Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Sermon Easter 5 2014

Subterranean altar over the tomb of a martyr,
Ss Apostoli, Rome

Acts 7:55-end
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

I can still remember being on holiday in Rome, even though it was over a week and a half ago – you may know how quickly the effect of being on holiday fades! Rome is a very good place to be in if you’re a fan of old churches, as there are about 400 churches in Rome and most of them are very ancient indeed.
Many of the oldest ones were built just after Christianity was legalised in about the 310 – before that, Christian services were forbidden and had to be held in secret. And many of those very old churches have a feature in common: underneath the altar, there is a grave containing the body of a martyr. Many Christians had been put to death for their faith in Rome in the years of persecution, and their graves were remembered and visited. Once Christianity was legalised the new churches were built on those sites with the altar placed directly over the body.
Building the church in this way made a connection between the death of Christ, which was represented on the altar in the celebration of Mass, and the death of the martyr, whose body was beneath it.
But there was nothing gloomy or morbid about this. Christianity is not a cult of death. For the early Christians the tombs of martyrs were entirely a celebration of life. Inscriptions on them spoke of peace and triumph. Paintings and sculptures showed the martyr, not suffering, but dressed in stately robes and holding the palm branch of victory. What mattered about the martyrs was not so much that they had died, but that they had become images of Christ in the pattern of their life and death.
The martyrs were people for whom the ultimate reality in life was the love of God that had found and saved them in Jesus. Jesus Christ risen from the dead was so important to them that they would choose even to be killed rather than deny Jesus. The word martyr means “witness”. A martyr is someone who witnesses to the transforming love of God in Jesus in the whole way that they live and die.
We seem this same connection made in the reading from Acts this morning. Stephen is the first martyr, but that doesn’t mean that we should focus on the method of his death. The most important thing about Stephen, the thing that makes him a martyr, is that he saw “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”.
Stephen is remembered as the first witness for Christ because he saw that the ultimate reality behind the universe is Jesus, the risen Lord, in the place where God is. And for him, that reality changed everything. It changed how he lived and how he died. It made him, in fact, like Jesus.
Stephen’s story is told in Acts in a way that mirrors the story of Jesus. It is as though the author, Luke, is saying to us, “look at Stephen, because he shows us Jesus”.
So, Acts says, “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people”. Just as Jesus is described in the Gospels. Stephen, like Jesus, is arrested and brought before the religious Council; like Jesus, he is accused of blasphemy by false witnesses. At the conclusion of his trial he cries out “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”. Just as Jesus, at the end of his trial, said “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God”. Like Jesus, Stephen is taken outside the city to be killed, and like Jesus he prays for his murderers to be forgiven.
As Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do”. Stephen does this. In his life, in his death, in his forgiveness for his murderers, Stephen does the works that Jesus does.
Stephen’s killers think that death is the ultimate reality behind the universe, and they enact that understanding in Stephen’s murder. Just as the Roman empire was to do for the first generations of Christians in Rome and elsewhere. But Stephen knew better, because he saw Jesus, the man who had died, raised in the place where God is. And if the risen Lord is the ultimate reality behind the universe, then death is not. We can live a life freed from the fear of death, for ourselves and for others. Such a life knows that nothing is impossible to God, so is capable of embracing everything in love, even murderers in the act of murdering.
Who is among those murderers? Saul. Later called Paul, after his eyes also were opened and he saw the risen Lord in heaven. Jesus who met him on the road to Damascus and called out, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And that same Jesus picked Saul up and turned him around and sent him to carry the good news of that vision to the nations. St Paul was later to write, in the letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. That is, know that your whole life is different, because the ultimate reality behind the universe is not death, but Jesus, who died, raised to the place where God is.
This is what is meant in today’s reading from 1 Peter, which quotes Psalm 118:
The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner.
The rejected stone turns out to be the one essential stone that holds the structure together. That is, incidentally, the most frequently quoted verse of the Old Testament in the New Testament. The world lives and acts as though death is the most important thing there is. But the risen Lord standing at the right hand of God overturns all that. He becomes the corner stone for building a whole new way of living. A life free from the fear of death. A life that can live from God’s deathless love and never failing generosity, at every moment, even to the end of our earthly lives.
Those who live like that become images of Christ. Just as Stephen did. Just as the martyrs of Rome did. Just as followers of Jesus do in every time and place. Just as you and I can, if we will let our lives be transformed by vision of the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Because that is the ultimate truth behind the universe. That is the stone that the builders rejected, which has become the corner stone for building a wholly new life. Life that does not end in death but in God’s eternal life. So we too can be witnesses for Christ, we too can do the works that he does.

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