Planning - Fifth Sunday of Easter
Stephen sees Jesus, but the crowds see stones. Saul watches on, holding the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen.
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 (UMH 764).
For singing 764, use Response 1 with the cantor or congregation singing the psalm to Tone 4 in A minor, or with Response 2 sing the psalm to Tone 3 in E-flat major.
1 Peter 2:2-10.
A play on Peter's name -- the baptized are living stones with Christ our cornerstone, being made into a holy and royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people (though we had been no people at all).
Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. If we see him, we have seen the Father. If we follow in his way, we do his works and so participate in the works of the Father.
For Leccionario Comn Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes (pdf), click here.
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Liturgical calendar: Last week was Good Shepherd Sunday. This week, we encounter the Risen Lord who converts stones for killing into living stones, and who is Way, Truth and Life.
The Ascension of the Lord officially Thursday, June 2, ten days before Pentecost, and forty days after Easter. Since Ascension Day always falls on a weekday (always on Thursday), many of our congregations transfer the readings and the celebration of this day to the following Sunday (June 5, Seventh Sunday of Easter). Worship Planning, Preaching and Music Helps on this site are provided for both Ascension and Easter 7 on that Sunday.
Pentecost, the final Sunday of Easter, is June 12. While we have been reading from Peter's Pentecost sermon during Eastertide, this is the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit in power. It is also a day for baptism, confirmation, and commissioning persons for their ministries.
Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost, is June 19. While our singing, praying and liturgical texts consistently recognize and praise God as Three in One, this is the day for celebrating and exploring this mystery most fully.
Today is Heritage Sunday, the date closest to "Aldersgate Day" (May 24, 1738) when John Wesley's heart was, as he recounts it, "strangely warmed" while attending a meeting of a Moravian Society (not congregational worship, but a separate meeting designed for Bible Study, teaching, exhortation and accountability). The General Commission on Archives and History provides the resources to observe the day. The focus of this commemoration in 2011 is "Engaging in Ministry with the Poor: Our Heritage."
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The theme uniting the texts this week might be stated as "All Eyes on Jesus."
In Acts 7, we overhear the last moments of Stephen's life and become witnesses to his execution by stoning. From a narrative perspective, we are standing there, with Saul, watching and listening. Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. The crowd gathered before the Council that had hauled him were filled with rage, saw stones, and determined to use them to kill the man who had just called them "uncircumcised in heart and in ears" (Acts 7:51). Stephen, seeing Jesus and filled with the Holy Spirit, prays for God's forgiveness for the people, even as they stoned him. The crowd, seeing the pile of stones and nothing moving beneath it, approved of their handiwork and Saul with them (Acts 8:1).
This is a story of extreme violence, and all who hear it today become bystanders to that violence. We should not treat this or any act of violence the Bible records casually. This is no mere recounting of an unfortunate historical event. It is something that happened to one of us, one of our brothers in Christ, indeed, the first recorded martyr.
We're in Easter, celebrating and witnessing to the resurrection of Christ, as indeed Stephen himself does in his proclamation to the people. And here we witness an execution for that witness.
What do we make of this?
Luke tells this story in a way that Christians will strongly identify the witness and death of Stephen with the witness and death of Jesus. Luke recounts three statements by Stephen that echo Jesus' own words. "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 2:56) mirrors Jesus at his trial, ""From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God" (Luke 22:69). Stephen utters two cries during his stoning: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" and "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:59-60). During his crucifixion, Jesus says "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" and "Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit" (Luke 22:34, 46). The disciple dies like his master.
Luke's linguistic clues tying these two deaths together may be clear to some in your worshiping community, but perhaps far less clear to persons who are not intimate with the Bible or even the Christian story. Luke's verbal cues might unconsciously provoke a more sympathetic response from lifelong Christians, but be entirely lost on those without much experience of the church or these texts. Depending where you are, it is quite possible that some hearers of this story may hear this text in a way that believes Stephen may have brought this fate on himself through arrogance or failing to read the hostility of his audience. And be aware that in some "therapeutically correct" circles (perhaps even your worshiping community!), there is an underlying conviction that persons should avoid escalating conflicts rather than face the possibility of harm to themselves for doing so. In the calculus of self-care versus truth, self-care must triumph.
Luke's narrative point, of course, rejects that calculus. The truth had to be told. Stephen acted just as Jesus in this case, and so dies much as he did in a public execution.
