Easter 5A

May 12, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 14:1-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Acts 7: 55-60

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments and Observations

    “Meanwhile . . .”

    That word can deliver quite the narrative punch.  Usually it is used to introduce a part of a story that is happening off to the side of the main events.  Sometimes the part of the story to which the “meanwhile” refers introduced a very dark theme.  At other times “meanwhile” directs our attention to something redolent of great hope.

    “President Lincoln was in high spirits that evening as he headed for Ford’s Theater.  Meanwhile, a man with a dark mustache double checked the location of the side door to the theater.”

    “Darth Vader and his evil Emperor looked with satisfaction at the destruction of the Jedi.  Meanwhile on a far-away planet, a newborn baby boy named Luke was dropped off to be raised by his uncle and aunt.”

    But in also the Bible the word can be used to hint at the ways God has more going on than we might guess from the narrative.  A while ago I preached a sermon called “The Meanwhile of Faith” based on Genesis 37 and particularly verse 36.  Joseph’s brothers wickedly sold him into Egyptian slavery.  They then come home to tell their father, Jacob, the dirty lie that they had found Joseph’s coat covered with blood as he had obviously been killed by a wild animal.  Jacob is beyond bereft but before the chapter concludes in verse 36—and just before we take a one-chapter hiatus from the Joseph narrative—we are told that “Meanwhile . . . Joseph was sold to a man named Potiphar.”   The “meanwhile” tells us something is up—God is not finished.

    Similarly in the Book of Ruth.   Naomi and her persistently loyal (but widowed) daughter-in-law Ruth return to Bethlehem in dereliction and sorrow, having lost all the men in their lives (and therefore the likelihood that they’d have much of a future worth talking about).  Yet before Ruth 1 concludes we read the little line, “They came to Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest.”   In essence, “Meanwhile, it was harvest time” and in that little line is more than a hint that something new is coming.  It’s harvest time and soon a man named Boaz would show up in connection with that harvest and things would turn around decisively for these two bereft women.

    In the case of Acts 7:58 the word “meanwhile” introduces hope but in a very striking way.   Because here Luke has packed more than just a good narrative punch into this word: Luke managed to tamp into his “meanwhile” nothing short of the explosive yet utterly surprising work of no less than God’s own Holy Spirit.

    “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”   And a bit later we’ll find out that more than just the coat-check boy, this Saul was pleased by what he saw that day as the final stones thudded sickeningly into the flesh of dear Stephen.   Stephen died as his Lord and Savior did: with words of forgiveness trembling on his lips—forgiveness for the very evildoers who had been doing him in.   But Saul was among those who felt no need to accept delivery on that forgiveness.  There was nothing to forgive but just a whole lot to feel good about.  It was more than high time that the one Stephen hailed as his “Lord Jesus” got eliminated from the vocabulary of this earth.  Let no one be left alive who would ever think to call out to that name again!

    That’s what Saul was thinking in the “meanwhile” of Stephen’s death.   Meanwhile, he was there.  Approving.

    In later years when he called himself Paul, that same man would talk about that day in very different terms.   In fact, the memory of it all would wake him up in a cold sweat.  I don’t know, of course, and it’s probably really unlikely but I’ve thought at times that perhaps the “thorn in the flesh” about which Paul sometimes complained was nothing less than his own memory.  If only he could sleep without now and then being awakened by the cries of the women he used to drag off by their hair just for saying “Jesus is Lord!”   If only he could not keep seeing the angelic glow that seemed to emanate so eerily from Stephen’s face just as he died.

    But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.   Back to Luke’s clever “Meanwhile” in verse 58.   It introduces us to Saul, of course, and for anyone who has even the mildest clue as to what will come next in Acts, we know that this is one of those hope-filled narrative “meanwhile” instances.  One of the heroes of our story has just been slipped into the narrative.  It’s like noting how terrible slavery in America was but then being told that meanwhile in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, a baby named Abraham was being born to the Lincolns.   An ember of hope starts to glow from anyone who knows the story even just a little bit.

    But in Acts 7, it’s more than just hope.  It is wonder.   It is amazement.  Because what this tells us is that at the very moment when something downright horrible was happening—a moment when someone could more than plausibly allege the Holy Spirit had evacuated the scene (and it would not be the last such apparently moment in church history), as a matter of fact the Spirit was a busy as ever.    A terrible thing was happening but a grace-filled thing was on the verge of bursting forth into the world.  The Spirit was not gone.  He had not gone off duty.

