Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 18, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10John 14:1-14

By Bruce Epperly

Today’s readings portray mystical and unitive experiences that issue in changed perspectives on the challenges of life. Mysticism often provides us with a greater perspective that liberates us from self-centeredness and defensiveness, thus enabling us to live compassionately.

In the course of his inquisition and martyrdom, Stephen has a vision of God. You might even call it a near death experience, enabling him to experience his death fearlessly and compassionately. Like Jesus before him, he faces persecution with forgiveness, recognizing from his larger spiritual perspective the utter ignorance and lostness of his persecutors. Their actions are based on a wrong perception of reality; they experience grace as threat and resurrection as destructive of their religious tradition, rather than pathways that will lead to creative transformation and expansion of their faith. Perhaps someday, Stephen’s persecutors, including Paul, who watches the stoning with a sense of approval, will experience the living Christ and truly know God’s nature. Stephen’s own forgiveness, based on his mystical experience, may create a ripple effect, opening the door to new possibilities for divine action in his persecutors’ lives.

The Psalmist gains courage through a larger perspective. Threat is all around, danger abounds, but the Psalmist proclaims “my times are in your hand.” The gift of a larger spiritual perspective enables him to experience God’s love shining upon him.

The author of I Peter reminds his listeners to feast on spiritual soul food. They have tasted the goodness of God, and from that nurture, they are able to be “built into a spiritual house.” Surely this is what John Wesley described as “sanctification,” our growing into living awareness and alignment with God that frees us for service in the world. Growing in spirit enables us to become a royal priesthood, living by life-giving values and sharing good news by our words and actions. This spiritual priesthood is not set apart as better than others, but given the call to healing and transformation, of not only sharing good news but becoming good news to the world.

John 14:1-14 presents both problems and possibilities to the preacher. The passage is almost too complex for one sermon. It begins with images often invoked at funerals. In God’s realm there are many dwelling places; Jesus as the Christ prepares a place for us – a future and a hope we can rely on – that enables us to experience eternal life in the here and now. We can face persecution, aging, and death because of our faith in God’s everlasting love. The trials we face now are part of a larger adventure of growing with God.

The passage becomes complicated by the words “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” At first glance, these words appear to be quite exclusionary; they imply there is only one way to salvation. Everyone else is lost – all other religions are false. Faith is monolithic rather than multi-faceted. In funerals and other public events many of us quit reading at John 14:3 simply to avoid theological complications. But, perhaps, these ambiguous – and often hurtful and inhospitable – words contain the promise of good news. Perhaps, Jesus is saying, “I am providing a way. It’s not up to you to decide who’s in and who’s out. Look at my life and you will see the heart of God. You will see God’s love for the lost and broken. Don’t place wall where I have placed a bridge. Don’t decide the scope of salvation, and exclude those I love.” God’s way addresses us in many ways – just as there are many mansions – and we would do well to be generous rather than stingy about the scope of salvation.

Then, Jesus describes his own unitive experience with the creator of the universe. Just look at Jesus and you will see the heart of God: God is in me, and I am in God. This is an existential and spiritual statement that has metaphysical implications. God’s movements of energy and inspiration are within Jesus’ life and Jesus life shapes the contours of God’s own experience. The unity of God and Jesus is a unity of vision and aim, an alignment of spirit that releases divine energies in our world.

The passage concludes with the promise that we can align ourselves with God, and then do greater things than we can imagine. What could these greater things be? Given the vision of Jesus’ life presented in the gospels, we could do greater acts of hospitality, spiritual nurture, and healing. We have powers we can’t imagine that can be released when we align ourselves with Christ’s way, letting Christ be the center of our experiences and letting God’s vision guide us moment by moment.

We are always on holy ground. We all can be mystics in our own unique ways, seeing deeply into the universe, and we can have powers to heal and embrace through our relationship with God, individually and as congregations.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of over thirty books in theology, ministry, scripture, healing, and spirituality including, Process Theology: A Guide for the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, and Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God. He may be reached for conversation and speaking engagements