Our lessons this morning provide our graduates, as well as the rest of us, several helpful ways of thinking about our lives as Christians.
The stoning of Stephen is a sober reminder that if we are serious about following Jesus, our loyalty will be tested. We can expect that others will resist our way of thinking, speaking and acting in subtle or not so subtle ways. Because we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, there will be those who will try to adulterate the salt or diminish the light. And that’s because being a disciple of Jesus will stand as an implicit or explicit challenge to their own lives, even though we represent and even fuller life than the one they are leading, a life that God is determined to offer to everyone through his Son, Jesus.
If God gives us the grace, as he did with Stephen, when God called him to testify to the religious leaders of his day, to explain to them the limits of their Jewish faith and to offer them what their faith had prepared them to receive, we should not be surprised if others also stubbornly resist our own witness to the gospel by the truth of our words and the graciousness of our actions. And if we must suffer as a result, we learn from Stephen’s example that Jesus himself will stand up for us, even if no one else in this world does.
We are right to confess in our creeds that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that he has ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of God, but Stephen testifies that if we must suffer in this world out of our loyalty to Jesus, he will stand up for us, not only to honor and further encourage our continued faithfulness but, if necessary, as it is in other parts of the world, to personally welcome into his kingdom those who lay down their very lives for him. Let us never forget that in the end, as well as throughout our lives, how Jesus judges our words and deeds is the only judgment that really counts and the only grade that really matters.
More than that, our courageous witness to Jesus may, in the end, turn the hearts of the very people who initially oppose us, just as Stephen’s bold and dying witness did in the life of Paul, who after his subsequent conversion, when the words of Stephen, and his willingness to suffer for the truth of the gospel, finally sank in, Paul became a tireless and relentless witness to the same risen Lord, to the very ends of the earth, to the very end of his life, like Stephen, as a martyr to his faith in the judgment of the Roman emperor.
So to you, our graduates, Jesus would say, “Be of good cheer. You will encounter resistance to the gospel, perhaps no more so than on your college campus, but I promise to stand up for you and to use your witness, as difficult and costly as it may be in your relationships with your peers and your professors, as the very means by which my Father is glorified. And whatever it may cost you to be loyal to me, you will receive an A+ on the only exam that finally matters when I declare to you, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ Then you will know that the sacrifices you made were worth the reward of knowing how proud I am of you and how much you truly please me.”
That is why I will be giving each of our graduates a copy of The Message, which is a very accessible translation of the Bible, so that they can discern when the truth of the gospel is being challenged, so they can resist being drawn into the foolishness of this world, choosing instead to be a fool for Christ’s sake.
We also learn in today’s psalm that the time that God has given us in this life, however short or long, belongs to God. Our times are in his hand. That means that God has definite plans for us. Jesus makes a promise in our gospel that encourages us to manage the time God has given us with his plans and purposes in mind. Jesus promises us that he will do whatever we ask in his name. That means that Jesus wants us to partner with him, to take his yoke upon us, which he promises will be easier than any other yoke there is because he is yoked together with us in fulfilling his plans for our lives. The challenge of college is to figure out what those plans are, and to remember that we need not fear if God frustrates what we thought were his plans for us, which, in the case of Paul, was to try and stamp out a new sect of Jews who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah. God can always use us, even if we get off on the wrong track. He will continue to nudge us back on the path that will bring us the greatest satisfaction and be the most useful to his larger purposes.
Peter uses the metaphor of a temple made out of individual stones to explain this process that everyone must go through in order to grow and reach maturity. Like a stone, God first chooses us, then delivers us to site of his temple, then chisels us with the sword of his word and brings us to life through the breath of his Spirit so that he can place us into his temple alongside other living stones with their own unique features, position and function, that the world may see that God’s ultimate purpose is to unite all his people in union with Christ, the head and cornerstone of that temple in which he dwells.
College will be a time of chiseling, of discovering, sometimes painfully, the true shape of our identity even as we sacrifice the parts of ourselves that would otherwise delay this process of discovering, celebrating and honoring the place and the plans that God has for us.
I know everyone here, and especially your mothers, who first delivered you with all your raw and wonderful potential into this world, is praying and will continue to pray that your future will be one in which you hold fast to the truth of the gospel, let go of whatever is childish, and find, in God’s good time, the place he has for you as one who is becoming ever more like Christ. AMEN.