    There is always more going on than we can imagine.   Luke seeds one of his darkest narrative moments with this piece of Gospel grace and hope.

    The Book of Acts is remarkable for all kinds of reasons, not least Luke’s narrative artistry.  But what is also startling about Acts is its brutal honesty.   If anyone thinks that the Book of Acts narrates the story of a Golden Era of the church on earth, they have not read this book very closely or carefully.   Acts presents the early church warts and all, squabbles and all.  It’s a very human story but always, always it is also and at the same time God’s story.   As my friend Beverly Gaventa said when working on a commentary on Acts, whenever people asked her “What is Acts about?” she would reply simply, “It’s about God.”

    And so it is.  It’s about God.  But it’s also about people and the terrible things they do to each other.  But over and above and through it all there is the Holy Spirit, silently but incessantly at work bringing about a larger grace than we could hope for or even imagine.  No matter what is happening in Acts—and let’s say in all the history of the church since, warts and all—there has always been a “Meanwhile” to be spoken.   Usually it’s pretty hard to spy.  Often it is as surprising as finding in a villain like Saul the saint he will later become.  But the “Meanwhile” of it all persists.

    In that there is hope.   More than a  little hope!

    Illustration Idea

    All good stories move toward a climax and often have many mini-climaxes and decisive revelations along the way, too. It doesn’t matter whether it is an ancient Greek tragedy like Oedipus Rex, a Shakespearean play like Much Ado About Nothing, or a Star Wars movie, most of the best narratives spend a good deal of time tugging at and weaving various narrative threads throughout the story until finally the moment arrives when the threads all converge on one spot and at the same, single climactic moment. Oedipus discovers who is mother is, and the city finds out why it has been plagued.  The unsavory seeming ranger from the wild known as Strider is revealed to the Hobbits as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and the true King of Gondor.   Harry Potter’s pals Ron and Hermione finally give in to the love they’ve so clearly had for each other all along and so suddenly find themselves engaged in a passionate kiss.

    Sometimes a story’s climax packs a punch because the climactic event is something no one saw coming: the last person in the world you suspected turns out to be the murderer; the hero who has been so dashing throughout the whole film is suddenly eliminated. Other climaxes, however, contain a moment that you’ve seen coming all along but the scene is not for that reason any less dramatic once it occurs. In Greek tragedies the audience usually knows from almost the beginning the shocking fact that will be revealed to the main character only at the end. But you still sit on the edge of your seat to see the revelation actually happen.

    Life is complicated but God assures us that in the long run and in the last analysis, God will finish what he intends for us. And when the great cosmic climax one day comes–when not just a few narrative threads come together but when untold billions of such threads come together before the judgment seat of God–then we should hope and expect that diverse though those historic threads are, they will all find one final answer in God’s providence.

    That’s our hope.  God knows what he is up to.  If we knew all of this for sure at this present moment, if we could see it all with utter clarity this very evening, we wouldn’t need hope. But for now we do. Because for now we need the gentle power of a grace that holds faith together; a grace that once in a while affords us a glimpse over the distant horizon into that far country where God will be all in all.

    Frederick Buechner once wrote a lovely book called The Alphabet of Grace. Near the end of this volume, Buechner compared life to the Hebrew language. As some of you know, ancient Hebrew contains no vowels but only consonants. So you have words that, all by themselves on paper, look like BRK, GDL, BNJMN. You can’t pronounce such things, of course, without vowel sounds to slide in between those consonants. Native Hebrew speakers know just which vowels to supply where. And so BRK becomes barak, GDL becomes gadol, and so on. Life is a little like that, Buechner suggests. There are lots of hard truths, hard sounds that get jammed together in the tragedies (and even in the ordinary circumstances) of our lives. It doesn’t always make sense or seem even very pronounceable. But it is finally faith that provides the vowels at just the right points, making even for now at least a little bit of sense of things. Life isn’t always very phonetic in some literal sense, but with the Spirit’s help, perhaps grace can supply what is sometimes missing.

    And so very often the missing piece is what comes after the word “Meanwhile . . .”

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 31:1-5; 15-16

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    1 Peter 2:2-10

    Author: Stan Mast