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St Stephen – on the church as a living temple of the Holy Spirit

by Canon Dr Paul Overend, Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral

On the second day of Christmas, the church gives us the stoning of Stephen. It is unsettling the way that the church remembers the death of Stephen immediately after the birth of Jesus.

The Acts of the Apostles is the only source for the life and death of Stephen from which we heard the closing 10 verses in our second reading. But this wasn’t written to be an historical biography of Stephen: the evangelist Luke shapes the character of Stephen for his own purposes.

Where Luke’s first volume, The Gospel, is about the birth and mission of Jesus, his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, is about the birth and mission of the church. These texts are united by common concerns, and two themes in the account of Stephen can illustrate this. One is the Holy Spirit, and the other is the Temple.

The Holy Spirit

Luke’s primary focus is the Holy Spirit. His version of the Gospel begins with the announcement to Elizabeth and Zechariah that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit (1:15) to be a prophet, then the conception of Jesus is said to be by the Holy Spirit and Jesus is anointed by the Spirit at his baptism by John. Luke’s Spirit-led understanding of Jesus is important, though it will fall short of the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed. But that anti-Arian creed, first drafted in the year 325, is about a quarter of a century later than Luke.

For Luke the Spirit-led understanding of Jesus links him with a Spirit-led church in Acts of the Apostles. The church begins with the spiritual anointing of Pentecost, after which Peter heals the lame beggar who was each day by the entrance to the temple, called the beautiful gate. Peter defends the healing in a speech in which he says that the apostles are not drunk but they are full of the Holy Spirit. Peter’s speech after this healing echoes Jesus’s Nazareth Manifesto. So where Jesus cites Isaiah about the Spirit anointing him to bring good news to the poor, Peter cites Joel about pouring out the Spirit on all flesh, opening the church to the same spiritual mission.

Stephen is Greek Jew, said to be a “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit”, who “did great wonders and signs among the people”. He’s appointed with other Hellenists to oversee a food bank for widows, showing the spirit of Jesus in action. And as Jesus, when he is killed, says, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit,” so when Stephen was being stoned he commends his spirit, saying “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

So here in our first theme of the Spirit, Luke’s character of Stephen shows the unity of the Spirit and mission of Jesus and the Church.

The temple

The second theme linking Luke’s two volumes is the temple of Jerusalem.

In the gospel, Luke tells us that after of the birth of Jesus, he is presented at the temple and recognised there by the priest Simeon and by an elderly prophet Anna. Then, as a boy, Jesus is found teaching in the temple (ch.2). These represent the priestly, prophetic and scholarly traditions.

But the implication in The Acts of the Apostles of Peter’s healing of the beggar at the gate of the temple after Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit was not in the temple, for the blind man had not been healed when begging there.

This critical perception of the temple in the account of Stephen’s martyrdom, in chapter 7, for in a speech that is too well constructed to be historical, Luke makes the temple the contentious issue that leads to Stephen’s death.

The speech first contrasts the tent of meeting (where Moses met with God) with Aaron’s idolatry. God had raised up Moses to free the Hebrews from slavery, but the people looked back and longed for life Egypt and so Aron helped them make a bull of gold, likely to have been the sacred bull Apis, in Egyptian mythology, which was an emblem of the Egyptian god Ptah. In the account of this episode from Exodus 32, God spoke to Moses and called the Hebrews a stiff-necked people, which is a line Stephen quotes in today’s reading, when he says, “You stiff-necked people…, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.”

Stephen’s speech also contrasts king David’s tabernacle tent with the construction of the temple by his heir, king Solomon. In the second book of Samuel (2 Sam 7), the prophet Nathan criticises King David’s plan to build a temple. God relents but will only let King Solomon build it after king David’s death. The prophets were critical of the temple cult.

The temple that Stephen criticises is the second temple that was rebuilt after the Babylonian exile. It had recently been expanded by King Herod, in a massive building programme in the twenty years before Jesus’ birth. But Stephen says “The Most High does not do well in houses made with human hands”. This provocative phrase, “made with human hands’ was used by the prophets about idols. To make sense of Stephen’s severe critique of the temple it helps to know that king Herod’s temple had been destroyed in the year 70 by the Romans, leaving only one wall of the extended platform
around the temple left standing, known today as the wailing wall.

