We do not know the way in which God’s grace operates

  • May 11, 2007
Seventh Sunday of Easter May 20 (Acts 7:55-60, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20/John 17:20-26)

It is all too easy to pass judgment on the people found in New Testament crowds. Why can they not believe? Why do they react so negatively and violently to the proclamation of the apostles?
But these are good people — even respectable and religious people — who are convinced that they are doing the right thing. And that is the tragedy — terrible things are often done by good people out of a combination of ignorance and fear. We can see the pattern in many times and places: Nazi Germany, slavery and segregation, and persecution of all varieties.

In the Gospel of Luke, the author of Acts depicts Jesus as forgiving from the cross those who have put Him to death out of ignorance. They have failed to understand the deeper meaning of their actions and the true identity of the one on the cross. In a similar fashion, Stephen cries out for God’s mercy to be shown to those who are stoning him to death. He understands what is really happening, they do not. His fervent prayer is for the crime not to be held against them, and for God to receive his spirit. To add to the irony, their cloaks are stacked at the feet of a young religious zealot named Saul. He has worked overtime persecuting the little sect of Christians, convinced as he is that they are heretics doing great harm to Israel. Later on young Saul will have an encounter with the risen Lord and will become His tireless and fearless apostle. He will also receive a fair amount of “payback” in the form of resistance and persecution from other religious folks not happy with the proclamation of the Gospel.

The story is a reminder to think long and hard before judging another or declaring that they are outside the pale of God’s love and grace. Likewise, we should not be too quick to lash out at words and ideas that we find threatening, for these are the ways in which God challenges us. Who would ever have drawn a line from Saul of Tarsus to Paul the Apostle? We simply do not know the ways that God’s grace and the Holy Spirit operate in the lives of others. We will never be able to judge adequately or fairly the life of another — or even our own life — until the final curtain comes down.

The insistence that the Lord is coming soon to render accounts has either inspired or frightened people for centuries. These and similar passages are the fuel for apocalyptic end-time speculation and fervour. But after 2,000 years the warning doesn’t pack quite as much power.

How are we to understand it? The clue might be in the self-identification of the Jesus figure in the vision: the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega (first and last letters in the Greek alphabet). This does not describe a temporal timetable at all, and we make a mistake when we try to pin down dates and times. This beginning and end describe our own origin and destiny, and the “coming soon” the daily opportunities for harmony with God in our words, thoughts and actions. The Lord is our alpha and omega, and walks with us unceasingly to teach and encourage us. Let us use the opportunities wisely.

An experience of God is not only for mystics and holy people, and we cheat ourselves when we buy into that misconception. In puzzling and rather convoluted language, John’s Jesus assures us that not only are we invited into relationship with Him, but also with God the Father and the Spirit. Everything that Jesus has and is Jesus shares with us; we can enjoy the same unity with God that He does. This gift of divinity is for quite ordinary people who do their best to walk in faith and in love, and who are open enough to allow God’s Spirit to transform them. And again this is not something in the far distant future, for it can and should begin in the present life.

God the Father and Jesus the Son have chosen to dwell in us if we make room for them. We should remember this when we are tempted to feel helpless, alone or worthless, or filled with hate towards ourselves or others. God is in us and we are in God. What more could we want?

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