A Reflection based on the discussion that was held during the online worship of
the Anglican Church of St Thomas, Kefalas,
in the regional municipality of Apokoronas, on the island of Crete, in Greece
on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2020, 11:00 am
in the Year of the Great Pandemic of 2020.
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” John 14.12
What are these “greater works” that the disciples will do? One approach might be a list of accomplishments.
- The growth of the church to 2.4 billion people, becoming the majority population in more than 125 countries.
- The translation of the Bible into 698 languages, and the New Testament into 1548.
- The wealth of sacred music from ancient Gregorian chant, through the contrapuntal Bach, the growth of hymnody beginning in the 18th century, and the vast variety of Christian influenced music of the present day.
- The stunning architecture, from Justinian’s Hagia Sophia to Chartres Cathedral, including small country churches and modern basilicas.
- The abolition of slavery driven by radical Christians, beginning in the early 19th century.
- The influence of Christianity on world history – giving rise to human rights and the sense that we have a responsibility to the poor and disadvantaged.
- The efforts of Elizabeth Fry and others to make prisons more humane.
- The invention of modern health care, as exemplified by Christians such as Florence Nightingale.
- The founding of countless street-front operations seeking to assist the homeless and impoverished.
- The leadership of Christians in the reception and settlement of refugees, beginning in the early part of the 20th century and continuing to the present.
- Maybe even . . . gathering across vast distances for a Zoom conference in order to worship.
This list could be so much longer, a triumphalistic iteration of great things. But we need not go any further than our first reading today to find an example of someone who did the works of Jesus and, perhaps, greater things than these.
In that reading, Stephen, a deacon called by the apostles to serve the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians of the church in Jerusalem, has preached about his faith in Jesus, and now becomes the first to suffer death for it.
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!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. Acts 7:55-60
As he dies, he prays for his enemies. He requests that Jesus does not convict them of his murder.
Now, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount to pray for our enemies. Not many of us in St Thomas’s probably have enemies, so we probably do not think about this much. I do know that there are times when I have been in major conflict with individuals, and they were not to happy with me (this was when I was Executive Officer and Archdeacon of the Diocese of British Columbia, and I had to discipline clergy and lay leaders involved in schismatic behaviour or sexual misconduct), but even then, nobody wanted to kill me. But here we have Stephen, humbly, mercifully, begging Jesus to forgive what was being done.
In this, Stephen was following in the Way of Jesus, who as he was being taken to the Cross said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34). And God does not hold it against his persecutors; indeed, one named at the end of the reading, Saul, whom we know better by his Roman name of Paul, eventually experiences a similar vision on the road to Damascus, and becomes the foremost of the apostles, even though, as he admits, “I am unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15.9).
In the letter to the Ephesians we read that Paul gives glory to God, “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”(Ephesians 3.20) This power, the same as that which raised Jesus from the dead, is at work in us. It is by that Spirit living in us that we can hope to do more than we might ask or imagine.
And so we are called to be merciful, praying for enemies, for politicians we do not like, for those who irritate us, and learning patience. In the experience of many Christians praying for perceived enemies is an important spiritual discipline. One develops empathy and understanding, without losing a sense of the calls of justice. Anger may arise, but it is transformed into action. Instead of creating antagonism, one is rooted in the love and example of Christ.
So, on this Fifth Sunday of Easter in Coronatide, may the Holy Spirit be at work in us, so that we as the Body of Christ, the Church in dispersal, may yet do the works of Jesus, and greater ones yet.