Today’s gospel comes from the book of John, the most lyrical of all the gospels. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke chronicle the Last Supper as the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, John doesn’t. He gives us this great farewell, Jesus last attempt to summarize his ministry and our faith and as usual the disciples ask for him to “take us, show us.” What patience Jesus displays! Time is running out, he’s trying to prepare them for what is to come, and they’re asking the same things again. Through the traumatic events on the horizon, he is preparing them to step out in faith, girding them with knowledge and assurance that he and the Father are one and are their constant companions.. We’ve heard this reading at funerals. It’s intended to assure mourners the one we have lost goes to that proverbial better place, that there is a mansion prepared for them, a place in God’s heart where there is no pain nor sadness. I wonder if those who have lost someone dear to them, a partner or a child, absorb this any better than the disciples did.
Our first reading from Acts talks of Stephan’s stoning. Let’s backtrack a bit and get a fuller picture of just who Stephan was. We first meet Stephan in Acts 6. The disciples have their hands full with preaching, healing, and generally sharing the Good News of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The Hellenistic community, the people of Greek origin are complaining they’re not getting their fair share of the goods distributed to the needy, the widows, the orphans. something has to be done so the disciples appoint 7 others to fulfill this ministry. First among these is Stephen and this is the birth of the order of Deacons. Apparently Stephen is more than a conduit of goods and he is brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Council who could hear cases and impose the death penalty. Stephen’s words had gotten him in trouble and almost rescued him with his appeal to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 as he related the history of the Israeli prophets starting with Moses and also presented God as not just confined to a Temple, a radical thought at the time. He’s doing well, at least according to our modern reading until his concluding paragraph:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it.
Now our reading today picks up the history. Obviously Stephen won no one over with these words. He was taken out and stoned. In the throes of his agony he gets a glimpse of heaven, Christ on the right hand of God. Like his savior he prays that God forgives his persecutors. A quiet character at Stephen’s death, one we will see again on the road to Damascus, is Saul, later to become Paul, demonstrating his persecution of the early Christians. Stephen, as the first deacon holds a special place in my faith and as the first martyr holds an important place in Christian tradition.
First Peter speaks of our yearning for God’s love and word, like an infant yearns for his mother’s milk. We quench this thirst each time we come to God’s table and drink of the cup of Salvation. It is such a blessing to be allowed to offer that chalice to you. To watch you approach humbly, with love and see you cup your hands reverently around that bowl. We share a prayer, “the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” You drink, “Aaaah men!”
Peter again presents the image of Christ as the cornerstone of our faith, of our lives. The stone the builder has rejected is now the one that holds all others together and he challenges us. What kind of stone are you? Are you a stumbling block, an obstacle or are a valuable part of the temple of faith. Do you cause others to trip or stub their toe in matters of faith or are you part of a sturdy wall that demonstrates strength and love and one they can lean on when times are tough?
Peter is my favorite disciple. What endears Peter the saint to me is his complete humanity, his veritable feet of clay. In his humanity, he messes up. Repeatedly. He and the others fall asleep in Gethemene after Jesus tells them to watch with him. Repeatedly. While Jesus is on trial, he waits in the patio and denies being a follower of our savior. Repeatedly. And yet he is the rock on which the church is built. He preaches and ultimately becomes the Bishop of Rome, some call him the first Pope.
Soon we recite the Nicene Creed and affirm “we believe in the holy catholic and apostolic church,” Small c catholic means universal church. Our church is characterized by Apostolic succession.
Michael Ramsey, an English Anglican bishop and the Archbishop of Canterbury during the 1960’s and early ’70’s, described three definitions of "apostolic succession":
One bishop succeeding another in the same see meant that there was a continuity of teaching: "while the Church as a whole is the vessel into which the truth is poured, the Bishops are an important organ in carrying out this task".
The bishops were also successors of the apostles in that "the functions they performed of preaching, governing and ordaining were the same as the Apostles had performed".
It is also used to signify that "grace is transmitted from the Apostles by each generation of bishops through the imposition of hands”.
So what we are saying is we believe in a holy, universal church handed down through a continuous line of Bishops dating back to Peter himself.
This sounds so simple and yet it created profound challenges when the American colonies established their independence. Anything British was looked at askance and part of the Church of England prayers declared loyalty to the Monarch. Not happening! Neither from the position of independence recently won or from the stance of separation of church and state established in the emerging country. Although prospective Bishops were willing to travel to England to be consecrated, the required Oath of Allegiance to the Monarch precluded their consecration. In 1784 the Reverend Samuel Seabury was consecrated in the Scotland Episcopal Church and America had her first Bishop and the apostolic succession was established in the new country.
Later this month there will be an election to chose the next Bishop of Guatemala. Today Rev. Neli Miranda, a candidate for that honor is worshipping with us and will share a few words. Several weeks ago Rev. Ramon Orvalle visited. There are 3 other candidates. St. Alban’s as a mission is entitled to a voting delegate, but they must have their church membership in the rolls of the Diocese of Guatemala. Father John is visiting family and cannot attend, since my church membership remains with the Diocese of California, I cannot vote. If we want to be represented in this important election, we must select delegates. I suspect the pool to chose from is small. This election will set the tone for the future of the Episcopal Church in this country.
(Following the homily Father Ricardo Frohmader shared some history of the Bishops of Guatemala and discussed the upcoming election. He expressed his confidence in Rev. Neli as a prospective Bishop. The deadline for submitting delegates’ names to participate in the Convention and election has apparently been extended and Father Frohmader encouraged St. Alban’s to send a delegate to the Convention.)
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English, Anglican Communion) meets for mass every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.