Today’s scriptures can be a little depressing on their face. The story of the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen testifies for Christ and is murdered for his effort. As Stephen dies, he echoes Christ’s request for God to forgive his murderers, among whom is Saul (soon to be Paul). The psalmist presents Christ’s dying words, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” And in John, after Jesus has performed many miracles, the crowd still calls for a sign. They ask, “What can you do?” Not very upbeat. Not much joy.
This last Lenten season was a good one for me. I had stayed regular in prayer and reading scripture. I had given up chocolate and beer. It sounds ridiculous, but it was hard for me and had been a good discipline. I was pumped. My heart was prepared. Or so I thought. On Easter morning I walked into church. It was a beautiful and glorious day. The music was triumphant. The lilies were beautiful. Lilies don’t smell that great, but the scent always reminds me of Easter. The wait was over and I was ready for the joy of the risen Christ. So, where was the joy? I waited. And waited. But my heart just felt heavy. I was perplexed. As I wondered about what was wrong, a recent heated argument sprang to mind.
I have an acquaintance who is a Bible scholar. He is a believer who has lost his faith. In fact, I would describe him as antagonistic and, at times, disdainful in his view of believers. He was quoting me some statistics on Christians in Europe. He predicted that Christianity in Europe will be extinct in our life time. He said this like it was a wonderful thing, almost gloating. Well, being the cool, calm, collected adult Christian male that I am, I told him exactly what I thought of his little prediction. As if the world isn’t cynical enough as it is. Let’s encourage people to discard any message of hope and life. Why don’t we just tell them to embrace death. I know my words were harsh and unkind. I know I hurt his feelings and offended him. I was just so angry. How could anyone think that this was a good thing? A large group of people missing out on the Good News. Why is it that the gospel of Jesus Christ sometimes produces hatred and fear in the people for whom it was intended to give hope and joy? And why is it that the people who follow in Christ’s foot steps are sometimes rewarded with persecution and suffering or even death? I thought of Jesus. Christ brought the Good News to Jerusalem and was murdered for it. Instead of experiencing joy, I was getting discouraged and depressed. I was angry with my friend for ruining my Easter. Easter was turning into a train wreck. I took a deep breath and looked at the cross. I wondered, what would Jesus do? Well, I know exactly what Jesus did. He obeyed the Father. He forgave his oppressors and murderers. He moved forward in faith, encouraging those around him. It brought a smile to my face.
It isn’t all that complex. But it sure is a wonder. Just follow the lead of the risen Christ. I immediately resolved to ask my friend for forgiveness. I also wondered how many others were sitting in church feeling like me. I resolved that I would greet everyone with a smile. I wanted to be a sign of hope and forgiveness. I’m a firm believer in the ripple effect. You don’t have to do huge things to produce waves. Share your faith. Call on someone in need. We all have something to contribute. We can all be servants. We all have gifts we don’t even know about. If someone had told me a few years ago I would be writing reflections on Scripture, I would have laughed out loud. Simply smile. If you smile at someone, they feel better and will smile at someone else. If you are a sign of hope, someone, somewhere, sometime down the road may do a great thing. Just because you smiled at them. I’m sure Stephen had no idea that 2000 years after his death, I would be presenting him as a model of forgiveness. We live in a negative, cynical world. It’s easy to be beaten down and wind up conforming to the world, when we should be claiming the joy that Christ offers.
Some time after Easter, we had a gully washer. Or what they call in Texas, a toad strangler. It rained really, really hard. My youngest asked if he could run outside and play in the rain. The image of my son with his arms upraised, smiling face turned to the sky, the rain pouring down, was a joyous and wonderful Easter image. Sometimes we adults can learn from children. My prayer today is for each of us to claim the joy of Christ, to be signs of hope, to forgive, to persevere and never give up on anyone.
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