PRAYER: Remind us today, O God, that no matter what happens in this world, you are still on the throne; you bring your good out of even the worst that humanity offers. Remind us today, O God, that we are connected through your love and that in all things, your love will prevail.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
One of the challenges from this passage is that we are reading it with absolutely no context whatsoever. As one of my church history professors used to point out, the importance of studying history is not found in what the end results were, it’s found in understanding the events that lead up to those end results. In other words, knowing that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776 is all well and good, but it doesn’t teach us anything unless we understand the events that led up to declaring independence. Even today, understanding events that are happening around us don’t necessarily make a lot of sense unless we better understand the things that led up to where we are today.
Our reading today is an end result. Stephen was killed. Brutally. But our reading by itself doesn’t explain the story in its fullness. We need more in order to make sense of it because by itself, it’s just a brutal and violent story. Stephen is murdered and becomes the first Christian martyr. Told by itself, we could interpret this story as a lesson that we should be striving to suffer as much as possible. But that just isn’t the case.
Let’s take a look at what happened before our story today:
You may remember that we talked in our book study last week about the early church being made aware that certain widows were being denied food, so the disciples got together discerned a path forward, and selected seven men to serve in the capacity of making sure that everyone was fed. Stephen was one of those seven. And then at the end of the previous chapter, Stephen – it says: full of grace and power did great wonders and signs among the people. Stephen – it would appear – was on his way to making a name for himself.
He was engaging with some of the temple leaders. Now in the temple, discussion about God, about theology, about the Torah was rarely, if ever, just one person speaking and everyone else listening. It was discussion; it was debate… often times lively debate. So, Stephen wasn’t just preaching; he was debating. And he was winning. That was problematic to the people that he was debating. It says at the end of chapter 6 that a whole bunch of people from different regions, “stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law, for 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.”
They couldn’t hold their own in the conversation, so they resorted to lying, to making up stuff about Stephen. They seemed to believe that if they couldn’t win the argument by their words, they would instead win by their fists. This is something we see today in much of our public discourse. Making inflammatory claims against others is a time-honored way of ginning-up support for your own arguments and creating divisions. It’s a master-class in building polarization.
Almost the entire 7th chapter of Acts – leading up to our reading today – is Stephen speaking to those who are falsely accusing him of blasphemy. Verses 2 through 53 consist of Stephen making his case. And of those 51 verses, in the first 48, Stephen is giving them a history lesson. He’s talking about Abraham and Isaac. He reminds them about Joseph and his brothers who sold him into slavery. He talks about how the Pharoah trusted Joseph, and then how the brothers were reunited. He then talks about how they lost favor with the next Pharoah and were forced into slavery, and how Moses delivered them to freedom. He’s giving them a comprehensive history lesson in 48 verses… giving them all the background, and there’s nothing he’s said to this point that anyone would necessarily disagree with.
And then in verse 51, it all goes downhill for him. All of that history that he quoted led to this moment. Starting in verse 51, it says, “‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.'”
He told the story of God’s saving actions and pointed directly to the people’s unwillingness to follow. He connected Jesus to Moses and accused them all that just as the people rejected Moses, they also rejected Jesus. He is pointing to humanity’s continued resistance to God’s loving overtures.
Oh, my friends, them’s fightin’ words! When they heard these things, they became enraged at Stephen.
This is certainly not the first time we see an act of stoning – or murder – in scripture. We see it from the very beginning – when Cain, jealous that Abel’s offering to God was accepted and his wasn’t, he responded by killing his brother. When God asked him where his brother was, Cain tried to deflect with that very well-known question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, said that after World War II was over, there was a sense of optimism that racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry, fanaticism would never happen again. “And here we are,” he said, “(all these) years later, and racism is still here, war is still here in many areas of the world, and fanaticism is on the rise. Wherever we turn, we realize that good and evil are still irreconcilable.”
There is a hard truth that we often overlook, and that is the proclivity of human society toward violence and oppression. Very often – and quite unfortunately – that violence and oppression is committed in the name of God. It would not be hard to come up with a pretty extensive list in short order. And I can assure you that God wants no part of that. We are surrounded by a field of stones that are just inviting us to pick them up and hurl them at those Stephens we don’t like, those we disagree with, those who are different than us.
Stephen’s death did not happen in a vacuum. his testimony spoke of a God who loves and offers new life. He demonstrated that Jesus’ empty tomb is proof of God’s love. His testimony was rejected by a narrowness of vision and a hardness of hearts. And that is something that still tries to pervade us today. Stephen’s death was caused by the inability of people – people who were religious leaders, by the way – to view God through a lens of love.
I mentioned earlier that history is learned, not in the end-results, but in the moments that lead up to those results. Well, Stephen’s death is also one of those moments. In the aftermath of his death, many of the disciples scatter to Samaria and beyond, just as Jesus commanded them in the first chapter of Acts.
The argument could be made that if Stephen was not murdered, then the disciples would not have scattered to the far reaches of the known world. In response to this death, the disciples finally carry the message beyond Jerusalem. In the next few chapters, we will see Jesus’ message go to Samaria and Ethiopia; we’ll see Saul’s conversion, and we’ll see the message carried to the Romans.
We can choose to see Stephen’s death as a justification for our own violence or hatred, or we can view Stephen’s death through the vision of God’s continued overtures of life and love. God will bring good; God will bring life; God will bring love out of even the worst of human horrors.
That is what the empty tomb offers us and reminds us: God’s continued overture of life and love. The text teaches us that while evil and death remain, life is offered in abundance. Those who are really dead in this story are not Stephen, but those who killed him. His pain and suffering may be immediate, but his joy is ultimate and final. Hate-filled hearts lose sight of any good news of what God has done and is doing; but God’s good news will not be silenced.
Christian theologian and author Willie James Jennings wrote a comprehensive study on the book of Acts. He writes, “The church was born in the tight space between faith and fear and forever lives in that space. Only the Holy Spirit keeps that space from collapsing in on us.” And so, my friends, we have a decision that awaits us, and it is a decision that sits with all of humanity every day: will we turn to decisions that embrace life or will we turn our hearts towards death? Will we pick up the stones that are ever present around us and hurl them towards others as a response to fear? Or will we see Christ on the throne at the right hand of God and say, “Into your hands, O God, we commend our spirit?”
Choosing life is rooted in God’s justice and shalom. From the tragic and horrific death of Stephen, God’s church brought forth new life… even Saul who stood by in approval of this violence, came to find new life from God. Stephen chose life.
And today, God offers us new life rooted in God’s love. It is available to us now. Living in our world today, it may seem as though we are disconnected from the past. The future may seem impossible to imagine or totally irrelevant to us here and now. But I assure you that God offers us new life from this moment, that will connect to others for generations to come. Accepting new life, rooted in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, opens the door to God’s life being present in the world today and for years to come. Our decision to say Yes to new life in Christ can be the pivotal moment that alters the course of others’ lives and bring God’s kingdom upon us all.
To God be the glory