Luke is writing over ten or twenty years after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem. So why is this harsh condemnation of the temple as idolatrous written of a temple that no longer existed. Luke’s writings are polemical, aimed to help Christianity emerge from being a Jewish messianic and apocalyptic sect into a new religious tradition, opening it up to Gentiles. It was breaking away from other emerging post-temple Jewish movements, such as Pharisaism (from which the rabbinic Judaism would emerge). Both Rabbinic Judaism and Pauline Christianity are born at this time, the twin offsprings from the death of priestly temple Judaism. Luke shapes his two volume narrative to present the church as the new living temple of the Holy Spirit, a prophetic movement the likes of which God raised up in generations previously.

Luke gives us the character Stephen as an example of that church. We may know nothing about the historical Stephen, if he existed, and it’s one the ironies of history is that this Stephen who is said to have been stoned to death for criticism of the temple made with human hands, became the patron saint to stone masons!

Yet as we celebrate the birth of Jesus this Christmas, the character of Stephen introduces us to Luke’s conviction that the Holy Spirit which conceived Jesus and anointed him at his baptism to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind now leads the church. The Holy Spirit is a prophetic spirit of social critique that leads us in service to the poor.

So as we give thanks to God for Jesus’s birth, we pray that the Holy Spirit may fill us and lead us in Jesus way to be God’s continuing presence in the world.

A sermon on the Lectionary Year of the Evangelist Luke

by Canon Dr Paul Overend, Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral

A few moments ago you heard the gospeller say: “Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke.”

Today, I want to us to consider just that one liturgical line.

1. “Hear…”

It begins with the opening word, hear! But is this

• an invitation?

• an announcement?

• a command?

• or a warning?

I ask you, because these require a different sort of attention and response from us: – a response of gratitude, or interest, obedience, or alarm.

Our answer is found in the Hebrew prophets, who often begin, “Hear, O Israel”, or “Hear the word of the Lord”. At the very climax of the Book of Job, God addresses Job directly, saying, “hear and I will speak to you…” (Job 42:4) So I think this opening is a call, an echo of God’s calling you, God’s speaking to each of you. The gospeller calls you all to hear the word of God Incarnate. It’s a prophetic call hear what God is saying in Jesus.

This is not just a call to listen though: It’s a call to hear. To hear is more demanding of us than to listen. I once had a colleague who used to say, “I hear you”. It sounded like a counselling cliché, but it’s true that to be heard is more than to be listened to.

To truly hear is to attend with the ear of your heart. This involves encountering what is heard, recognising how it resonated with you, hearing God’s call to you, which calls for a response to what is heard.

This distinction between listening and hearing evokes for me an image of a stone being thrown into a still lake. The stone makes a splash, breaking the silence and stillness. But if we stay, we can watch the energy of that splash being conveyed by the water, the ripples spreading out.

To listen is to attend to the splash, which is the good news of Jesus. The gospeller is bringing us tidings of great joy, announcing this good news of his words and deeds.

But to hear is to be energised, to let our lives reverberate with joy as we respond to what we have heard. To truly hear is become caught up into the ripples of history as they flows out from the splash.

2. “…The Gospel according to Luke”

The opening call of the gospeller though, was to “Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke”.

Today we begin a new year in the church’s cycle of Sunday readings, or “lections”. At most Sunday Eucharists this coming lectionary year, we’ll be listening to the gospel as it was heard and shared by Luke.

In shorthand, we sometimes refer to “Luke’s gospel”. But this is so misleading, that I’d advise against it! There is, for us, only one good news, the one gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, not a gospel of St Paul (Gal 1:7), or Mathew, Mark, Luke, or John. This year though we listen to that gospel of Jesus, as it is told “according to Luke”.

While we don’t really know the third evangelist’s name, we do know this evangelist wrote two books in our bible: the Gospel, on the mission of Jesus; and the Acts of the Apostles, on the mission of Paul and his companions. Both are written to a certain Theophilus, a name that means ‘God-lover’. We also know that the evangelist was not an eye witness to events of Jesus’ life. He’s not a news reporter. He’s an evangelist – one who had heard the gospel of Jesus, as “good news of great joy for all the people”, as his angel of the Lord says to the shepherds (Luke 2:7). Luke was energised by what he heard, so caught up in the ripples of joy and hope, that he helps to spread them.

For Luke, this gospel is summed up in Jesus’s brief Nazareth Manifesto, the mission statement that Luke includes in chapter 4, when Jesus opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah at the synagogue in Nazareth and reads,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Luke heard this good news on a deep level. He heard its message of salvation. The evangelist passes this on to us as having four key themes, which I want just name today, and to unpack through the year to come.