What do you make of that where you are? Is there truth about the resurrection of Jesus worth dying for, worth suffering for, worth being killed for? What does the one person in this story who keeps his eyes on Jesus do? He speaks hard truth. He commends himself to God. He dies with forgiveness in his heart and in his prayers.
Who has been a living witness of such clear commitment to Christ, despite the potential risks and costs, in your midst? What stories can you tell -- or invite folks you know to tell -- that enable folks where you are to hear and understand the joy and deep blessedness of speaking the truth in love despite the threats or actualities of discomfort, persecution or death? What images, soundscapes and music are suggested by the stories you or these people you invite may share around this text this day?
The baptismal sermon in I Peter continues, and the direction of the metaphors shifts. Last week the focus was primarily on personal and interpersonal relationships. This week, the newly baptized are reminded, and the rest of us overhear, who we all are and the core of our identity and vocation as a people: living stones being built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people.
Christ himself is the pre-eminent Living Stone, and the cornerstone (quoting from Psalm 116, which we are invited to pray this day). Though rejected by some, he is the head, the essential element that gives life and direction and stability to the whole structure. We are being built into that structure as no less alive than he, for in his resurrection and our baptism, we have been made alive with him.
We do not build the structure. This is critical to see. We are being built into it. The builder is the Spirit of God who is at work always and everywhere. The mission is God's. We join it; we participate in it; we are swept along and enlivened in and through it. But we do not make it. God does.
And indeed, God does. We are being built into this "house in which the Spirit of God dwells" and given particular ways to fulfill our calling. We are a holy and a royal priesthood. We stand as intercessors, all of us, holding the world before God for God's deliverance and remaking. We hold ourselves and one another before God, for God to make us holy. We carry out this priestly ministry, all of us, with authority, royal authority, the authority of the King himself, our chief high priest, Jesus Christ. Prayer and mission can never be divorced. Prayer is the unceasing heartbeat of our participation in God's mission.
We are a holy nation, God's own people. Such language these days immediately conjures for some of us an immediate revulsion. We know what nations claiming to be holy have done and continue to do. We know the bloodshed brought about by those who claim to be chosen. Hitler used this language describing the "Aryan race." Others in world history have and continue to use such terminology to prop up their own genocidal reigns as well.
That wasn't what Peter was preaching, of course. Nor is it what the early Christians who heard it were hearing. These were people with almost no power. These were people who, if they were to be baptized, from every early record we have of baptismal vows (first through third centuries), had taken a pledge never to kill anyone ever for any reason. These were people who, because of their faith, very often could not exercise political power. These were people who knew what it meant not to be a people. To be made a people in Jesus Christ was remarkable indeed.
And it meant their vision of nationhood, peoplehood, drew not on images of imperial majesty, but rather on the biblical images of the scattered tribal peoples of Israel acting as a nation that was a light to the nations, a sign of God's glory in their very weakness. It was the fact of their unlikely community, their in-depth communion with God in Jesus Christ and so with one another, that constituted their holy nationhood. It was a nationhood built on love of God and neighbor, sold out in service to both in the name of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
And it still is.
Where is the Living Stone in your worshiping community? Where are the living stones in your midst? How is God building those living stones into a dwelling place of the Spirit? Who is exercising the royal and holy priesthood among you, and how will you open this to help all in the Christian community where you are live this way? Where are those who are living out the fullest possible vision of being a holy nation, God's own people, in union with Christians who have lived this way in every generation? What images, stories, soundscapes emerge from the stories the living stones among you tell? What actions or smells evoke the promise of such possibilities in your congregation and community? Incorporate these into your worship space as you proclaim these words this day -- whether in reading, or preaching, or around the Font or the Lord's Table. Indeed, as I Peter is a baptismal sermon, consider reading it from the font, filled with water, Paschal candle shining beside.
If some of us are troubled by language in I Peter about being a holy nation and God's own people, others of us may be troubled by the exclusivism of the claims of this week's gospel from John. "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me" (John 14:6). Get over it. Jesus is Lord, or not. If he is, and as Christians baptized into him we claim he is, these words are no stumbling block. We do not need to explain them away. We do not need to apologize for them to anyone else. They are a firm foundation, a confession we make with joy that in seeing Jesus, we see God, and in following his way and doing his works, we know and live truth, the very truth of God.
