St Francis, Terriers - Easter 5 (14.04.2017)

Tony Dickinson

Eastertide in church is a strange season – at least as far as the readings we hear on Sunday are concerned. We’re just beginning the fifth week of a seven-week party in celebration of Jesus resurrection. So what’s the focus of our readings? The first reading takes us weeks, maybe even months, beyond Pentecost: the Gospel whips us back to the Last Supper: and sandwiched between them there is a passage which says nothing much about either death or resurrection.

But it does talk about change and transition. It talks about growth. It talks about the movement from darkness to light, from separation to belonging. It talks about the role and the work of the people of God in terms which it borrows from the Law and the Prophets. It gives God’s people a song to sing – a song that was first sung by King David a thousand years earlier. The growth springs from deep roots, ancient roots.

Now, growth is not always easy or straightforward. Any gardener knows that bushes and trees need pruning from time to time. Rose-growers know to look out for the briars that shoot out from the root-stock – and if they find one they cut it back mercilessly. And growth is sometimes very controversial. If we read around that passage from the Acts of the Apostles which formed our first reading, if we follow the story of Stephen from the time when he is first chosen as one of the team tasked with sorting out a practical problem of what we would nowadays call “social care” – if we read around that passage, we watch Stephen grow. We watch him grow from his first beginnings as “a man of good standing” in the community, a man, like his six colleagues, “full of the Spirit and of wisdom”. We watch him doing great things in the name of Jesus. We watch him coming into conflict with those who have not made the move from darkness into God’s marvellous light. We watch him shining that light with full intensity onto the history of God’s people, showing up the shabbiness and the shadows. And we watch those who are comfortable with the shabbiness, those who are used to living in the shadows, strike back at him with all the power at their disposal.

“They covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” And then Stephen moves more fully into the light as he entrusts himself to the Lord and prays for his murderers. Stephen enters completely into the life of Jesus as he faces his own suffering and death. He entrusts his spirit to Jesus, as Jesus had entrusted his to God. He prays for the forgiveness of those who were killing him, as Jesus had, crying out in a loud voice, as Jesus had. In the way that he describes this death, St Luke makes it very, very clear that despite all the differences of detail, so far as he is concerned, Stephen is following Jesus along the way of the cross.

Following Jesus along the way is central to today’s Gospel. As Richard Rohr is fond of saying, “Jesus told his disciples ‘Follow me.’ He did not say ‘Worship me.’” But worshipping Jesus is so much easier, and so much less demanding, than following. It’s much safer, too, unless you have the misfortune to live in parts of the Middle East. The Church in Saudi Arabia exists underground and, as Lucky will tell you, Christians have to take elaborate precautions in order to worship in safety. I heard recently the horrific story of a refugee from the area of Syria controlled by Da’esh, the so-called “Islamic State”. He was a Muslim married to a Christian and when Da’esh arrived in town, they ordered her to remove the cross she wore on a chain round her neck and throw it on the ground. When she refused, they slit her throat. She rejected the chance to save her life because it would mean denying the truth that she had found in Christ. In the face of murderous violence, she bore witness, as Stephen also bore witness, to the Lord whose way is the way of suffering, self-giving love.

On Wednesday, with other members of the Council for Christian-Muslim relations in our own town, I was sitting at the feet of a Muslim scholar and former British diplomat, Dr Afzal Ashraf. He is a Visiting Fellow at Nottingham University and was a senior officer in the RAF, working (among other postings) in Iraq. His topic was “Piety and Prayer – Religion and Politics”, and he was looking at the ways in which religious faith has at various times been “weaponised” as a political tool in Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.

There was little in Dr Ashraf’s presentation with which a Christian could disagree, and much that we could applaud, but in conversation with him over lunch I was reminded of a significant difference between our two faiths. For many Muslims, the truth of their faith (and of others) is validated by material blessings. For Christians it is not. The truth of Jesus is the truth of the God who is self-giving love, even when faithfulness to that truth leads to suffering and death. That is central to our understanding of Jesus’ words in reply to Philip when he asks “Show us the Father.” Those who have seen Jesus, giving up his life out of love for the world, “dying”, as St Francis said, “for love of our love” – they have seen the Father, doing his works in love, offering the world a healing and a peace which its rulers do not know how to accept.. They do not know how to accept it because it means giving up their power.

They do not know the way that Jesus goes. They do not understand the truth that he embodies – or, if they do understand it, they fear it because it is so contrary to everything that drives them. And so they cannot accept his offer of life. They remain stuck, stuck in a world of violence and hurt, stuck in a world in which it is acceptable to destroy God’s creation in order to “preserve” their imagined advantage over an enemy, stuck in a world in which Love incarnate is fit only for gallows-meat, food, as the ancients said, for crows. But Love wins. “What humanity fears, hates, destroys, pollutes, kills, and crucifies, God promises to transform and raise up” – and in raising Jesus he gives us a foretaste of what that means for the whole universe!

Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!