I suspect that every mother, indeed every parent, has a few moments like that, a few moments when it is hard to see a way forward with and for their child.
Of course, those moments of near despair are not limited to parents. We can feel that sort of discouragement about any of our relationships, about our own lives, about the world all around us.
Last week it was the world that got me down. The Social Justice Commission of our Diocese met. It is a really wonderful bunch of people, and I always enjoy our sessions. We laugh and carry on.
But our work is serious, and it can be depressing. Our mission is to help our people and our Churches fulfill our baptismal promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” We worry about suffering and injustice and racism and environmental degradation. We worry about immigrants and homeless veterans. We worry about poverty and violence. We worry about all the ways our world seems to be going wrong.
Sometimes I feel like my mother did that day so many years ago. I wonder if I, if we, can keep going, can make a difference. As one of the members of the Social Justice Commission put it last week, the cross that we carry as followers of our Lord seems to grow heavier and heavier all the time.
The weight of the cross, the weight of the world, the weight of our lives, is what I brought to our readings for this week.
And I found comfort in the story of Stephen.
We have been working through the Acts of the Apostles in our Parish Bible Study. As the people who participated last week know, I think the story of Stephen is one of the key turning points in the history of the early Church.
The disciples had been totally demoralized by Jesus’ death. But the Holy Spirit filled them with courage and power. They began working miracles. They preached sermons that inspired thousands to join the Christian movement. In a single day! More than once! It must have been an incredibly exciting time to follow the Christian way.
The Church grew so explosively that the apostles needed help, so they appointed a second layer of leadership, including Stephen. The Church was poised for great things.
But too much success too quickly was dangerous. Jealous opponents of the young movement accused Stephen of blasphemy and, as we heard in our reading, he was stoned to death, the first Christian to die for his faith.
Our reading stops there, but in the very next verse we learn that on that same day, “a severe persecution began against the Church in Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria” (8:1).
The Acts of the Apostles goes on for another twenty chapters, so we know a fair amount about what happens to those scattered Christians. But for today, we stop here. Stephen is dead. Persecution is beginning. Christians are fleeing.
At this point, we are not told much about the reaction of the apostles, the ones who stayed in Jerusalem. But they must have been terribly discouraged.
They had watched Jesus die, and bounced back. They had built a movement bigger than anything Jesus himself had done during his earthly ministry. And now, overnight, everything has collapsed. Everything they had worked so hard to build was gone.
I picture them gathering in near despair. I picture them praying for strength. I picture them asking each other, can we really start all over again? In the immediate aftermath of Stephen’s death, the weight of the world must have seemed mighty heavy on their shoulders. Their cross must have seemed mighty heavy.
Somehow the apostles kept going. Somehow they rebuilt their movement in Jerusalem.
Whenever we are living our version of what they experienced with Stephen’s death, whenever our cause seems lost, whenever everything seems hopeless, we can take comfort in their faithfulness, their endurance, their ability to keep going and make it all work in the face of nearly impossible odds. Their story is our story. Their resilience can be our resilience.
What kept them going—we are not told this, but it must be true—what kept them going was their conviction that Christ was alive, that the Holy Spirit was swirling all around them, that God was at work, bringing forth new life and new hope, even when they couldn’t see it.
And with the benefit of hindsight, we can see two signs of hope that they could not possibly have seen.
First, the scattering of Christians turned out to be a great blessing. All those scattered Christians who fled Jerusalem shared the gospel everywhere they went. New Christian communities sprang up everywhere they went. The persecution that nearly destroyed the Church in Jerusalem was the catalyst for the next round of explosive Christian growth.
Persecution notwithstanding, the Jesus movement rolled on.
But even in our reading itself, there is a tiny seed of nearly invisible hope. We are told that a young man named Saul watches Stephen get stoned. Not a very promising beginning. It gets worse. “Saul approved of their killing [Stephen]” (Acts 8:1), and soon thereafter Saul himself started to persecute Christians, even chasing after those Christians who fled Jerusalem.
But on the way to Damascus, Saul met Jesus. Saul met the risen Lord, and Jesus turned Saul’s world upside down. From that point forward, Saul, now called the Apostle Paul, would do more to spread and build the Christian movement than anyone else in history. And we meet him for the first time in the story of Stephen’s murder.
The apostles in Jerusalem could not possibly have foreseen Paul’s future that day.
But the apostles knew that somehow, somewhere, even in the midst of tragedy, God was at work. The apostles couldn’t know that Saul would be an agent of God’s kingdom. But the apostles knew that God’s kingdom was coming. The apostles knew that God wins in the end. The apostles knew that the Jesus movement would, in fact, roll on.
Their hope is our hope too. What we see is the blood-thirsty young man holding the coats. What we see all too often is the brokenness and wickedness of our world. It can be hard to see God’s hand at work in the world around us.
But like the apostles, we know that somehow, somewhere, God is at work. We can be pretty sure that how and where God works will surprise us. We can be pretty sure that who God uses will surprise us. Certainly that was true for the apostles! But we can be sure that God is at work, and that God wins in the end.
Jesus says it all at the very beginning of our gospel reading. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” God is the ground of our hope. And nothing can take that hope away!
My prayer is that we can hold to our faith in God and in Christ through thick and thin. In Christ’s name. Amen.