Sunday, May 20, 2007

When necessary use words

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 20, 2007 :

This Seventh Sunday of Easter seems to be a Sunday in search of an identity as it is sandwiched in between the two major liturgical celebrations that precede and follow it – the Ascension of the Lord which we just celebrated on Thursday, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which will be celebrated next weekend. Thursday gave us the dramatic scenario of the Risen Lord giving His disciples their missionary agenda and then departing to return to Heaven. Next week is even more spectacular as the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples to prepare them to continue the work that Jesus has begun. So, what is this Sunday to do? What can this day say that even begins to compete with the power and brilliance of Jesus’ going up and the Holy Spirit’s coming down?

But, just when we think this Sunday might find itself momentarily lost in a dark valley between two mighty mountains, we are given the enlightening and inspiring story of St. Stephen the first martyr.

“As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them;’ and when he said this, he fell asleep.”

Someone once said that people are moved more by sermons they can see than by sermons they can hear. Or, perhaps as St. Francis of Assisi put it, “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.”

This incredibly dramatic story of St. Stephen is a very fitting one for us to contemplate today. Chapter 6 of Acts just before what we heard today, says, “Stephen, filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people…certain [people] came forward and debated with Stephen, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” They are infuriated with him because he is preaching about Jesus, and so they knock him to the ground and take his life through the violent means of stoning. But, in perhaps the most powerful preaching of his life, Stephen did not hold the crime against his attackers. Instead, Stephen forgives them. “He fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” Stephen lives and dies in the same way that Jesus did. He is a living witness, a martyr, to what it means to be Christian.

In this act of forgiveness, we see in Stephen in a very real way how he carried out the command that Jesus gave to His followers just before He ascended to His Father. Jesus said, “Make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Stephen did just that. And, he did it in the most powerful way that anyone can teach another – he did it by example. Stephen quite literally preached a sermon that people could see. He preached the good news of Jesus Christ by the example of his life, right to the very moment of his death.

Where did Stephen get that kind of strength? Stephen found that strength in something that Jesus did just before He ascended into heaven. Jesus prayed for His disciples in the words we heard in today’s Gospel, “Father, I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.” Stephen was able to bear witness to Jesus by the example of his life and death because Jesus had prayed for him, and because the Father’s love and Jesus Himself dwelt in Stephen.

And, this is what we celebrate today, on this Sunday that is caught between Ascension and Pentecost. We celebrate the fact that what Jesus promised just before He ascended into heaven has come to pass. The love of the Father and Jesus Himself are present within His followers, enabling them to carry the good news to the four corners of the world, not only by word, but perhaps even more profoundly by example.

And, what Stephen and so many other martyrs and holy men and women who followed did, we too are called to do. We also are called to bring the good news, if not to the four corners of the world, perhaps to the four corners of Connecticut, or New Milford, or our own households – by word and importantly by example. This is what Jesus commissioned each and every one of us to do before He ascended to His Father.

And to help us carry out this task, Jesus promised that the love of His Father and He Himself would be with us. It is this promise of Jesus that we celebrate in this liturgy. It is this promise of Jesus that makes it possible for us to do what Stephen did. And if we carry out the task that Jesus gave us, we too will someday share with Jesus and the Father the joy of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Lord, help us remember always that without You we can do nothing. But with You, we can do all things.

May God give you peace.

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