My goodness! As I reflected on this morning’s readings I thought, “Where to start?” There is so much which speaks to our present situation, and our need to find our way through some unprecedented experiences, that it is difficult to unpack it all. But here goes, though a lot of the time I will be simply hinting at things for us to reflect on further.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles relates the death of Stephen, whose feast day is December 26th because he was the first Christian martyr. He was a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” who with 6 others had been appointed to ensure that the widows of Greek background in the early church were not overlooked in the daily distribution of food. An early sign of a welfare system in the fledgling church. But it was not for this that he was martyred, but rather for his speech before the high priest and Sanhedrin when he was brought before them accused of blasphemy and saying that Jesus would destroy the temple and replace all the laws of Moses. Stephen’s speech in response is the longest in this book, as he went over the whole of the nation’s salvation history, trying to convince the assembled company of where they had gone wrong. And as he reached the conclusion he had a vision of heaven and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. That proved too much for those who were gathered there, who stoned him to death. As that happened, Stephen’s words echo those of his Lord as he died on the cross, who in turn had quoted from the end of the psalm we have said this morning. But the words following the end of this reading turn our eyes to a mystery, and to the future.
We are told that that not only was this the beginning of a severe persecution that scattered most Christian believers away from Jerusalem, but the reading also told us a young man named Saul who was there; in fact those who carried out the stoning laid their coats at his feet for safe keeping, presumably to keep them clean too. And this man Saul, who witnessed the first martyrdom and, we are told, approved of it, became the man we know of as Saint Paul. Despite all that we, in our human understanding, might expect to happen, God worked a miracle in his life, changing his vehement persecution of the church into his years of faithful leadership of it, especially in spreading the good news throughout the then-known world, and which led to his own eventual martyrdom.
Peter too was a man who, after an unpromising start, and also having his named changed by the Lord, became a stalwart leader of the early church. His letter was written somewhat later, but still reveals the sort of struggles the early church went through, and the development of understanding about the nature of Christian discipleship. The people he was writing to were going through hard times, having left their previous way of life behind after their conversion. To begin with, the early church had expected Jesus to return within a short time, and when this second advent was clearly delayed, there had to be a re-think about how to live in this world until he should come again. So Peter offers a vision for these Christians of who they are, their value and their status that will sustain them through the difficulties to come.
come to reflect on the Gospel, I do wonder how we would feel if we had been in
Thomas’ shoes, when he asked a perfectly sensible question of Jesus, and seemed
to receive an enigmatic answer.
“We don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know how to get there?” And Jesus replied, “I AM the way….” Yes, it was another of his “I AM” statements, using the name God had used of himself when
Moses asked him, “Who shall I say has sent me?” But does that clear connection of himself to God help us to find our way through life? Don’t we all crave some more specific details of the route?
Jesus went on to say, “I am the truth and the life.” In other words, we’re not talking about a set of directions; knowledge of the truth is more like a personal relationship, with a level of trust which builds up over time, that whatever we need to do, whatever direction we need, will be given to us as we journey through life. In fact, the early church came to be known as, “Followers of the Way,” so it must have been a term which meant a great deal to them and was in constant use.
So Jesus himself, and our relationship with him, is key. He shows us the Father, in other words revealing what God is really like. Peter also refers to him as the cornerstone, the foundation stone for the new temple into which we are all built as living stones. This is an inspiring and encouraging thought for us to cling onto in these times when we are unable to meet in our own much-loved physical building. We may be scattered somewhat, though not as badly as those early persecuted Christians were, but each and every one of us is a significant part of God’s own church. Living stones, that grow and develop as we make our way through the worrying, disturbing and turbulent world as it is at the moment. As a pilgrim people, we do have the example of those who have gone before us, making their way through times which seemed as if the darkness would never end; not just the early persecuted Christians, but those closer to our own times who valiantly struggled their way through the Second World War to VE Day which we have just celebrated. In all of those circumstances, God was present, though often not recognised until after the event. May we be aware of him even now, as we accept that he doesn’t give detailed instructions about how to make our way through life, but just calls on us to trust him, and he will be with us.