We have been exploring in this Easter season the matter of encounters with the risen Jesus. Various people and events in which Jesus is encountered after His death and resurrection. We have looked at the women who ran to the tomb and found Jesus was not there, at Thomas and his doubts, and the men on the road to Emmaus as they met Jesus and had a revelation of His presence as they walked and talked and broke bread. And on the 5th Sunday last month we had an Encounter Eucharist where we too sought to know the risen Jesus through experience and not understanding.
What I hope we have started to imagine is that to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, to be touched by the Easter story, is not something that can simply be justified in an intellectual manner. It is not a religious doctrine (by which I mean a set of beliefs or statements about Jesus) but a lived experience that led these characters in the Bible to embrace a risen Jesus. I want to continue to encourage you this morning to explore the idea that our faith is built on the fullness of experience and not just the outworking of reason.
This morning we meet Stephen, who shows us something of what it means to follow the risen Jesus. A disciple full of the Holy Spirit we are told. We begin to look forward in this passage in Acts to some of the new themes in our journey through the Christian year. As Stephen speaks and prays we begin to think about the celebrations that are to come of Ascension and Pentecost . And we meet St Paul for the first time .. here as Saul of Tarsus the Jew who hates Christians but who will eventually encounter Jesus himself and then write much of the New Testament for the Church.
But what I want to highlight most of all is how far Stephen has become like Jesus in his journey of faith. That to be a disciple of Jesus is to be changed into someone who is like their Lord. To know Jesus is not just to know about Jesus but to become like Him in our thoughts, actions and words. To encounter Jesus changes us .. just as an encounter with anyone over a period of time changes us .. think about how your best friend, or partner, or closest work colleague might have changed the way you think and act simply through being with them .. hearing their opinions .. sharing their emotions.
The Christlikeness of Stephen is clear in the way he dies. Do you see the similarities between him and His Lord? At the hands of the self-righteous religious leaders he looks to the heavens and says .. receive my spirit and forgive them!! It seems to me he must have witnessed the death of Jesus in order that he can die in the way Jesus did.
And I suppose this is the message of encounter with Jesus. That it changes you and teaches you .. not through facts and ideas but through example and encounter. It teaches you not about philosophy or theology or any other ologies which you might want to study. Encounter with Jesus teaches you the Way.
This is the message of the Gospel passage is it not. Jesus says to Thomas follow me .. Thomas says we do not know where you are going so how can we know the way? He is at first looking for a set of instruction and teachings that will lead and guide him. Perhaps like the Jewish laws which tell you exactly what to do and when. Or like the Greek philosophers who teach theories and ideas about the meaning of life. We don’t know these things Thomas says .. how can we be followers?
And Jesus says .. I AM the way .. the truth and the life. I AM the way .. it is through encounter with me that you can walk through the deserts and wilderness of life. I will be your shepherd not your tutor or teacher. I will not give you a map but I will give you footsteps in which you can tread.