Scripture Readings: Acts 7:55-60 | Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 | 1 Peter 2:2-10 | John 14:1-14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Do not let your hearts be troubled? Really? How can we follow these words of our Lord today?
There’s a whole lot of troubled hearts today, for a whole lot of good reasons. Not long ago, we can remember how each ordinary day already had enough worries of its own, but as ‘the Virus’ spread across the world over the last three months, people everywhere have been struggling to cope with the emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual weight of all that has happened. Even though our province of New Brunswick has mercifully been spared the worst of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic so far, we know the path forward for Canada and the rest of the world is one that needs to be traveled cautiously. This is no time to be cavalier and careless, wisdom tells us, especially if we take seriously our calling to love and look after our neighbours.
So how are we to understand these words from our Lord? “Do not let your hearts be troubled”? Is this just a piece of trite advice? A simplistic call for optimism and positivity? The theological equivalent of Bobby McFerrin’s tune: “Don’t worry, be happy”… meant to take our mind off the hard things in life so we don’t get overwhelmed, but unable to offer real confidence or hope?
As with any passage of Holy Scripture, if we simply pull it out of its place and try to make it stand all on its own, we will struggle to understand its purpose and significance. In a vacuum, these words alone don’t offer us much hope worth holding onto.
But thankfully, we know Jesus’ words were not spoken in a vacuum; they were spoken in the middle of God’s great rescue story coming to fruition… on the very night of His betrayal and unjust arrest, the night before He was condemned to death, and brutally hung on a cross. Jesus knew that this was His path; He new the trials and suffering ahead, and so He urged His disciples beforehand to not despair of their faith in Him when He would soon be taken away from them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He said, but He did not stop there. He showed them why and how to do this: “Believe in God, believe also in me.”
In the midst of trouble, Jesus urges us to trust in God… and trust in Him.
The confused disciples struggle to make sense of what their Master meant, leading our Lord to make this bold statement about Himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” In all their confusion and fear, Christ tells them (and us): trust in Me! When you feel lost, don’t seek another way… come to Me. When you doubt, do not go seeking truth elsewhere, believe in Me. When you are despairing, do not give up, or look for fulfillment in some other source… I am the true Life of God in the world.
With these words Christ sought to comfort them, and to assure them in the very troubling times that lay ahead, that rather than fail or abandon them He is going to prepare a place for them to be with God forever. Though He, and they, will suffer for a time, Christ knows that He is securing eternity for those who will trust and follow Him. But for now, what will help them to endure is to hold on in faith. “Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Within 24 hours of hearing this, the disciples would see their beloved Master betrayed, arrested, tortured, executed, and buried. It would seem that they had plenty of reasons to let their hearts be troubled. But then, resurrection! God’s new creation bursts into the scene, completely unexpected: Jesus is raised again from the dead, and appears to His disciples! Sorrows are turned to joy, hope unlooked-for comes to them, and the one they had thought was overcome by death was now standing alive in their midst. Trust placed in this Jesus, who endured and conquered the grave for us, is not mislaid… no matter how truly troubling our situations may be.
In our passage from Acts 7 today we see this trust in the Risen Lord lived out in the lives of the earliest believers. We heard the account of St. Stephen, the first person to be killed for their devotion to Jesus Christ. Stephen was a deacon, set apart by God through the Apostles to care for the poor and defenseless among the Christian community in Jerusalem, but he soon became a powerful proponent of the Good News: the message that Jesus was indeed the risen and reigning Messiah, God’s chosen Saviour. Sharing this message put him into conflict with the religious authorities, who falsely accuse him of blasphemy against God, as well as speaking against Moses and the Temple. Essentially, they saw Stephen, a humble servant of Jesus, as a threat to their own power and status.
Stephen answers their false charges by recounting the wider story of the Living God, and of Israel’s checkered history as His chosen people… culminating with a bold response to his accusers: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it” (Acts 7:51-53). Stephen confronted their lies with a very troubling truth, but rather than heed his words, they became enraged. Unfortunately, we know this is not an uncommon response to hearing troubling truths… and too often those who speak up for the truth end up facing real trouble themselves. By following the way of Jesus and not shying away from speaking the truth, Stephen’s life was now in jeopardy.
Yet in that fateful moment, we are told, Stephen’s faith in God, and in Jesus his Lord did not waver. Instead, “filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” And seeing the Risen Lord standing in heaven for him, Stephen was able to be faithful and follow the way of Jesus to the very end… even faithfully echoing his Master’s words of forgiveness uttered on the cross (Luke 23:34) with his own dying breath: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”. Though we’re not used to seeing of this kind of end as a victory, that is because we keep forgetting that Stephen’s story did not end there. For just as he committed his life (and death), to Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, Stephen will share in Christ’s final resurrection-victory over the grave. Believing in God, believing in Jesus, Stephen’s story ‘ends’ in life. The troubles came, true enough, but they could not overcome.
I hope that none of us will face martyrdom as St. Stephen did (or, for that matter, as countless of our sisters and brothers in Christ are facing even now in various corners of the world. Lord have mercy; strengthen and sustain them.). Yet likely none of us will be strangers of times that are deeply troubling, which can put our faith under enormous pressure and strain. Some of us may even be in the midst of those times right now; the way forward seeming to be lost, unsure of who or what to trust, and feeling just about ready to give up on it all.
But the Good News for us today is that even in the midst of serious trouble the risen Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour stands with, and for, us. Christ lives and reigns even now, and remains the Way, the Truth, and the Life… the One to whom we can truly entrust our lives, our loved ones, and our world. Though we may not yet see Him with our eyes standing at the right hand of God, we can have faith, and find in Him the courage and strength to faithfully face any troubles that come… confident that in Him we too will share in God’s eternal life.
Like St. Stephen, we have been called not only to place our faith in Jesus, but to live for Him too: to serve Christ both in active love, like caring for those around us in need, but also in our commitment to the truth of the Good News, which every disciple of Jesus has been entrusted with sharing. May the Holy Spirit of God equip and empower us to live as Christ’s faithful people; signs and agents of faith and hope in our troubled time. And trusting Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life of God, may we lovingly and boldly follow in His blessed footsteps, sharing the Good News with the world He died and lives to save. Amen. Alleluia.