Often, when Alison and I go out to eat in a restaurant I notice the waiters – flustered-looking young people dealing with impatient customers, balancing impossible stacks of plates and bowls in their arms, getting blamed if the meal’s late or overcooked, working for a pittance – not a job I would fancy! A pretty hard way of making both ends meet while you’re at uni. But you wouldn’t expect it to be fatal.
Today, it is. In the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we read that the twelve apostles are getting distracted from the real work of preaching by the daily hassle of having to attend to emergency food distribution. And so it is that they hit on the bright idea of appointing Stephen as one of seven waiters, the Greek word the writer uses for waiting on tables is diakonos, or servant, and that’s the word that we use today as deacon – an order of ministry in the Church today that has a particular focus on service. Stephen is a waiter on tables, a distributor of emergency food relief and it’s this vocation and this way of witnessing to what God’s love is all about that leads to his death. Interestingly the seven are also called martureo – the literal meaning of which is not one who comes to a sticky end for the sake of the faith, but one who witnesses in his or her life to the transforming power of God’s love. If martureo do come to a sticky end, it must be because, like Stephen, their way of waiting on tables is subversive - though he is chosen not to preach but to serve, his witness of caring for the lost and the least in the community so provokes and challenges the powers that be that he is captured and killed. Presumably the long and rambling, not to mention inflammatory and not very accurate sermon that Acts puts into Stephen’s mouth as his last words wouldn’t have done much to defuse the situation either, but here’s the basic point: the first recorded Christian martyr isn’t a preacher, but an aid worker.
The lectionary skips all this, unfortunately, and picks up the story with Stephen preparing for his death. Luke is using this story to make a point, which is that discipleship is cruciform – discipleship is cross-shaped. If you want to follow Jesus, if in your own way of life you want to imitate Jesus’ own model of self-sacrificial love, there’s a cost. Just like Jesus, Stephen is attacked by an angry crowd and dragged out of the city. In his last words, Stephen commends his spirit to Jesus, just as Jesus commended his to the Father, and just as the psalmist commended his own suffering to God. Echoes build upon echoes in this text, reminding us that faithful suffering has always been part of the calling for God’s people. As Stephen prays for his enemies and forgives his attackers, "Lord, do not hold this against them," we hear the echo of Jesus’ own words, "Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34).
We get the point, no doubt, though it’s not a very comfortable one. Yet most obscurely, as one of my colleagues pointed out to me, the lectionary writers have managed to pair Stephen’s model of not-so-passive resistance with its almost exact opposite, in today’s reading from 1 Peter! Obey the authorities, even when they’re corrupt! Put up with economic oppression and slavery – being a slave in the ancient world wasn’t just an olde worlde equivalent of underpaid domestic worker, it actually meant having no rights at all to determine your own life – and so the writer of this passage is saying to accept mistreatment and abuse as a privilege because Jesus suffers and so God is going to approve of you when you suffer too.
Do you see how we’ve slid from self-sacrificial love, the accepting of suffering as perhaps an inevitable consequence of living as Jesus lived, compassionately and uncompromisingly – into a suggestion that suffering is good in itself, an argument that implicitly makes compromises with human institutions of power and condones the exploitation and abuse of those who are vulnerable? You know, as a priest I hesitate to argue with the Bible, but this is not very helpful. Like all of the books of the Bible, this one comes out of its own context, a Christian community trying to live in the real world of the Greco-Roman empire, and choosing to live lives of personal holiness while fitting in with the realities of the society they lived in. And yet we do need to be careful how we handle this sort of writing because this is exactly the sort of stuff that has led the Church, time and time again, into the sin of toxic silence when we are surrounded by injustice, toxic silence when confronted with the sin of sexual abuse, toxic silence in the face of exploitation and unequal relationships that deny women and men dignity or opportunity.
Holiness is, I think, supposed to be dangerous. Holiness takes us deeper into the heart of Jesus, which is the heart of forgiveness and compassion and justice. Where the story of Stephen is right and helpful, is where it points out to us that discipleship is a path of courage and faithfulness. Living out of the heart of compassion sometimes has consequences that challenge our courage. But where it isn’t very helpful, especially when paired with today’s reading from 1 Peter, is when it suggests to us that persecution and piety go hand in hand, that being Christian means being passive or even worse, accepting of injustice.
Like Thomas, in today’s Gospel reading, we don’t really know where following Jesus is going to take us. The one thing that seems clear enough is that it leads us deep into the heart of a paradox: failure that brings renewal, death that brings life, transformation that comes not from being in control but from letting go. What is the balance between private spirituality and service, between tending to our own life as a community and reaching into the community around us?
Our reading from John 14 is one of the all-time favourites for funeral services, and for good reason. It promises us that we are headed somewhere. Jesus here is addressing his disciples for the last time, they have worked out that he is leaving them but they don’t know how they are supposed to follow, even though the journey he is about to take, the journey into the heart of love that is God, is one that we know we all take eventually, and Thomas tells him what I, for one, often feel like telling him: ‘This is really not very obvious, Lord. We’ve watched you heal and we’ve heard you teach. We have seen you modeling the way of love and forgiveness, but we don’t really know how we’re supposed to go about it. Couldn’t you make it a bit clearer?’
It’s the opportunity for what we call a teaching moment. A few parting nuggets of wisdom, and what does Jesus tell them? ‘Believe in God, believe also in me’. ‘Believe’, as Marcus Borg points out to us, doesn’t mean getting your head around some tough doctrinal point, it doesn’t mean agreeing with some fancy theological statements about God, or about Jesus - it means to give your heart to, to centre your life on. ‘Centre your life on God, centre it also on me’. And then he says, ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life’. It means that where Thomas wants a roadmap, some clear directions, Jesus is just offering himself. What he has to give can only be experienced in relationship, in this case a relationship that points us to God because Jesus himself has always been centred on God – a relationship that endures through thick and thin because it points us to the love that’s at the heart of our own being. A relationship that expands to become a web of intimacy drawing in friends and enemies, insiders and outsiders, young and old because the love that it’s centred on is the love that brings the whole universe into being. A relationship that becomes our true home because within it we discover that living out of the heart of love reveals to us our true selves. A ever-expanding relationship that connects us to one another at a deep level – so that Jesus’ next words, ‘Nobody comes to the Father except through me’ become a claim not to exclusivity but to a deep awareness of kinship with all that is.
Well, what’s it all about? How do we know the path from here to where Jesus wants to take us? The Christian community described in the Book of Acts is working out its identity by emphasising its separation from the Jewish community it grew out of. The Gentile Christian community of 1 Peter is working it out by emphasising a life of holiness lived inside the rules and boundaries of its surrounding culture. For us in the 21st century the same problems exist – which way do we focus our energy and resources – inwards or outwards? The answer, of course, is to live out of the relationship that Jesus is offering us – a relationship that dissolves all the false either/or divisions that human beings construct and offers instead the both/and of Jesus’ own way of expanding love.
‘Lord, we don’t know where you’re going – how can we know the way?’