Acts 7:55-7:60; Psalm 31: 1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14: 1-14
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Happy Mother’s Day, Carissa. Happy Mother’s Day, everyone. However you feel about Mother’s Day – for some it is a day of joy, for some it is a day of sadness, some people who decide to come to church on this day come expecting a sermon about good ol’ mom, filled with sentimental platitudes and cute stories about motherhood and children. I have given those sermons in the past, but I am about to commit the grave sin of not preaching about mothers on Mothers Day. No funny stories, no emotional tug to get you to call mom today. Strike one. If this is what you were expecting and you are disappointed you are free to get up and leave, and my feelings will not be hurt.
I should say that’s not all, though. It gets worse, actually. Today, on a day celebrating the many gifts women offer, motherhood being one of them, I am not even going to talk about women, that’s right, my sermon today is based on our reading from Acts, which is a story about a bunch of dudes. Strike two. And the third strike against this sermon is that I am going to retell the story we just heard from Acts, a huge preaching violation for me that I am loathe to commit but am doing so to provide context to this story. Wow, what a doozy of a sermon! Who wants to hear this?
Here we go. It all starts with the Apostle Paul – the first theologian, the author of some of the greatest early Christian writing contained in the Second, or New Testament. Paul wrote profound statements of God’s capacity to love, the most famous in 1 Corinthians 13: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” At his best moments, Paul stood for radical inclusion in the early church as expressed in Romans 1:16 “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Paul paved the way for non Jews, or gentiles, like you and me, to be incorporated into the church. Without Paul there is no theology, there is no depth of understanding the power of what God did on our behalf in Christ. Paul is the foundation of Christian thought (some of his letters in the Second Testament pre – date the four Gospels). Some even go so far as to say without Paul, Christianity would not have survived. It did. But there’s a problem.
And the problem is that this great ambassador for the Christian faith was also a murderer. The reading from Acts this morning tells the story of Stephen, recognized as the first Christian martyr, or witness, to die because of his faith, and guess who allowed it? Good old, “the greatest of these is love” Paul. See, Stephen was one of seven people selected by the disciples to help them in figuring out how to carry out all the work that they were doing. What this means is that while Jesus’ original followers were doing things like praying, studying, teaching, there were a number of needs in the community that were going unmet, for example people were going hungry, people needed clothing, shelter, you get the idea. Stephen, and others, were chosen for this purpose by the disciples.
In the midst of doing his work, Stephen raised the ire of some because of his preaching. He was arrested for preaching publicly about the life of Jesus and of Christ’s claim to be the Messiah, God’s anointed. Stephen was brought before the council of priests in Jerusalem, likely the same council that ended up sentencing Jesus. Before the high priest of the council, Stephen presents his case in a lengthy speech, recalled in chapter 7 of Acts.
Rather than having their minds changed about Stephen in light of his defense to them, the council instead responds out of anger, threatening him, and eventually dragging him out of the city of Jerusalem, where like Jesus, he was condemned to die a humiliating death. Not upon a cross, but to be stoned. The reason Stephen was brought outside the city for his murder by stoning is because of a requirement in Leviticus 24:14 which reads: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him.” Uplifting stuff, right?
Watching over all this, is a man introduced in the Bible for the first time by the name of Saul. The part of Stephen’s murder we don’t hear about is in the very next verse which follows, Acts 8:1 which reads “[a]nd Saul approved of their killing him.” Saul, later named Paul, arguably the world’s greatest Christian theologian and apologist for the faith, allowed people to murder an innocent man. How’s that for a feel-good Mother’s Day sermon!
You know – it actually is, I think, and here is why.
If you are a mother, has your child ever done something you were unable to forgive? Something so bad, so sinister, so evil – you could not, and will not forgive? Or, for the rest of you non-mothers out there, have you personally ever done something that you feel is unforgivable, something so mean, so selfish, so hurtful?
Saul did. He in effect murdered one of the first Deacons of the church.
And God forgave him. God sought him out, blinded him on the road to Damascus, and gave him a new name, Paul. If God can forgive, perhaps we should too. So forget all that stuff I said earlier about this not being a Mother’s Day sermon. It really is.
What parent doesn’t struggle with their child, as God struggled with Saul? And yet in spite of the awful things Saul did, God still found a redeeming quality in him. Maybe we can learn to look at our parents, our children, our neighbors the same way.
None of us – parent or child – is perfect. Like Saul we struggle and we all make horrible mistakes. But not one of those mistakes, no matter how errant, is outside the realm God’s forgiveness. Everything is forgiven, and if God can find a way to forgive Saul, then perhaps God has already forgiven your mother or your father, or even, perhaps, you. Happy Mother’s Day. AMEN.