Do you remember the name Harold Camping? He died this past December, but for many years was the leader of Family Radio Worldwide. His claim to fame was that through complex mathematical formulas he predicted that on May 21, 2011 the rapture, that is God calling his people home, would occur and the world would end as we know it. Now, if it had occurred and all of you were still here after the rapture, I wouldn’t be surprised, but since I’m still here, I figure he was wrong. For the record, Camping also predicted that the world would end on Sept. 6, 1994 and that didn’t happen either. He wrote that off as errors in his computations. Jesus said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” My logic says, if the angels don’t know the hour or day, then someone with a calculator and a Bible won’t be able to figure it out either.
However, leading up to May 21, 2011, atheist across the country were having all sorts of fun by having “end of the world parties. Although Mr. Camping was wrong, I still don’t know that it is a good idea to mock him and I’ll tell you why: people have been looking for Jesus return for 2,000+ years. They have been praying for his return for 2,000+ years and for good reason. The author Anne Lamott summed it up, she wrote, “We are Easter People, living in a Good Friday World.” We are an Easter people believing in the resurrection, old things passing away, new life, the promises of the Good News, but the world around is in shambles. Some see the world around us and they interpret its condition as the end, “How could we go on anymore?” So in the midst of the shambles, folks want to see the Lord’s return so badly, that they begin to look for it even more closely and want it so much that they even make the mistake of trying to predict it. In a way, it is an act of desperation.
Harold Camping and the others who have predicted Jesus return through this desperation are not alone. Consider the apostles in our Gospel reading today: Jesus has already shared the Last Supper with his disciples, he has predicted his death, he has told Peter and the others that they will deny him.. essentially he is giving final instructions and saying, “Goodbye.” For the apostles, their world is spinning out of control, their world is turning into shambles, so Thomas says to Jesus, “Give us directions on how we can follow you.” Philip wants Jesus to show them the Father. In both cases, instead of breaking out a map or showing a photo, Jesus responds, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “If you have seen me then you have seen the Father.” For the apostles that still sounds a bit cryptic, because they did not fully understand Jesus’ purpose, what his mission was all about. That understanding would not come until later, but the events surrounding Stephen that we read about today are key to this understanding.
You will recall that after Jesus’ death the apostles went about preaching and teaching; however, as more folks came to belief in Christ it became more difficult for these few followers to care for them all, so they elected seven others – the first deacons – to assist in the ministry. One of those seven was Stephen and he was very passionate about his work. Not only did he do the work of a deacon, but he also proclaimed the Gospel message. Just as the religious leadership did not want to hear it from Jesus, they didn’t want to hear it from this young upstart either. So it came to pass that on one particular day Stephen gave them a great tongue lashing. He said to them, you have always been disobedient to God, you have always limited God, and you have persecuted the prophets that God sent. The crowning jewel of this tongue lashing comes when Stephen tells them, you murdered the Son of God.
It is hear that scripture records an amazing scene, “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” For his perceived “blasphemy” they stoned him to death.
In believing and proclaiming the Gospel Stephen, the first martyr of the church, saw the place that Thomas had asked Jesus for directions to and he saw the glory of the Father that Phillip had wanted to see. What Stephen was witness to was the Good News. Jesus’ Kingdom was not bound to an earthly realm. You don’t need directions on how to get there or a photograph to know the Father, you only need one thing. Care to take a guess? Jesus – and that is the Good News.
What kind of person do you think of when you consider a person like Stephen? He knew that because Jesus claimed to be the Son of God it got him crucified, but here Stephen is making the same claims. Don’t you think he had to know that it would incite the religious leaders once again? Was he like one of those street preachers you imagine in Time Square, standing on a milk crate, flailing a Bible around shouting at those passing by, but in the case of Stephen knowing what he said could get him killed? Was he on a suicide mission, simply begging for death? Or was he being the light of the world. That city on a hill that can’t be hidden? Was Stephen a hero? Was he someone whose character and behavior we should model and follow?
Now please don’t think I’m picking on anyone in particular this morning. I’m not. Instead, I’m being very equitable and picking on us all, because we are all guilty of something specific in our Christian walk. Folks like Thomas and Philip ask to see God, others like Harold Camping and his followers want to see God so badly that they predict dates when they actually will, but they are not the only ones? The world is in shambles all around us and folks, whether directly or indirectly, ask us those same questions: “Can you show me the way?” “Can you help me to understand and see God?” Indirectly they may pour out to you the turmoil within their souls, their anxious thoughts, and personal concerns; but when they do, what we are all guilty of is being too polite. How many of you have heard this, “Faith or someone’s relationship with God is a personal matter.” “I don’t want to force my religious views on anyone.” “I might make them angry if I talk about God.”
I asked you if you thought Stephen was some sort of madman or a hero and the correct answer is that he is a hero. We should emulate his behavior, which means we shouldn’t always be so polite and say or do what is considered socially proper when it comes to our faith – It is THE Good News and that Good News is not there just so we can have some comforting words to say at someone’s deathbed or worse, their funeral! The Good News is for today. It is for the living and is for sharing. If someone happens to get angry and throws a few rocks then so be it. I love what St. Josemaria Escriva said on this, “If they break our skulls, we shall not take it too seriously. We shall just have to put up with having them broken.” You are living testimonies to the Good News and it is worth sharing.
Scripture says that Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and we too are filled with that same Spirit, which will allows us share the Good News of Jesus Christ as boldly and as unapologetically as Stephen did. The world did not end on May 21, 2011 or today – at least not yet! – so there are many who still want and need to know the way to Jesus. They want to see the Father. You, each and everyone of you, can provide them with directions.
The Psalmist declares, “My mouth will tell of your righteous deeds, of your saving acts all day long— though I know not how to relate them all. I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, Sovereign LORD; I will proclaim your righteous deeds, yours alone. Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.”
Don’ let that simply be something you read or hear. Let it be something you live. A way of life. Be aware of the many opportunities that the Lord provides you to share your faith and then grasp those opportunities and proclaim the Good News that is within you.