Those four themes of salvation of the Gospel according to Luke can be remembered if we summarise each with the letter R. They are release, reversal, reorientation, and restoration.

1. Release – is a release from all captivity:— from sin, from sickness, from attachments, even from death to life.

2. Reversal – is a reversal of positions of privilege and oppression, with the humble and poor taking the place of the mighty and rich (as in the Magnificat of Mary, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and Luke’s woes and beatitudes).

3. Reorientation – is a redirecting of our lives, a turning ourselves about — like Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus who after recognising Jesus in the breaking of bread immediately returned to Jerusalem (Luke 24).

4. And Restoration – a re-establishing of God’s covenant relationship, which renews and restores us. So we find lots of shared meals in Luke, renewing relationships and building bridges, with baskets of bread left over.

These four themes are each a part of our being saved. And for Luke, to be saved is to be “merciful as your Heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

End

I end with my analogy of listening and hearing in terms of a splash and ripples. If the splash was Jesus, the evangelist who wrote the third gospel heard this good news and became a vehicle of its message of salvation as ripples through history. But the gospel was written for us to share in this joy and to find in it our salvation. So the call of the gospeller through this lectionary year is for you — to “Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke.”

I pray this coming year that we may all deeply hear the gospel according to Luke; that we may resonate with what we hear and be energised by this good news for all people, and may we all be caught up in those ripples of history as we become merciful as God is merciful.

I pray for this in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Homily on John 10: 1-10

By The Very Reverend Christine Wilson

I first began to understand the nature of sheep when I moved from city life to spend a few years in the beautiful countryside of the Peak District in the heart of the English midlands.

I have three particular images from that time which I think can help us to understand the vulnerability of sheep.

The first was the time I discovered a sheep caught up in a thicket of thorns. The more it struggled the more it hurt itself and became even more tangled. It was helpless and vulnerable to attack. I called the local farmer to rescue it.

Then there was the time I glanced into a field and saw a big fat ewe stuck upside down with its legs in the air unable to right itself. It wasn’t happily basking in the sun, it was dying because without rescue left for too long in that position, it was likely to suffocate.

The final image is rather cute. It was a particularly ferocious early spring and lambing had just started. The rain had been falling in torrents for weeks on end. As I passed a field I noticed lots of bright red plastic and was curious. To my amusement all the new lambs were wearing little red raincoats to protect them and keep them dry.

Jesus uses the image of sheep to describe us as those who are vulnerable to predators, susceptible to danger, inclined to get lost and having a herd mentality.

Identifying that we are the sheep in the story and Jesus is the Good Shepherd is the easy bit. But what about Jesus as the Gate?

It helps to know that sheepfolds came in two varieties. I read somewhere that there was the town version where several flocks could be held together with a porter or doorkeeper. The Shepherds would come in the morning and the sheep would respond to their distinctive call and would be led out to pasture It was important to know your sheep not least because the Shepherd was accountable for every one of them.

The other was the remote sheepfold out on the hills. A circle of stones with an opening. The Shepherd would lie across the entrance to keep the sheep in and wild animals out. The Shepherd as the gate.

Shepherds knew their sheep. They protected, guided and provided for them and were constant companions. They were ready to lay down their life to save the sheep.
In our Gospel today, Jesus gives I us these two images of Gate and Good Shepherd to describe the life and relationship that he offers each of us.

We are reminded of all this in Psalm 23

The Lord is my Shepherd, therefore I shall lack nothing, he makes me to lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters – he restores my soul.

But being followers of Jesus invites us not only to receive the life he offers and invite others into the security of the fold, but also to become like him as Good Shepherds and Gates offering his love, his protection and his care.

In these days we know that many are exhausted, needing protection from harm or illness, anxious about the future, lost or alone.

Jesus calls us by name and he bids us to exercise leadership, setting before us his example as we care about the safety of the vulnerable, look to the needs of the hungry and draw all who are lost into the green pastures of his life and love.

 

A Sermon for Easter Day – The Rt Revd Dr David Court, Acting Bishop of Lincoln 

A Sermon for Palm Sunday – The Revd Canon John Patrick, Subdean

Please follow the links below for previous sermons:

A Sermon for the fifth Sunday of Lent – The Very Reverend Christine Wilson, Dean of Lincoln