Witness and Being

As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

— (Rev) Andrew Jensen

Witness and Being

Scripture Readings:

Acts 7:55-60

1 Peter 2:1-10

The Stoning of Stephen is a dramatic story from the early days of Christianity. This young deacon, an assistant to the apostles whose job was to make sure that the widows were fed, proclaimed his faith and ended up being stoned to death.

Commentators regularly note that those who cast the stones laid their coats at the feet of Saul – who would become Paul the Apostle eventually – evidence of how hostile he was at first to the followers of Jesus.

Some have even noted the unusual aspect of Stephen’s vision; that Jesus was standing at the right hand of God, not sitting, which would be normal and proper. The suggestion is that standing is a sign of welcome, a sign of honour: Jesus is ready to receive Stephen into God’s presence. No wonder the hearers were further enraged, they had already decided he was blasphemous – this added a level of extra blasphemy.

And we usually recall that the stoning of a blasphemer is recorded in the laws of Moses as the appropriate punishment for such a crime against God.

But there are details we forget too. The proper process under Jewish law would have been a trial. The elders or judges at the gate of Jerusalem would rule, and once the sentence was passed the stoning would have been ordered, with every man in the community required to cast at least one stone so that the execution was shared by the community, which makes you wonder why Saul merely watched the coats.

Saul would have known that this wasn’t normal process. Jerusalem was under Roman law, not Jewish; elders and judges were not permitted to hold trials and stonings were banned. This was illegal from start to finish. It was the equivalent of a lynching; it was mob violence and it gave us our first martyr.

Another thing we regularly forget is that the word “martyr” simply means “witness” in Greek. The extra meaning we have given it is to say that someone has witnessed by giving their life.

This became an obsession with some in the early church. People thought it was a direct way to be with God. New converts who hadn’t had a chance to be baptized were said, if they died for the faith, to be literally baptized in blood: the shedding of their own blood.

It became such a problem that leaders had to issue warnings on multiple occasions that Christianity wasn’t about suicide. If you went looking to be killed by the Romans it was self-serving; it wasn’t really martyrdom.

Two thousand years later this is much less of a problem. We don’t have very many people looking to become martyrs. I’m grateful that I’ve never had to talk anyone out of doing something ridiculous and dangerous as a sign of their faith.

But at the same time, I can understand the attraction of the grand gesture; the great, dramatic event that proves your faithfulness and gets you into a secure place in eternity without any doubts or questions. Yes, I can see the attraction.

As attractive as it might be, the grand gesture is not what our faith is about. Our calling to is not to die for God, but to live for God.

Our lesson from 1 Peter puts it well: he describes us as “living stones”; a part of an eternal spiritual structure being built by God with Jesus as the cornerstone, the foundation.

Living for God isn’t as dramatic, is it? It involves small acts of kindness and love and sometimes big ones, too. It is made up of daily interactions that build relationships: practical examples of love and care in the ways we live our lives.

In this pandemic, it’s hard to know how some of those work; we’re sorting out new ways of connecting as we keep our distance. So it’s good that we put our minds to this challenge: how to care every day for others.

It might involve a lot of phoning, Skyping and Zooming, maybe picking up groceries for someone who can’t get out, or simply caring by being careful, keeping safe distances and simply smiling during these times when people feel extra stressed.

Today is Mother’s Day. A lot of people traditionally associate these values of caring and sharing with mothers.

We always run risks when we make broad assumptions about genders. The good side of this is that it can remind us that God is our Mother, and not just our Father. That’s still an image that we are slow to embrace, even after decades of talking about the nature of God being both mother and father.

A bad side is that traditional assumptions can let guys off the hook! If we put the caring roles primarily on women we are being unjust to everyone. This call to be living stones is a call to everyone. It is the call to live out God’s love, to lift up the weak and heal the broken, to bring the last to the front and to love those faces only a mother could love. (There are so many gender-based assumptions tied up in our language!)

People complain about toxic masculinity these days but a better way to frame it might be to object to people who won’t care; who won’t make the effort to be kind; who insist on putting themselves ahead of everyone else; who choose control and even violence over love and support.

There is a macho image that society buys back into fairly regularly which pushes men away from being caring and nurturing. This is foolish and destructive, because men can love as much as mothers. Even more: if we listen to the teachings of Jesus we should realize that it is an important part of our calling.

We would do well to remember this as we struggle with the challenges of COVID-19. Some people are starting to revert to wartime language now:

the language of struggle, of sacrifice, of heroes. And while so far it seems to be applied pretty equally across genders, we have to be sure we don’t fall into old patterns and talk about women caring and men being brave without recognizing that all people can do both.

And in the midst of the challenges we face and the sacrifices people are making, we need to remember that while some will be dramatic – like what happened with the stoning of Stephen – most sacrifices will happen quietly, every day: acts of caring and kindness, people reaching out in love to family, to friends, to strangers. All of these simple sacrifices matter, all of them help, and make a difference.

We are called to live, to connect, to become a strong community built on a secure foundation. We are called to become God’s people, put together from a disconnected diaspora into a loving family of faith.

Every one of us is touched by this call. Our job is to become witnesses, not in the sense of martyrdom, but in the sense of living out God’s love, showing it in the way we touch each other’s lives.

We are called to witness with our lives so when people look at us, they can see God at work: sharing, loving, caring; healing, creating; bringing justice, peace and hope even in the most difficult of times.

Thanks be to God that we can share in this important work.


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