completely to Christ’s service, to be examples to the world of who we are and whose we are.

We see the ultimate example of this in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In the story of the martyrdom of Stephen. A story in which there is an interesting juxtaposition of the stones that were used to stone Stephen and the “living stones” that we are called to be. In being living stones, we too are called to be martyrs. Not martyrdom in the sense of facing death for adhering to our religious beliefs. Thankfully that does not happen anymore. At least not in this country. Not generally. But we are to be martyrs in the original sense of the word. The original Greek word for martyr, martus, means to witness. To witness to our beliefs through our lives. To give ourselves, not in death, but in our living, to the way of Christ. To be living stones.

While the case of Stephen is an extreme one, it nonetheless demonstrates what is asked of us. To witness to the Gospel. To witness to the love of God through Jesus Christ. To live our faith in word and action, with the assurance of what is to come. The Resurrection of Christ, and the promise of his own resurrection, emboldened Stephen to truly live as Christ called him to. To live as Christ himself did, knowing that he had nothing to fear, nothing to lose. Except maybe his life. And even then, that was nothing compared to what he knew he would gain. What Jesus had promised him and the other disciples when Jesus told them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.”

There is a contemporary image that helps bring all this together – our identity, our witness, our place in God’s kingdom. Through movies and TV shows, we’re probably all familiar with witness protection programs. Where the witnesses to crimes who are under threat because of testifying are given a new identity, moved to a new home, and live under government protection. Well, what we have in today’s scripture readings, when woven together, is the description of God’s witness protection program. Not protection of a witness as in one who gives evidence in court; but as one who gives evidence with their very life. Those who witness to the Gospel, to the love of God, through their own lives, are given a new identity through baptism, where we are marked as Christ’s own forever. In so doing, we are made “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” We are given a new life. Eternal life. And we are given a new home. A dwelling place in God’s house, where we are loved and protected.

As those who choose to follow Christ, we have been placed in God’s Witness Protection Program.

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