Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. Act 7:58
Acts was written by Luke, who says (Lk. 1:1-4) that he carefully set out to write a history of Jesus and the early Church. And Luke was there with St. Paul at the very end of St. Paul’s life (II Tim. 4:11). Much of the information we have about St. Paul comes from Luke. So why does Luke seemingly go out of his way to condemn Paul (Saul) with this little aside about who was watching the coats at the stoning of Stephen? You’d think Luke would want to downplay, or at least not want to highlight such an embarrassing detail. But keep reading.
What Luke could have been teaching us it not to judge God’s ways, or lose heart prematurely. St. Stephen was beloved by the Church. His being unjustly stoned to death would have made many people wonder why God would allow such a thing. It made no sense. It was a huge loss to the Church. But we know that most of Acts ends up being about that very same Saul. He becomes a great Apostle. His story prior to his conversion laid the groundwork for his conversion and subsequent history. You just have to keep reading when it seems like everything has gone wrong.
When we encounter things that make no sense to us, such as when innocent people suffer, when death seemingly picks people at random, when government are unjust, when the Church suffers setbacks, we can begin to question God. We should know from our own Scriptures and from the name of our congregation that the story isn’t over. God is always going somewhere with this, no matter what “this” is or how terrible it may be. History isn’t over; we need to keep reading.
Since we know that time after time God had brought good out of evil, we should simply keep our eyes open for what the benefits of this strange, ongoing situation might be. Maybe it was necessary to shake you out of a spiritual lethargy. Maybe this will help our society re-prioritize. Maybe people are getting the training they need to fight some other virus in the future. Maybe all of those things and countless other good things are going on.
What is certain is that this Easter season we need never fear any kind of endings. Whether that ending is death, or of a career, or stage of family life, or anything dear to us, we look forward. We keep reading. The Christ who came out of the tomb is with us. The disease, injustice, or ravages of time that bring the things we love to an end do not have the final word, and are likely just the seeds of amore glorious, unforeseeable future. St. Paul has been on both side of a martyrdom—first helping to kill St. Stephen, then being unjustly executed himself for his faith. But the story of Christ and His Church goes on. St. Paul’s, Munster is a part of it. You are a part of it. It is full of endings that erupt into new chapters. Don’t be afraid, and don’t be surprised when it turns out God has been going somewhere with this. Keep reading.
Let the Word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Col. 3:16
Colossians is only 4 chapters long, so the whole book is very readable in one sitting. And really, the meat of it is chapters 2-3. I encourage you all to read at least those two chapters today. In them, St. Paul writes the words quoted above, about letting the Word of Christ dwell in our hearts in teaching and in song. But he urges them to do that having acknowledged in the previous chapter that he cannot be with them in the body, at least for the time being.
More importantly, this section of the Bible includes these words: Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Col. 2:16-17 We have the Christian freedom to figure how best to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly in different ways suitable for different contexts.
Since we cannot be with each other in the body, and since we cannot celebrate the festivals by which we normally commemorate Holy Week (at least not in the usual way), we rejoice that we have the God-given opportunity nevertheless to ponder Christ and His Passion with the God-given freedom to do so in unusual ways given the circumstances. The main thing is that our hearts be fixed on Christ. Reading Colossians today will help that be the case for you.
Speaking of reading, have you read any good books lately? Sometimes good books (and yes, there is a difference between reading a good book and reading a book designed merely to distract and amuse) can help us ponder Christ and His Passion by explaining and illustrating the way a sermon would. Here are a few recommendations.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis is a fantasy story and Christian allegory that portrays the Christ figure as a fearsome Lion. You will note the obvious parallels in it to the Passion story of the Gospels. It is good for all ages, and a genuinely good book that also entertains.
Death on a Friday Afternoon, by Fr. R.J. Neuhaus (full disclosure, my uncle) is essentially a Tre Ore service in book form, with each chapter providing an extended theological reflection on one of the seven last words from the cross.
Grace Upon Grace, by John Kleinig is an excellent general introduction to practicing a deeper Christian spiritual life in a world obsessed with cheap, imitation spirituality.
But no book can replace Scripture. Read Colossians 2-3 today, and keep following the services online. Let other books like these help you think through and process the Word. St. Paul’s (the saint and the congregation) goal for you is that the Word of Christ continue to dwell in your richly in this time of being away from each other in the body and out of our normal rhythm of festivals. God is still with you!
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana