This is, to put it lightly, a disconcerting passage. We don’t read the preface to these verses (what prompted the stoning itself). Stephen had been openly criticizing opponents of the faith. But Stephen’s stoning and martyrdom confirms what Acts had hinted at earlier—that all who share in the faith of Jesus Christ will also in some way share in the same suffering that Christ endured. So, in his death, Stephen exemplifies Christian discipleship. He is killed because of the “shocking” things that he said to an unrepentant (and not ready-to-change) society. In essence, Stephen has boldly continued what Jesus had started.
Stephen’s response to his death is Spirit-filled. He accepts his fate as the prophets before him. The phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” designates him as one who is empowered by the Spirit to give bold and radical witness to the Risen Christ. In this way, his is portrayed with a likeness to Jesus. Stephen’s death marks a radical turning point for the Christian community and their mission as depicted in the Book of Acts. Clearly, things are different now. And so the evangelistic mission at this point moves beyond Jerusalem.
We don’t really do well with the image of martyrdom. In fact, sometimes that word today depicts a sort of self-serving. self- effacing way of living out one’s faith—a way of living that is directed toward the self rather than the story that we are called to tell. But Stephen did not set out to be martyred for a cause; rather, he just felt called and compelled to share the good news that he so believed. Barbara Brown Taylor, in a sermon on this text, says this:
When you put [Stephen] and Jesus together, it is pretty hard to deny that this is what Christian success looks like: not converting other people to our way of thinking; not having the oldest, prettiest church in town; not even going out of our ways to be kind and generous, but telling the truth so clearly that some people want to kill us for it.
There are problems with that, of course. In the first place, there is Pilate’s question: “What is truth?” And in the second place, most of us have known people who believe they are being martyrs when all they are really being is obnoxious. They are the ones who harass you about your faith until you finally tell them please to get lost and then they start moaning about how hard it is to serve the Lord.
Only I do not think real martyrdom works that way. I do not think you can seek it anymore than you can avoid it. I think it just happens sometimes, when people get so wrapped up in living God’s life that they forget to protect themselves. They forget to look out for danger, and the next thing they know it is raining rocks. (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Blood of the Martyrs”, in Home By Another Way, p. 125-126)
- What is your response to this passage?
- How does Stephen’s responsiveness point to our own calling?
- What does the depiction of Stephen having a “likeness” to Christ mean for you?
- What does “martyrdom” mean to you in light of this Scripture?
- Are there more “modern-day” martyrs? What makes them a “martyr” in your understanding?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Peter 2:2-10
This passage from 1 Peter continues the writer’s calling to responsible living in light of the good news of the Messiah. It is an excursus on how to be God’s holy people. Like much of 1 Peter, it posts contrasts between the old and the new. It recalls the Christian’s baptism and what that means, a reminder that now we are called to live different lives than the one that we left behind. Unlike Paul’s reference, here the “milk” of the newborn [Christian] is not intended to be inferior to solid food that one receives in maturity. Here, milk implies gift and grace received as one begins this new life in Christ.
The image of Christ as the stone is often used—here, a great foundation on which one can build this new life. (The “rejection” of the stone is, of course, those who have refused to listen to the message that Christ brought, the message of this limitless, unfathomable God.) Through Christ, believers are called to be a new people—God’s people, God’s household, God’s new priesthood chosen by God. (I don’t think this should be intended to imply some sort of elitist order, but rather the recognition of a calling that one receives at one’s baptism and to which one responds in faith.) This, then, is how the “honor” and mercy are bestowed—through Christ.
Now this probably is meant by the writer to be as exclusive as it sounds: Christians as “God’s people” and “the chosen priesthood”. But keep in mind the context. These people were “nobody’s” who were being told that they were “God’s people” and “the chosen priesthood”. They were suffering and yet being told that they were “holy”.
The Christian identity at this point was the one that paid attention to what Jesus had said about God. And this identity IS our identity to which we relate. I personally don’t think in the broader context it has to be the ONLY identity associated with God—just the one to which we respond. But, in this context, the believers WERE the Christians. So, that’s my take…
But we can call ourselves distinctive and not consider ourselves exclusive. What is it that makes us distinctive? Could someone tell the difference between our church and our culture? In what ways are they different? In what ways are they both called to affect and feed each other? In what ways are we leading the charge toward justice and righteousness and in what ways are we lagging behind even the prevailing culture?
- How does this passage speak to you?
- What, for you, does this “Christian” identity mean in our world context today?
- How would that change were we not the “majority” religion in our society?
