Text: Acts 6-7:60
This past week at Vacation Bible School, we studied the life of the apostle Paul. In Acts, his story begins as Stephen’s story ends, killed by an angry mob of religious leaders. Luke tells us those leaders prepare themselves by laying their coats at Paul’s feet, and Paul approves of their actions. So, to introduce Paul, the teen drama team acted out the stoning of Stephen, trying to keep it appropriate for younger children.
Now, this year’s VBS was the first that our five-year-old Lucas watched the dramas, so we had instant feedback on each day’s happenings. We soon discovered that Lucas has a knack for choosing unexpected moments to ask us the really tough theological questions each story raised. Tuesday morning, as I was handing him a glass of orange juice, he asks, “Why did Stephen die?”
I blinked at him a couple of times, half-awake and still needing another cup of coffee, privately thinking that this is the deeper reason we adults sometimes shy away from really reading the Bible with children, candy-coating or glossing over the hard stuff. They always seem to go straight to the hard questions we’d just like to avoid! It would be much more comfortable to focus on the goodness of Stephen, all the wonderful things which led the church to declare him a saint.
For instance, the first thing we hear about Stephen is that he “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” when he is chosen as one of the first seven deacons to “wait on tables,” helping to feed the early church’s poor. Stephen lives his faith with concrete acts of care for others. And, as Stephen carried out this ministry, things started happening around him, beautiful, astonishing signs and wonders which turned people to God.[i] At VBS this week, we would have said that people could see the fruits of the Spirit in Stephen’s life:(sing) love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Stephen also displays the Spirit’s wisdom and power as he faces opposition. It seems he’s personally demonstrating what Jesus told the disciples in Matthew 10: “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” There is much we’d be happy to tell our children about here.
But the question, “Why did Stephen die?” forces us to look at the ugliness of broken humanity that his story also reveals. It is always there, side by side with the beauty of the Spirit, within and without the church, then and now.
The ugliness of superior attitudes toward people who are different was in evidence when Stephen was called to serve. The community of the first Christians was made up of Palestinian and Jerusalem Jews who spoke Aramaic, as well as Hellenists, Jews who grew up outside of Palestine and whose primary language was Greek. The seven deacons were ordained to make sure the food distribution was equitable, because there had been accusations that the Greek-speakers were being neglected in favor of the Aramaic-speakers.
Stephen’s story also makes us aware how tensions between the Christians and Jerusalem’s larger Jewish community had escalated. Remember that when Christianity began, it was not a separate religion but a movement within Judaism. The apostles and other believers still prayed at synagogues, and there they would often discuss their faith with others. When Stephen argues powerfully on behalf of Jesus at a synagogue whose members are former Roman slaves, it is like touching flame to kindling. He is seized and brought before a judging council. “We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us,” the false witnesses say, but they are speaking the truth of their deepest fears about Jesus.
Their deepest fears are also our deepest fears. I think that’s what I attempted to tell Lucas that morning: People don’t like change. We vastly prefer stability and security over the risky unknown, and we have a tendency to get so fixed on the means of accessing our desires that we often lose track of the intended end.
The temple was understood to be the home of God on earth and the only proper location of sacrifice; and the customs of Moses were an elaborate system of practices developed to guide the people in keeping and honoring God’s greatest gift, the commandments. The temple and the customs were meant to be tools for turning toward God, who is our deepest and truest desire; they were meant to be tools for placing oneself near to God and daily opening oneself to God’s purpose, presence, and power.
But over time, we human beings get awfully attached to our tools and rituals, don’t we? And on a certain level, we begin to believe more in the tools and rituals than in the God whom they are meant to open us. We get pretty uneasy when someone or something seems to threaten our access to those tools and rituals. In the book Addiction and Grace, author Gerald May writes,
“When we become addicted to such comfortable self-serving images of faith, we are likely to defend and promote them with a desperate aggressiveness. We are threatened by people who believe differently, and we are compelled to convert them, or to isolate ourselves from them, or, as a last resort, to silence them.”[ii]
Yet, the truth is that the whole enterprise of faith is a voyage into the unknown; and the Holy Spirit seems to be constantly nudging us toward risk and change. Characterized as a restless wind, the Holy Spirit is always on the move, moving us away from the security of our attachments toward the freedom of God in Jesus Christ. But such freedom can be unnervingly uncertain! As Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”
Blazing with the Spirit, Stephen represents that uncertain and unwelcome change to people who are deeply attached to their religion as it has “always” been done. And, unfortunately, his long-winded speech only feeds the flames of their fears. He had the opportunity, perhaps, to bring the good news to his nation’s highest leaders. But after highlighting Israel’s repeated rejections of great leaders, Stephen calls the council “stiff-necked,” and charges them with opposing the Holy Spirit. Not surprisingly, the council is infuriated.
