During a recent radio interview with Terry Gross, the standup comic Pete Holmes talked about his upbringing in a conservative Evangelical context and about what faith looks like for him today. The interview is frequently funny (I guess that’s what you would expect in a conversation with a comedian). And it is also filled with beauty and searching and joy and melancholy. Holmes spends a lot of time, for instance, talking about his divorce, about his long stretches of underemployment and borderline poverty when he was first trying to break into the comedy business, about trying to find his voice as a performer and, maybe, about trying to find his voice as a human being.
Woven throughout the conversation, Holmes talks about God.
Holmes grew up serious about church. He attended Bible College, he thought hard about being a Youth Pastor. And even after he started hanging out and working in the kind of comedy club in which a lot of his fellow comics’ humour was built around raunchy or even aggressively vulgar jokes, he kept on thinking about pleasing Jesus. One of the most wistful, one of the most beautiful and hard moments in the interview comes when Holmes explains that, when he stood on stage at the club, he would imagine Jesus standing in the back of the club watching him.
I say that this idea – this almost vision – of Jesus in the club, is beautiful and hard. It is beautiful because, well, I love the idea of Jesus in a comedy club. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first miracle is at a party; in Matthew and Luke, Jesus likes eating and drinking so much that folks accuse him of being a glutton. Jesus delights in life. There is something glorious and right and true about picturing him in a comedy club, of imagining the Son of Man holding a glass of wine (maybe one that was recently a glass of water) and guffawing and slapping Peter and the Sons of Zebedee on the back. More generally, I love the idea that Jesus takes an interest in your work and mine. That Jesus, like a loving parent, likes to see us as we go about our jobs, likes to see us as we engage in our vocations.
And Holmes’ vision is hard because, listening to him, I have the sense that he wasn’t always confident that Jesus approved of his comedy and, maybe, that Jesus even approved of him. I have the sense that Holmes was afraid that Jesus was disappointed in him. That while God was someone he loved, God was also someone whom he feared and someone whose love he feared losing.
Maybe those are fears that some of us gathered here this morning know for ourselves.
Today we hear the story Stephen, traditionally the first martyr of the church. Stephen gets his own day in the church calendar on December 26th (if you’ve ever sung Good King Wenceslas, you know about “the Feast of Stephen”) and the lectionary gives us his story again on this Sunday, as the energy and trajectory of Easter takes us ever nearer to Pentecost.
Stephen appears for the first time in the Bible in Chapter Six of Acts of the Apostles – so, just before the reading that we heard this morning. And his life echoes or imitates the life of Jesus, albeit in really compressed form. Acts uses just a handful of sentences to tell us that Stephen performed signs and wonders, that people tried to argue with him but that Stephen verbally outduelled them every time, that the religious authorities didn’t like him, and that those same authorities arranged for Stephen to be accused blasphemy so that they could arrest him.
Chapter Seven of Acts begins with Stephen on trial. And as he faces a kangaroo court, a court that has found him guilty before he has even walked in the door, he delivers one of the longest speeches to be found anywhere in the Bible, a monologue that would almost more at home in a play than in scripture. He recounts God’s work across history: here are Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, here is Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. Here is the story of God’s continual creativity, of God’s continual invitation to you and to me into freedom.
As the speech nears its climax, Stephen tells the judges and lawyers and priests that that God does not dwell in houses made by human hands. God does not, in other words, live in the temple in Jerusalem. He quotes both Jesus and the Prophet Isaiah to explain that heaven is God’s throne and the earth God’s footstool, that God made all of these things.
And then, Stephen moves from history and theology to something closer to accusation or indictment. Again like Jesus, he reverses the dynamic in the courtroom, he puts the ones who have arrested him on trial. He looks straight at his captors and he tells them that they are uncircumcised in ear and heart. He tells them that they have received the law and not kept it.
