But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.
I was at a particularly impressionable age on the day after Christmas, 1973, when an older friend took me to see the premier of the Exorcist. Remember the Exorcist? If I’d known what it was about, I would probably never have gone. My memory is that I couldn’t sleep for months, maybe longer. Being possessed became a thing then. Imitating Linda Blair’s character, possessed by demons, became a party game. I couldn’t stand it! Luckily, these are not the stories that define us.
Being possessed is not always a bad thing. Stephen (the hero of this week’s story, not our deacon) is possessed, possessed by God. He is an evangelist, a story-teller, a prophet, a servant possessed of grace and power. His speech traces the history of God’s engagement with God’s people, and ends with a crazy vision: “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the son of man standing at the right hand of God!” In other words, Jesus is Lord. To religious and political leaders threatened by the Jesus movement, these are fighting words. They cover their ears, and stone Stephen to death. Yet even at the moment of death, Stephen is possessed by the Spirit of Christ. Even at the moment of death he reminds his hearers, and us, about the one for whom he is willing to die. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” That has a familiar ring to it. The story of Jesus’ death defines Stephen’s understanding of his own.
Stephen is possessed, not only by his love for God, but by his understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
The author of the First Letter of Peter writes about possession. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. Most translations read: God’s possession. The author of the Letter of Peter quotes Exodus verbatim, using words the Holy One directed Moses to speak to the people in the wilderness at Sinai: “The whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” These words speak to a people wandering in the wilderness, a people bewildered by their own current events. As much as the Israelites in Sinai, the earliest Christians living in Asia Minor were strangers in a strange land, trying to reconcile their Christian faith with the world around them.
If you’re like me, there are parts of this that gives you the creeps. A chosen race? A holy nation? How much blood has been spilled, in the Crusades, in the conquest of the Americas, in two world wars, in the name of being a chosen race, in the name of holy nationalism? How much fear do we have, right at this moment, of fringe groups some of us might wish were a little more fringy, groups inspired by the idea of a chosen race? But to be God’s chosen is not to be set above others, but to be set apart. Apart from the political and material norms that drive the world as we know it. To be God’s chosen is to belong to God, to be God’s own possession. To be possessed, like Stephen.
We are living in a kind of wilderness of our own. Your experience may be different, but almost every day I find myself wondering: “Is this my country? Where are we going? What does it mean to be church during the times we live in? What does it mean to lead a church in these times?”
When the stone rolled away from the tomb, when the earth quaked in the early dawn of Easter Sunday, God announced a new order. God raised Jesus and therefore raised all that Jesus embodied: Justice, forgiveness, love of enemies, not just tolerance, but love, extravagant generosity, risk. Freedom that comes from truth, no matter how awful that truth might be. We know this. We talk and sing about it every week. These are the politics of Jesus, the politics that possessed Stephen, the politics that Thomas and the other disciples in the upper room knew as the Way, the truth, and the life.
Our history is filled with examples of the politics of Jesus. The martyrs of Uganda, surely spiritual descendants of Stephen, condemned for refusing to renounce their faith, walked to their deaths singing hymns and praying for their enemies. Those who stood by were so inspired that they sought out instruction from the handful of remaining Christians. Within a few years the original handful of converts had multiplied many times.
Last week at 5PM we heard a story about Dorothy Day, who was given a diamond ring by a wealthy donor. Dorothy gave the ring to a homeless woman whom the storyteller described as “demented.” When asked whether it would have been better to sell the diamond to help the poor, she replied that the woman had her dignity, and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or, she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand, like the woman who gave it away. "Do you suppose," Dorothy asked, "that God created diamonds only for the rich?"
Yesterday at Cathedral Day, and I think also in our own chapel, we heard the story of Frances Perkins, whose Christian faith inspired her with all sorts of crazy ideas about fair labor practices and economic justice which made her, during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the most influential figures in US history.
The politics of Jesus is not about being on the right or the left. The politics of Jesus is the politics of the Magnificat, the politics of the Beatitudes, the politics of life that stands in the way of death, the politics of forgiveness and love, the politics of self-sacrifice, the politics of generosity. These are the politics of a holy nation, a royal priesthood, God’s own possession. More than ever, we need these politics, politics worth dying for. Otherwise, the way of Jesus becomes a way of apathy and indifference, a way of misunderstanding, a way of adaptation to the ways of the world that are antithetical to the ways of God. Without the politics of Jesus, the way of Jesus becomes simply the way of our own private practice.
Many of us are private people. And yet we live in times that might demand us to go public with the politics of Jesus. We will each have our own definition of “public.” No one is going to stone us. I almost wish that what we have to say and do in the name of Jesus might be so shocking, so threatening, that someone would. Of course I don’t mean that literally. But imagine drawing attention to ourselves because of how we love. Imagine being condemned for acts of non-violence and prayer.
As we profess our faith, as we pray and do this strange, holy thing of gathering before this table to share of our abundance and our poverty, let’s get political.