Acts 7:55-60, the martyrdom of Stephen, has little details rich in homiletical possibility. Saul/Paul is present – so is it a thing that Christians who misunderstand, who approve and participate in judgment, might actually see the light? And instead of me thinking of somebody else when I read that sentence, might I ask this about myself?
Fascinating: Stephen saw the Son of Man, but they covered their ears. Vision vs. hearing. I recall from seminary days the brilliant Prof. David Steinmetz, explaining Luther’s theological epistemology, saying “The eyes are hard of hearing,” that the ears are the organ of faith, how what we see can be misleading. And yet some have seen the Lord. His foes shut their ears, not wanting to hear what had been seen by others.
Then we have the quirky textual issue: Stephen, with his dying breath, pleads for forgiveness for his attackers. Was he mimicking Jesus? Or did early copyists of Luke 23 not want Stephen to appear to be more gracious than Jesus, so they placed these words on Jesus’ lips? It’s missing in several early manuscripts of Luke. Alternatively, did some copyist remove the words from Jesus’ lips, as they so loathed the Jews they didn’t want Jesus offering them mercy? Do textual debates ever belong in a sermon? I’d say occasionally. We just have to discern if a worthy theological point can be made. Here it’s possible: could it be that Stephen so profoundly understood all Jesus was about that he sought forgiveness for his killers – without Jesus having verbally done the same? What about the theory of anti-Semitism? Are there those for whom we’d delete Jesus’ mercy?
1 Peter 2:2-10 slices off the first half of a sentence beginning in verse 1! The spiritual milk business isn’t some sweet spiritual thought, but about the setting aside of evil, deceit, jealousy and slander! Is the point of v. 2 then that infants don’t do these things, that they are learned in a corrupt, fallen world? It’s a riff on Psalm 34:8 (“O taste and see that the Lord is good”). The early Church Fathers allegorized, seeing the milk as coming from the two breasts of the two Testaments. I wonder if, as preachers, we can expand upon what 1 Peter would have known. In my Birth: the Mystery of Being Born book that just came out (just in time for Mother's Day...), I report on the way breastfeeding is surprisingly interactive. The infant’s saliva secretes something into the mother which tells the milk production specific things the infant needs. We spiritual milk-drinkers aren’t merely passive receptacles!
Ernest Best reminds us that milk is what you need, spiritually. There is no greater milk or food than Christ himself! So there is no spiritual cockiness, as some might imagine they have advanced beyond simple milk to more complex foods. We are always children needing simple milk; didn’t Jesus say we must become like children?
Might the author of 1 Peter have imagined a literal birth when he wrote in v. 9 “You were called out of darkness into marvelous light, you once were no people, now you are God’s people, now you have received mercy”? Maybe not. But he was “inspired,” and so can surely can. Infants emerge from the womb, the Hebrew word for which also means “mercy,” out of near-total darkness into near-blinding light – and voila! She’s a person who wasn’t before. Of course, the children of Hosea and Gomer whisper in the background, with their bizarre but prophetically suggestive names, Lo-Ruhama (same “womb” word!) and Lo-Ammi. The people’s infidelity, personified in Gomer’s waywardness (Hosea 1), results in a loss of mercy and being the people! – but all that is reversed in the dawning of Christ’s new way.
My Birth book has a whole chapter on the meaning of being “Born Again” in light of actual, physical birth. To that, I’d add Joel Green’s pithy comment: “Conversion entails autobiographical reconstruction.” From whom and where have I come? Who is my family? St. Francis shed his clothing and lost his father’s affection when he became a friar, literally a “brother” to others in the family of God; at his trial, famously depicted by Giotto, Francis gave it all back to his father and said “No longer if Pietro Bernardone my father, but from now on my father is ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’”
A few other preachable details: in early Church baptisms, when you emerged from the pool you were given a drink of milk and honey, emblematic of Israel and the Promised Land. Wish we still did that one. Verse 4 has a pun worth playing on: “kindness” is chrestos in Greek, barely a squiggle away from Christ. To be Christlike is quite literally to be chrestos, kind. And you have to love the Bible’s repeated usage of the passive imperative – illogical grammatically. It’s imperative! – that something happens to you. Stones, with no muscles, legs or agility, must be built into a temple. This is an improvement on Paul’s idea that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), which is cool but could feel lonely. All bodies together are stones in the temple of God! And finally the “offense” the Bible regularly perceives in Christ as cornerstone, a stumbling block. I wish more offense were taken at Christ. Today we get lots of yawns and averted gazes.
John 14:1-14 requires considerable care. Lots of people request some portion of this at funerals due to the “many mansions.” At Christmas, we visited the Biltmore House, which boasts of being the largest privately owned home in America. 58 Christmas trees, massive, elegantly decorated rooms, a warren of servant quarters below. Is that what heaven is like? Seems crass. The Greek, monē, was a night-stop or resting place. The Latin rendered it “mansion,” which back then still meant merely a resting place, which is what “mansion” meant even in Old English. The “many” implies not “lots of them” but rather There’s room for all.
Maybe instead of thinking I get a fabulous house in heaven, we notice the relationship of monē to the verb menein, which means simply “to remain, stay, abide.” It’s not the place, the nature of the abode, but the abiding, the being with Jesus, not at all Tammy Faye Bakker’s famous “shopping mall in the sky where I have a credit card with no limit.”
I cringe a little when v. 6 gets included in a funeral, and I cringe more over the way it is interpreted as if Jesus is giving a theological lecture on the relationship of Christianity to World Religions. It’s a somber meal, in shadows, the disciples trembling with anxiety. Jesus reassures them that there is a way. We do not normally use “way” in an exclusive sense anyhow, do we? I speak of “the way to my house” as simply a direction, it’s findable, it’s not barricaded with iron gates. The truth isn’t about intellectual assent or dogmatic assertion on my end; it’s all from God, and about God, it’s the truth about God’s heart.I put out this brief video (7 minutes) called “Jesus is THE way?” a few years back with my best take on what John 14:6 is about. I’ve done this with lots of lay people too. It’s all about your tone if you dream of explaining it in a sermon or elsewhere to your people – and yet important for those who’d swiftly judge others, and for those terrified by the deaths of loved ones who weren’t “believers.”
Philip’s plea, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied” is so preachable. Jesus showed us quite clearly the heart, mind and way of God his Father. And it’s this alone this satisfies, this alone that is enough. How much is enough? We think it’s additive, or novel: If I get more, or the newest, I’ll have enough! But it’s a fiction. When, after all, am I enough? The Jesus who shows us the Father says You are enough already. That includes you, the preacher, no matter what you tell them this Sunday.
Realizing this, living in sync with this, then resolves the other weirdness in this passage, which is Jesus promising “Anything you ask in my name, I will do it.” People ask Does prayer work? – the wrong question, as if I measured my marriage by saying Yeah, Lisa does a high percentage of stuff I ask her to do for me. It’s a relationship, togetherness, gratitude, sharing, solidarity with God, way better than asking favors. The kicker is “in my name.” It’s not a formula, as if God’s waiting for you to say “in Jesus’ name” and then the wish is granted. “In my name” means being in sync with Jesus and his dreams, loves, projects, visions.
So Christians need not pray, especially in public, non-worship spaces, “in Jesus’ name” in order for the prayer to be valid. Jesus’ way, after all, brought all paths to God to fulfillment - didn't he? His way was new in that he was one of us, one with us - a brother to all people in all places and in all times.