This is where we pick up the story this morning. With Stephen’s captors responding to his words with fury. And with Stephen, even in the midst of the rage that is directed at him, looking into heaven and seeing Jesus.
Look. I see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.
Somehow this vision is the last straw. His captors drag him outside of the city and they slowly, collectively kill him by hurling rocks at him. Just like his life, just like his trial, Stephen’s torturous, horrifying death is an echo of Jesus on the cross, right up to and including the non-violence and the forgiveness of his last words.
Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
Now, there are some commentators who argue that the story of Stephen is anti-Judaic in nature, that the author of Acts is choosing to tell this tale and to tell it in this way as a kind of vitriolic propaganda against the Jewish people. And I do want to allow that possibility, to take it seriously. As Mark Braverman reminded us last week, the history of anti-Jewish words and actions within Christendom is long and disastrous. We need to pay attention to how our Jewish brothers and sisters read our holy texts and how they experience our liturgy, lest we continue to proclaim and anti-Jewish message without really noticing it.
Having named that caution, I will say that my own guess is that those commentators are mistaken in their assessment of Stephen’s story. During his monologue, he tells the story of the Jewish people using first person plural language: he speaks of “us” and “our.” In other words, Stephen identifies the Torah and the Prophets as his own story. As we’ve already mentioned, he quotes Isaiah in talking about where God is to be found. And his accusation to his captors is not that the Law is broken or antiquated or useless but, quite the opposite, that their sin is that they are failing to follow the Law. Stephen’s perspective – once again, like Jesus – is that of a faithful Jew.
I want to suggest, therefore, that Stephen’s words are not representative of someone who hates Judaism but, rather, they are representative of someone who loves it enough to critique it, much as, nearer to our own time, Martin Luther King Jr. loved the church enough to critique it. Or to put that a different way, Stephen’s critique is not of Judaism in particular but, rather, his critique is of the kind of religion in general that makes God into an object of fear, the kind of religion in which we mistake God for someone who is passive or indifferent to violence in which we mistake God for someone who calls us into violence and scapegoating and exclusion, in which we mistake God for someone who, in choosing and loving us, must reject and despise others.
The kind of religion in which it makes sense to arrest someone on false charges and then to drag them outside and stone them.
When Stephen says that God does not dwell in a house made by human hands, that God doesn’t dwell in the Temple, he isn’t saying that there is something wrong with the Temple any more than, if I were to utter similar words, I would be declaring that there was something wrong with this church building. Rather, what Stephen is declaring is that God is not hemmed in or constrained by walls.
We need places like this where we gather to name the presence of God among us. But what we are naming here is that God is everywhere, everywhere and at work in the hearts of everyone, everyone.
At the end of Pete Holmes’ interview with Terry Gross, an interview in which he recounts one moment of clarity or insight or revelation after another, Holmes says that he now sees the goal of spirituality or faith as being that of keeping a clean antenna (what an extraordinary turn of phrase), of being open to God, of seeking a place where you can see that God is everywhere, in which you can see that God is in everyone, in which you can see that God doesn’t demand our fear but, rather, that God invites our love.
Notice that Stephen’s final vision is a total clean antenna moment. Even before his death, he sees Jesus with perfect clarity.
I like to think about Pete Holmes getting his antenna so clean that he has a similar vision. I like to think about you and I doing the same. Imagine Jesus standing in the back of the crowd in the comedy club, looking at Pete not in disappointment or judgment, but in joy and delight. Imagine Jesus laughing so hard at Pete’s jokes that the wine comes out of his nose.
And now, imagine Jesus looking at you in the very same way. Imagine all of your worries that Jesus is someone whom you need to fear falling away, that you aren’t good enough for Jesus to love falling away. Imagine your antenna being so clean that you see the truth. That you see Jesus looking at Stephen and Pete and your neighbour and me. That you see Jesus looking at you – at you, of all people – and you realise with one look that what Jesus feels for you, now and always, is total and unreserved love.