Archives: 5 Easter

What Is Martyrdom, Really?

The gospel that we read today will be most familiar to many of us as “the funeral text” because that is how we most often have heard it.

I would say that for close to 80% of the funerals I have done as a priest, the family has chosen this gospel for the service. There is clearly something deeply comforting in it.

It is often called for shorthand “the many mansions” text for the older language translation of Jesus saying, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.”

What we notice this week is that someone does die in our assigned texts. We have the martyrdom of Stephen in our lesson from Acts.

What if we considered this gospel as the reading for Stephen’s funeral?

How would that affect our understanding of it?

And how would it affect our memories of the loved ones we have buried with these words echoing through the worship space?

Stephen is important because he is the first person who really follows Jesus all the way to the end of the story.

He followed Jesus in life, and he ends up following Jesus into death, persecuted and killed by people who cannot bear the searing and life-changing truth of the gospel message.

For most of Christianity we have settled for worshipping Jesus rather than following him.

That is quite possibly because following Jesus can and does have rather dire consequences, as Stephen finds out.

Our other tendency is to glorify literal martyrs such as Stephen, and there certainly is much to admire in people who are able to give up their physical bodies to die for Christ.

But it can become an outsourcing of the necessary death that we must undergo in our own lives, before we physically die, if we truly wish to follow Jesus into resurrection.

What does it really mean to be a martyr?

And is it a calling we all share, or the province only of the rarefied saints like Stephen? Continue reading

This Is How I Break My Vows

Well, folks, we’ve got a weird one.

This scripture from the Book of Acts is one of the more bizarre episodes in the Bible, and we’ve got a lot to choose from.

Peter has this vision of a sheet full of live animals being lowered down from heaven before him, with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air,” and he is commanded to kill and eat them.

Reptiles? Really? An angel commands him to kill and eat snakes and lizards?

Sounds more like a bad acid trip than a manifestation of God.

But I was thinking also it may be the first occurrence of a venerable church tradition: the church picnic.

Both my parents were raised Southern Baptist.

My mother was raised in a university Southern Baptist church, right off the campus of Baylor in Waco. They were very sober, respectable, pillar of the community types, and based on her descriptions of the services, were the closest thing to high church Baptists I can picture.

My father’s church, however…well, to begin with it was called Confederate Avenue Baptist Church, and if that doesn’t sum up the Old South I don’t know what does.

And Confederate Avenue was an old-fashioned, sawdust on the floor, traveling preacher, week-long revivals in the summer type of church.

The hellfire and damnation preaching was so intense, my father says, that he got saved two or three times just to be sure.

And at my father’s church, there was a regular phenomenon called “chicken on the grounds.” “Chicken on the grounds,” from what I can tell, was a combination outdoor coffee hour and church picnic that happened every Sunday.

This was also the type of church for which the noon meal was only halftime, there was church that night as well, with some kind of educational program for the kids called “Training Union” that still makes my parents shudder to remember it.

So at chicken on the grounds, my father says, everyone would sit down at the tables out in the yard. Continue reading

Preparing for Priesthood by Failing My Ordination Exams

There are a number of good ways to study and interpret scripture, but one of the ones I enjoy the most is to take details within a particular passage that jump out at me and ask what they mean in my own life.

The people who wrote the books of the Bible were trying to communicate the events of stories, but part of what makes these writings Holy Scripture is the fact that they are layered with meaning.

Each time we come back to them we find a new echo, a new resonance in our own lives. This is why the Bible is our heartbeat as the people of God.

Our lesson from Acts today is rich with sentences and phrases we can mine for meaning in our own lives.

The basic story is about Philip the Evangelist and the Ethiopian Eunuch.

This Philip is not the Philip of the Twelve Apostles. Rather, this Philip was a member of the early church who was chosen as a leader to help administer and organize the church so the apostles could go and pray rather than sort out disputes about food and money.

At some point Philip becomes known as a talented evangelist, and begins to go on conversion missions under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

He finds a eunuch traveling from Jerusalem back to the court of the Ethiopian queen, where he is a high official. This eunuch is reading the text of Isaiah in his chariot.

Philip interprets Isaiah to him in the context of telling the story of Jesus, and the Ethiopian man is so moved that they stop and baptize him on the spot.

Philip is taken away by the Holy Spirit to evangelize elsewhere, and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing. Excellent story, the end.

But like I said, it’s worth slowing down and taking a look at the details of the story. I find some of my most fruitful prayer and insight about my life come from this type of Bible study.

I’m fascinated right from the beginning of this passage. “An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.”

This is a wilderness road.

What does it mean to be called by an angel of the Lord to go to a wilderness road? Continue reading

Becoming an Ancestor: The Life of a Living Stone

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

The image is a fascinating contradiction that immediately draws us in: living stones.

Stones are associated with many images and ideas but rarely are they called living.

We think of them as permanent and lasting, but as dead and inanimate, void of spirit and life.

Peter, the one who was named “The Rock” by Jesus himself, asks us to rethink our assumptions about cold, dead stone.

And really he is carrying forward Jesus’ own teaching.

In the Gospel of Matthew, when Simon Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus did not say, “On this river I will build my church,” or “On this tree I will build my church,” or “On this metaphysical theory will I build my church.”

Jesus said, “On this rock I build my church, and even the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Jesus built the Church of the Living God on living rock. Continue reading

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