Updated: Jan 31
This is the fifth Sunday in a counting of seven. We are 35 days towards the Christian Pentecost. We have two more weeks to prepare to become Apostles.
Today, we see the difference between true faith – total belief in God – and the “I want to believe” kind of watered down faith.
In the counting of the omer, which began the first day the children of Israel were set free by the Pharaoh, and ended when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets stating the Law of God, 50 days passed.
They wanted to have faith that Moses was talking to God; and the Israelites wanted to believe Moses knew where they were going. But, we all know how that went.
Complain, complain, and complain, then a miracle. Followed by more of the same – complain until another miracle.
When we complain to God, at least we believe in God; but we complain because our hearts are troubled. We are afraid things are not going to get better. We fear the worst. We doubt.
In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus tell his slightly drunk disciples it is time for him to go to his Father’s house. They misunderstand where his Father lives. They want Jesus to go to Google Maps and print out some directions for them, so they can find his house after Jesus leaves them.
Jesus said, “I am the way.”
He said, “I will come back to get you and take you to my Father’s house.”
What do you think that means … assuming no one here today is slightly drunk from wine, and you are clear-headed disciples of Jesus?
Before you start to answer that question, let me give you a hint.
We are sitting in a church building that is named after the star character in the reading from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.
The book tells of “Acts,” not “Inactions.”
Stephen was not one of the slightly drunk disciples that were with Jesus at the Last Supper, when Jesus told them he was going to his Father’s house to prepare a place for them. He was a deacon who was filled with the Holy Spirit by one of the Apostles. He is considered the first martyr of the Apostles, yet he probably never got to know Jesus, the man, personally, as a disciple.
Stephen, once filled with the Holy Spirit … once he experienced his own personal Pentecost, or Fiftieth Day … learned the truth. The truth his belief in God and his faith in Jesus as the Christ made him stand up for that truth.
Stephen acted because the Holy Spirit was within him.
Stephen preached like Jesus at the Temple. The Jews, the same ones who had plotted to kill Jesus; they did the same to Stephen, only quicker.
Stephen was killed because of his faith in God and his belief in Jesus as the Christ.
Just as Jesus told the disciples, in particular Phillip and Thomas, “I will come back and get you to take you to my Father’s house,” he fulfilled that promise with Stephen.
Stephen looked up and saw God, the Father, with Jesus at His right hand. They made their presence known.
It so delighted Stephen, he exclaimed to his killers, “Look!”
Instead of looking, “They covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against” Stephen.
“Look! I see the Father’s house, and there is Jesus returning to take me there!”
The Jews didn’t care. “Na na na na na … I’m not listening.”
We read in Acts how the Jews tossed their coats on the ground, at the feet of Saul (who would become Paul), as they stoned Stephen to death.
Stephen, just like Jesus had done on the cross, asked God to forgive his persecutors. Just as Jesus commended his spirit unto God, quoting from the reading today in Psalm 31, Stephen did the same. Stephen commended his spirit unto Jesus. Both of their spirits left their human bodies for the Father’s house … Heaven.
You see, the answer to the question, “What does it mean when Jesus said, “I will return to take you back to the Father’s house” is more than simply seeing Jesus’ spirit at the right hand of God as death approaches …
as much as it means Jesus came back as Stephen.
The mind of Christ took over for that man of trembling faith and little belief, and transformed Stephen into Jesus – a duplicated model.
A while back, we read of the transformation of Cleopas and his wife Mary, who walked with Jesus on the road home to Emmaus.
They did not recognize Jesus in body, and they were relatives of Jesus and his mother Mary. They knew Jesus more than any others …from a baby until a grown thirty-three year old man.
But they did not recognize Jesus when he walked that road with them, when Jesus explained how all the scriptures told of the Messiah having been prophesied … to be exactly as Jesus’ life unfolded.
They were amazed.
When we read John recalling Jesus saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” Cleopas and Mary recognized Jesus when he broke the bread, and they recalled how warm and settled their hearts were.
They ACTED at that point. They went back to tell the others.
People could not recognize Stephen as Jesus.
In a way, it wasn’t Jesus. It was Stephen, the Jew who was born and lived, with relatives and friends, all who knew him as he grew up and lived as Stephen.
Then, suddenly, he became some crazy Jew who did not ACT like Stephen had prior. He ACTED like Jesus. Stephen was killed because the Jews in the Temple recognized Jesus had returned.
Jesus, as Stephen, forgave the Jews again.
Now, when whoever it was that walked with Cleopas and Mary on the road to Emmaus stopped being Jesus …
when Jesus suddenly disappeared … they were transformed. Their hearts were at peace. Their faith was elevated. Their belief in Jesus … not just as a prophet … but as their Messiah … was uplifted and uplifting.
They ACTED as changed people. Jesus disappeared from before them and became them.
Now, think of the man named Saul.
He was a young man, the son of a Pharisee, probably watching his daddy hurl killer rocks as someone judged a blasphemer.
We know from Paul’s letters that he was converted by a vision of Jesus, asking him, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” But, as a young man watching a man be stoned to death, that ACT must have had some effect on him, leaning him towards that conversion.
John wrote that Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Stephen was one kernel of wheat falling to the ground.
His death was a seed of thought in young Saul’s mind.
Stephen bore many seeds through his death and the conversion of Paul (a.k.a. Saul). There are countless Christians because of Paul, countless Apostles to whom he wrote letters of encouragement.
Jesus was the mind of them all, through the Holy Spirit.
Now Peter, in his letter to those early Christians, who were facing all sorts of persecution, perhaps not all as bad as Stephen faced but persecution still the same, he encouraged them to “long for pure, spiritual milk, so that you may grow into salvation.”
“So you may grow into salvation” means, “So Jesus will return to take you to the place prepared for you in Heaven,” which comes by letting Jesus be you.
We are each a planned building, a church to God.
They have said, “The body is the temple to the soul,” and it is … as long as that building has “a cornerstone chosen and precious” … Jesus.
Jesus said, “Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Peter wrote, “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
You must let Jesus be you.
Once you were nothing (just as the children of Israel once were not a people).
But, with Jesus as you, you are God’s choice (just as the children of Israel were chosen by God).
Once you had not received mercy (because you rejected the cornerstone and were more important than anyone else).
Now you can receive the Spirit along with the mercy of salvation (as did the disciples when they became Apostles in Christ).
Jesus said, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”
“Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man at the right hand of God!”
Be that right hand of Christ.