- What does it mean to call yourself “Christian” today?
GOSPEL: John 14: 1-14
This text is sort of the center point of what is usually called Jesus’ “farewell discourse” in The Gospel According to John. Essentially, Jesus is saying, “don’t worry…I will not leave you orphaned and alone.” In the first verse, “troubled” probably means more general distress, disheartenment, or just out and out fear over what may happen. It is not just sadness.
The words “in my Father’s house” are not intended to imply heaven or some domain of the afterlife. It is, rather, the mutual indwelling of God and Jesus into which we are invited now. Throughout this gospel, location is often a symbol not for specific residence but for relationship. (And in this relationship are “many rooms”.)
Jesus’ “I am the Way” statement is in line with lots of different cultures and religious traditions. The background of it here is found in Judaism. Within Jewish wisdom tradition, “The Way” (derek) denotes the lifestyles of the wise (those who lived in accordance with the teachings of the sages). It suggests a pathway that is worn by constant use. The implication is that “The Way” involves patterns of behavior, ways of living and being, rather than isolated acts. In the Psalms, “The Way” is used to describe the living within the will and desire of God. So, here, it means ones faithful unity with God. (Marcus Borg described as describing Jesus not as the “route to God” but as the embodiment, the incarnation, of the very pathway to God.)
Sometimes it is helpful to consider our own understandings in light of other traditions. Consider these writings from other traditions:
- From first-century Palestinian wisdom literature: “Better is Torah for the one who attends to it than the fruits of the tree of life: Torah which the Word of the Lord has prepared in order that it may be kept, so that man may live and walk by the paths of the way of the life of the world to come.”
- From the Bhagava-Gita of Hinduism, Lord Krishna proclaims, “Whatever path men travel is My path; no matter where they walk it leads to me.”
- From Japanese wisdom: Although the paths to the summit may differ, from the top one sees the same moon.
Jesus is “The Way” because he has shown us access to God’s promise of life. (This does not mean, for me, that it has to mean that Jesus is the only access point. I am clear that there are God-loving, God-worshipping people all over the globe. But, for me, as a Christian, this is the one that works. Jesus is the one that makes the Presence of God real for me. Jesus is the one that, for me, defines The Way.)
Rudolf Schnackenburg identified John 14:6-7 as “the high point of Johannine theology.” These verses announce in clear language the theological conviction that drives the Fourth Evangelist’s work, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” These words express the Fourth Evangelist’s unshakable belief that the coming of Jesus, the Word made flesh, decisively altered the relationship between God and humanity. These words affirm that Jesus is the tangible presence of God in the world and that God the Father can be known only through that incarnate presence that is depicted and made known in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Humanity’s encounter with Jesus the Son makes possible a new experience of God as the Father. This IS The Way.
Alyce McKenzie contends that “Jesus is saying to his disciples then and now, “Come on, now. You know this. I’ve taught you this. We’ve been through this before, you and I. Hold onto this promise. It won’t let you down now: ‘I am the Way.’ In me you see God. In me you meet and will meet God. My teachings will guide your feet. My presence will sustain your spirit. In all the twists and turns your future path may take, ‘I am the Way.‘”” (Alyce McKenzie, “I Am the Way”, May 15, 2011, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/I-Am-the-Way-Alyce-McKenzie-05-16-2011.html, accessed 18 May, 2011.)
The point is that it’s not about us. It’s not really about mansions or “stuff” or what we think has been promised us or those things to which we think we’re entitled. It’s about God. It’s about God’s house. It’s about finding our way to where we belong and to who we’re called to be, for “once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people.”
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does “the Way” mean for you?
- What does “the Way” mean in our broader pluralistic world context?
- What does the world’s growing pluralism mean for your own faith and for your own Christian identity?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
It is more difficult, and it calls for higher energies of soul, to live a martyr than to die one. (Horace Mann, 1796-1859)
We are summoned, we feel, because something in the universe says, “You have hero material in you!” A summons, we believe, asks us to go on a quest. It places us in a mystic context. (David Spangler, The Call)
The analogy of the building of an interior temple, a temple of the heart, as a house for the Divine is a useful description of the work involved in creating the inner life, a living spiritual life. (Regina Sara Ryan, Praying Dangerously)
Come, My Way, My Truth, my Life: such a way as gives us breath, such a truth as ends all strife, such a life as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength: such a light as shows a feast, such a feast as mends in length, such a strength as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart: such a joy as none can move, such a love as none can part, such a heart as joys in love.
(Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life”, UMH # 164 (Words by George Herbert, 1633)