Rob Bell's recent book, Love Wins, has brought a new focus to some of the debate on this text. So this year is perhaps an especially good time to focus on it again in a variety of ways in worship while some of Bell's and other ideas about it are more or less fresh in the minds of some Americans. If that includes folks where you are, by all means, focus on this text -- not to agree or disagree with Rob Bell, but rather to confess. witness and teach as this text itself calls us.
It is true, we have had examples of Christian arrogance and exclusivism justified by citing this text. It is also true that there are cases of mistreatment of people of other religions justified on the basis of these words at times. Where we have done this, we have only on thing to do. Repent. Then make amends and do better from now on.
Why? These words from our Lord do not justify such actions. Indeed, they condemn everyone who tries to use them that way. Jesus as Way, Truth and Life means just that. We point to him by following him. We point to him by participating in his works, which are the works of God. And in John's gospel, those works are works of deliverance, not condemnation, of suffering, not inflicting suffering, of rising and raising from the dead, not sending people to their graves. Water becomes wine. A Samaritan woman receives living water and shares it with all in her village. A man lame for 38 years is healed. A crowd of thousands is fed with the lunch of a small boy. A blind man is given sight for the first time. A man dead for four days is raised. Jesus himself is brutally executed and rises from the dead. This is the way, truth and life of Jesus, and these are his works.
They are ours too, if we keep all eyes on Jesus.
So where are the way, truth and life of Jesus, his word and his works, being revealed where you are now? How will you design the worship space this morning to help people place eyes and lives on this Jesus whom we are all invited to follow?
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- Acts reading: If the story of Stephen may be unfamiliar to some or many in your worshiping community, you may need to find ways to tell the larger story for which today's reading (Acts 7:55-60) is the conclusion. Martyrdom and sacrifice are realities most Americans can and regularly do avoid. However, we are not always able to avoid these realities. Few in U.S. culture experience anything like Stephen's death for his faith. But are there other forms of actual martyrdom -- bearing witness to the way of Jesus against the ways of the world in which they find themselves, and the suffering that this creates for them -- that people in your congregation are called upon to endure creatively and redemptively?
- 1 Peter reading: A hint here: Look at the congregation's response to those just baptized in "Service of the Baptismal Covenant I," number 11, page 37, The United Methodist Hymnal. Do you see the connection to 1 Peter 2:1-10? What does it mean to be part of God's "new creation" and among those who share in Christ's "royal priesthood"? How does the reading from 1 Peter open these questions? What marks the new creation and how big is it? What does a royal priesthood do? How does such a community maintain its identity and live out its faith?
- John 14:1-14: This text is so often read at funeral services that we forget that it is to be pondered and heard in other contexts. Perhaps this is a good day to see these verses in other contexts. How does this hearing this text apart from a funeral service help you and your community understand the reality of the Resurrection in daily life? How does it inform your understanding of Holy Communion and what is happening in receiving, abiding, and remaining in Christ? Be sure to work at expansive language in hymns, prayer, and preaching so that the text's heavy use of "Father" (which should not be avoided or edited away!) is helpful rather than a stumbling block for some in your worshiping community.
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If your congregation has fallen away from using creeds or confessions of faith in worship, or if it simply never adopted the practice for a particular service, the Easter Season is a good time to reclaim or start. Week after week, the Scriptures boldly declare the resurrection of Jesus. Why shouldn't the body of Christ respond with an equally bold declaration?
The key is to declare them boldly. No mere reading. No muttering. The creeds and confessions of faith are there for the whole worshiping community to proclaim aloud -- with confidence and joy!
The Nicene Creed, UMH 880 (John)
The World Methodist Social Affirmation, UMH 886 (I Peter)
Affirmation from I Timothy 889 (Acts)
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- UMH, page 6 (seasonal)
- BOW 381 (John)
- BOW 383 (Acts)
- BOW 456 (1 Peter)
- BOW 449 or 457 (Psalm)
- BOW 456 (1 Peter)
BOW 464 or 393
Concerns and Prayers
- UMH 535, A Refuge amid Distraction (Acts, Psalm)
- BOW 163-164, For an Untimely or Tragic Death (Acts, Psalm)
- BOW 399, Week 5 (Easter)
- BOW 512, For Guidance (Psalm)
- BOW 495, Litany for the Church and for the World
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: : Botswana and Zimbabwe.
- BOW 74-75 (Acts, John)
- BOW 66-67 (seasonal)
- BOW 563
- BOW 561
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