Our Rock and Our Refuge
In my twenty years of ministry, I have never, I will admit, chosen to preach on the death of Stephen. The bloody texts of martyrdom are troubling. I just had all I can take with the crucifixion of Christ! And Stephen is killed by the most devout leaders of the Jewish community in the Holy City. For those who endeavor to remove anti-Judaism from their preaching (and I try), this fact can be a challenge. As one who works to separate the easy, critical association that so many people have of religion and violence, this text is not helpful. Yet, there is much Good News is this passage for us. By that, I don’t mean that we can make a bloody story sweet and palatable; I do mean that the passage can point us very fruitfully at how to live the Gospel in our day, way, and walk.
Stephen is one of those biblical characters who doesn’t have very many lines, yet still he has a big part in the total story. He’s a young man who appears briefly but he makes a big difference. He’s in the very first generation of people right there in Jerusalem to be evangelized by the disciples themselves and to become a believer in Jesus as Messiah. The disciples were determined to spread the Good News – to preach and teach – but they needed to live it, too, by taking care of the poor, and that they were doing, according to the Book of Acts, by “waiting on tables.” The actors, artists, musicians and writers in this Chapel can resonate perhaps – one aspect of our life gives it its meaning and holds our passion. Meanwhile, “folks gotta eat” and there is drudge work to be done so that we can live out our vocation at all and do what gives us life. Stephen and six others are selected by the disciples to do the work of taking care of the poor so that they, themselves, can continue to preach. So, Stephen waits on those tables, but he also can’t keep himself from proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ wherever he finds himself. He’s on fire! He is, says the Bible, “full of grace and power;” he does “great wonders and signs among the people.” He preaches in one particular synagogue, and it gets him arrested. He is charged with having said blasphemous things against Moses and God. He is handed over to the council, the ruling religious body, to defend himself. Tactically, he doesn’t do a very good job. He tells the history of God and the Jewish people as one long story of humanity’s stiff-necked, malevolent actions, all culminating in the execution of Jesus, the Messiah of God. Right before the council’s eyes, he has a vision of Jesus in heaven, seated at the right hand of God. The council members plug their ears – they don’t want to hear it. If Stephen is right, then it is they who are the enemies of God. This is unthinkable and unacceptable. Stephen is hauled outside the city gates and stoned by a mob. As some biblical commentators have noted, as with the killing of Jesus, an execution could only be authorized by the occupying government of Rome. Picking up big stones and hurling them through the air is hard work, and the whole process can take a while, and so the mob took off their outer garment to increase their mobility and prevent their coats from getting sweaty. They placed them, for safekeeping, at the feet of a young man named Saul. As Stephen dies, he cries out a short traditional Jewish bedtime prayer that would have been known to all, but he substitutes the name “Lord Jesus” for “God.” And in his final words, he does just as his Lord did when he was put to death – he asks God to forgive his killers. Stephen was the first in a long and bloody line of martyrs who, to this day, have been killed for their faith.
The very next line in Acts after our reading for this morning is: “And Saul approved of their killing him.” Saul. I bet he never dreamed he would ever share the faith of Stephen – that he would be so fully overwhelmed by the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of his longing, and that he, who would become Paul, would one day also die a martyr for his faith in Christ. Later, in the Book of Acts, Paul will be explaining his conversion to others, and he will say, “And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.” I can only imagine what it would be like to admit to that, to live with the weight of regret for a murderous deed done earlier in life. I can imagine – I expect all of us can – what it is like to remember back to a time when we held very different opinions or beliefs than the ones we do now, when we spoke publicly with great confidence on a matter that now seems to us quite wrong, when we held opinions that may have been discriminatory, even hateful. We can say we were ignorant; we can remind ourselves that we were evincing the opinions of the wonderful people who raised us – it was all that they or we knew . It was before a time when we’d become exposed to so much more. But we may feel, as Paul must have, that we have much to regret.
And perhaps like the younger Saul, we regret having been a bystander. Saul never threw a stone, but he abetted the process. He did nothing, but, in fact, he helped a little by keeping an eye on the executioners’ stuff so that no one could walk off with it while they were so focused on their task. Perhaps we have never done or said a violent thing, but we’ve stood by while it happened, either because we thought it was right or because we didn’t want to risk losing friends or any privilege by saying, “That’s wrong.” Perhaps we’ve watched someone be taken advantage of, or be spoken to deprecatingly, or be lured into making choices we know they would regret. And we didn’t speak up. It can be easy to shuffle such regrets and memories under the rug – to say “that was then and this is now – I’d never step aside like that today.” It can be easy to claim ignorance at the time, or to say that it really wasn’t that bad, and I really didn’t play a part so I’m blameless. I think the Apostle Paul can be our guide here. He must regret many things to the core of his being – he had been the greatest of persecutors of the followers of Jesus. He lives with that fact healthily and well because he admits to it freely; he seeks the forgiveness of God and of the community he has wronged, and he commits his life to testifying to the truth he now knows. He shuffles nothing under a rug. He does not say with a shrug, “Hey, that was then and this is now.” He tries to make right in every situation. He knows that the past that he regrets is his great contribution to the present and future he wants to see, and so he talks about where he was then and where he is now. He credits God and Christ with his transition, and he wants to expose all the world to their transforming grace. Grace indeed – I think of John Newton, the author of the words to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” He was a ship’s captain and he made lots of money transporting slaves out of Africa. By God’s amazing grace, a wretch like him was saved, made aware of the evil and sin that he was participating in, and he spent the rest of his life working against it.
Let’s let the last piece of instruction for us on how to inhabit the Good News of God’s mercy come from Stephen himself. From him, we are reminded that no matter how we live or how we die, we are always in the hands of God and Christ. Stephen testified to that with his dying breath: “receive my Spirit,” he says to his Lord. It’s not a question, it’s not a demand; it’s an acknowledgement of an actual fact. Rustled up by a mob and treated to a mob execution, one might not think oneself particularly in the hands of God – far, far from it. But Stephen knows that wherever we find ourselves, we are secure in the palm of the loving hand of our maker. This is wonderful instruction to all of us – God does not wish our stoning unto death, but humans still do it, and sometimes because we’ve spoken the truth we know. We are in God’s hands on the dull Saturday morning when we clean the kitchen, on the Saturday night when we go to the campus parties, on the Monday morning when we buckle down to a lot of work, on the long afternoons when we sit with a friend in the hospital, when we think we’re getting things right, and when we know we’re getting things wrong. God is our refuge and our strength – for Stephen, for Paul, and for us. Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. Stephen wouldn’t and couldn’t have borne the witness that he did without that certainty. The same is true for Paul – once so sure that murder was right, later more sure that Stephen was right, and that the Lord to whom Stephen prayed had a place and a calling still for so great a wretch as he. Thanks be to God, our refuge and our strength, that grace abounds no matter what we have done, and that, no matter how we live and how we die, we are always in the palm of God’s loving hand.
William Willimon, Acts, WJKP Press.