Now, I imagine Stephen gave this speech both angry with and sorrowful for his people. Maybe he saw it as a form of “tough love.” But, another thing Stephen’s story shows us is that there are more and less effective ways of witnessing to Jesus Christ. People rarely respond to lectures or insults with deepened faith, and as one commentator notes, “…Stephen gave a summary lecture on biblical history to the learned assembly, ending it with insults and rebukes. He never named Jesus, but he accused them of his murder…one must admit there are problems in his rhetorical strategy” [iii]
Simply and vulnerably sharing stories of how we have experienced Jesus usually has a greater impact than any intellectual arguments we can produce, especially when paired with our loving actions. Can we tell and show others how faith in Jesus has transformed our lives, given us hope, and made us better and braver people?
Whatever the failings of his speech, the decisive moment of Stephen’s witness actually takes place when he sees and speaks a vision of God’s glory, naming Jesus and fully confessing his faith. “Look,” he says, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” These words seem utmost blasphemy to men who reject the idea of God incarnate in Jesus the Christ, crucified, risen, and ascended to the place of highest honor. These words seem to go too far.
But this is the moment when Stephen’s testimony becomes truly worth celebrating. Here Stephen communicates most powerfully his faith in Christ. As the enraged council seeks to silence him, first by covering their ears, then by dragging him out and stoning him, we see, in the parallels between Jesus’ and Stephen’s last moments, how deeply Christ’s life has transformed his. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” Jesus says in Luke 23, and Stephen likewise prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then, kneeling just before he dies, Stephen forgives his killers, praying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” just as Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father forgive them; for they do no know what they are doing.”
“The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus,” writes Eugene Petersen. “It continues in the lives of those who believe in him…Luke makes it clear that these Christians he wrote about were no more spectators of Jesus than Jesus was a spectator of God—they are in on the action of God, God acting in them, God living in them. Which also means, of course, in us.”[iv]
Friends, this is why Stephen died, and also how he continues to live. The good news for us is that God does not dwell in temples or traditions, in houses built by human hands, but by an incredible grace, God chooses to live and dwell with and within us. We are no mere spectators but integral actors in the universe’s ongoing story. And we would do well to admit how much this grace actually frightens us, as we become aware that the Holy Spirit within us will continually urge us to move beyond our handmade walls of comfort and security.
But every time we take a risk beyond those walls, we learn to trust that God is always moving us deeper into God’s grace and mercy, and that the Spirit will gives us the words and the power to share that grace and mercy with others, people near to us, but also people we might have deemed too far away in distance, class, or culture. We learn to trust that risks taken in the Spirit are never wasted.
Stephen was a bright light of the early church, and his death by stoning was a terrible loss. What good could possibly have come of it? There was one man present at Stephen’s death who never forgot it, who later became the greatest of Christ’s apostles, taking the gospel across all kinds of barriers of culture, distance–and even time. For, by grace, the church continues to receive his letters, and lives are still transformed by his testimony. “The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen,” said Augustine.[v]
Stephen is hailed as the church’s first martyr; but “martyr,” my friends, is simply the Greek word for “witness.” We are also called to be witnesses to Jesus Christ in our words and deeds. We too can trust that the Holy Spirit will fill us with power and grace as we step out of our comfort zones, into the far reaches the world—or our local neighborhoods—to speak and enact Christ’s love.
Finally, we can trust that nothing we say or do in the name of Jesus will ever be wasted, for God dwells with and within us, transforming our brokenness, that the world might know the beautiful fruits of (singing together) love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
All glory to God the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
[ii] Gerald G. May, Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 130.
[iii] Gary Neal Hansen, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 200?, 448-450.
[iv] Eugene Petersen, Introduction to Acts in The Message, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002, p.1966.
[v] quoted in William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles,Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955, 63.