Letting Go

Sunday 18th May 2014
Year A, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Acts 6:55-60
John 14:1-14

Saint Stephen, who usually gets lost in the post-Christmas hangover, as his Feast Day is Boxing Day, is a highly significant figure in the early Church who only plays a cameo role because of his early death.

We first meet Stephen at the beginning of Chapter 6 of Acts when he is recruited as a Deacon, ostensibly to wait at table with the other six new recruits so that the Apostles can get on with being holy, a bad precedent, I think, which puts service to others below service to God, a bad practice which persists in today's Church by ranking Deacons below Priests.

Whether Stephen went on serving at table we don't know but he turned out to be an inspired apologist and "full of grace and power" he performed "great wonders and signs among the people." A number of diaspora Jews tried arguing with Stephen but they "could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke." Then they secured witnesses to swear that he had committed blasphemy, seized him, and brought him before the Council, the same events but in a slightly different sequence from the arrest and trial of Jesus.

Then in Chapter 7 which ends in today's Reading, in some 50 verses Stephen outlines the unfaithful history of the Jews dwelling on the Mosaic period and briefly referring to the foundation of the Temple. Then he suddenly breaks off and, following Peter's theme at Pentecost, accuses the Jewish religious authorities of murdering Jesus, at which point he is stoned to death while looking upwards and seeing the glory of God and Jesus standing next to him.

What should we make of this? Well, first of all, it is Luke's intention, through Stephen and other protagonists in Acts, to tie Christianity to Judaism in general and to the Temple tradition in particular: Luke begins his Gospel in the Temple with Zechariah and does not abandon it until Paul's arrest and transportation to Rome. Secondly, he characterises Jewish history as all the prophets had done, as a catalogue of unfaithfulness but, in the new tradition, says that this unfaithfulness culminated in the murder of Jesus. And, thirdly, the martyrdom of Stephen by the Jewish elders comes after attempts to silence Peter and John and before the failed attempt to silence Peter for a second time. All the time, there is the underlying theme of religious legalism trying to stifle religious enthusiasm, again, a theme which the prophets had often taken up and for which they suffered.

Now in the pervasive but not always illuminating light of hindsight, this is all very easy. But Stephen's point, echoing Peter and, above all Jesus, is that there really is no excuse because it is not as if they had not been told, over and over again, who Jesus was and what he stood for.

Still, it wasn't an easy message. We have two thousand years of testimony behind us and it still isn't.

Why is the Jesus message so difficult? The answer, it seems to me, revolves around the inexorable contest between control, a symptom of pride, on the one hand, and surrender and humility on the other. Of course, we try to have our cake and eat it. Yes, we perfectly well understand, intellectually at least, and spiritually at times, the concept of faith, humility and surrender but we still want to hold on to our own fate. In spiritual terms we are like those people who can't stand being passengers in cars or airline passengers because we need to be in control. Control makes for bad politics, bad management, bad family relations and, not least, bad religion. All the best political, management, relationship and church theory attests to the principles of empowerment, comfort, solidarity, fairness and forgiveness but their authors must despair just as, perhaps, might the authors of sermons. And what is really interesting is that recent scientific research shows that people who exercise unlimited powers over a long period experience a change in the hard wiring of their brain and they simply go mad. We saw it with Idi Amin of Uganda, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Mohamar Qadafi of Libya, and we are seeing it now with President Recep Erdogan of Turkey. The Fathers of the American constitution were surely right to limit a President to two four-year terms. But it is not just that earthly power is bad for our health, it kills any capacity for relationship. This is why our own, personal, apparently petty insistence on our own craving for power and control is bad for our relationship with God, because the stronger we are in the grip of the idea that we are in control of ourselves and our lives, the less need we feel of God. And that, too, is why power is bad for the Church; ever since the Roman Empire became officially Christian under the Emperor Constantine, the Church has been disfigured by its own earthly and, even more, spiritual power. From the Crusades to child abuse, power has been at the root of all ecclesiastical abuse.

Which brings me, finally, to the Gospel reading from John. Jesus does not say that his house is a palace where degree, priority and place are the governing principles, where kings and bishops sit at the top table, he says that his house, which is being prepared for all of us, has many rooms, where we can, in a manner of speaking, be ourselves. But to be ourselves is not to be in control, to be ourselves is to be brothers and sisters in Christ, putting ourselves in his Father's hands to do with us as he will. It is highly doubtful that any of us will find ourselves in Stephen's position but the least we can do is to try to let go, if only now and again.