This past Sunday the first lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary was the murder of Stephen. The killers thought they were doing God a favor. This is a timely lesson as battles of various kinds rage within the Christian family. Here is my first attempt to preach on this story. This photo shows an image of the story that sits atop the main gate to the church of Saint-Etienne du Mont (“St. Stephen in the Mountain”), in Paris.
Where Our Eyes Need to Be A Sermon on Acts 6:8-7:1, 7:39-8:3
The Apostle Paul suffered from some kind of ailment that he called his “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know what it was, whether it was physical or emotional. But whatever it was, it was never completely relieved. If you ask me, the memory of what happened the day that Stephen died could count as a thorn, if not the thorn. It was a memory that carried a sting. Paul never forgot what he saw that day when he was still known as Saul, how he had guarded the coats, and how he had approved of the murder, and how he had then gone out and ravaged the church in like manner.
The murder of Stephen was the result of a family fight, a fight within the family of faith. At that time Christians were still a group within the Jewish faith, and Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew just like the people he disagreed with in the synagogue.
People being people, jealousy was no doubt one factor that was at work. Stephen’s opponents tried to out-argue and out-speak him, but Stephen was a gifted speaker. They couldn’t match the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke.
The far-deeper issue was that they could not accept what Stephen said about Jesus. As far as they were concerned, as far as Saul was concerned, people like Stephen who followed the Jesus Way were wrong, dead wrong. These people of Jesus were dishonoring God and disrespecting and misinterpreting God’s good law. They were condoning sin and leading others to do the same. For the sake of the true faith and true belief, Stephen had to be stopped.
If Stephen’s opponents had heard Rabbi Gamaliel’s counsel to leave the Jesus people alone (Acts 5:33-39), they paid no attention to it. They trumped up charges of heresy against Stephen. “He’s blaspheming Moses,” they cried. “He’s blaspheming God!” They went around getting people all agitated and worked up against Stephen. Already a mob was beginning to gather.
They got Stephen arrested and brought him before the high council. “This man is always speaking against the Holy Temple,” they charged. “He is always speaking against the holy law of Moses,” which meant that Stephen was speaking contrary to the scriptures. “And,” they added, “we have heard him say that Jesus will destroy the Temple and change the traditions that Moses handed down to us.” Does this sound familiar? It’s virtually a repeat of the same charges that were brought against Jesus himself.
Their adrenaline was pumping I’m sure. Feeling righteous and feeling righteously angry at somebody feels good. It gives one a feeling of power, and it feels even better when others sign on and agree.
Stephen didn’t back down. He walked the assembly through the history of God’s people—salvation history. They hung with him through the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. But then when he came to the part of the story about Moses and the exodus from slavery in Egypt, Stephen went in a direction they didn’t like at all. He showed how the people hadn’t respected Moses’ leadership and how at times they had rejected it outright. They made idols to worship, the most famous of which was the golden calf.
Stephen went on to describe the history of the Temple, how at first the sanctuary was a portable tent called the tabernacle, and how a permanent structure was built in Solomon’s time. But Solomon himself was among those who realized that the God of heaven and earth couldn’t be contained in any human structure.
The point that Stephen was making was that God’s people in his day had turned the Temple and its activity into an idol. They had lost sight of the living God behind the Temple.
“You stiff-necked, bullheaded people!” Stephen exclaimed. “Just like your ancestors, you have not listened to the Holy Spirit. Name one prophet that they didn’t persecute. They persecuted all the prophets God sent to call them back to greater faithfulness. You’ve done the same thing to the Righteous One he sent—Jesus the Christ. You have disobeyed God’s law!”
Stephen told them that they had stopped listening to God. They had lost sight of the God behind the law, the living God behind the scriptures. They might have been obeying the letter of the law, but they were neglecting the spirit.
The assembly was infuriated. Stephen certainly didn’t mince words. But the last straw came when Stephen gazed up and described the vision he saw. Heaven opened. And he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
The assembly erupted. No! This was blasphemy! This was heresy! People put their hands over their ears and started yelling. They rushed at Stephen and seized him and dragged him outside the city and pushed him down. They picked up big rocks and started smashing them down on Stephen. Some took off their coats and left them with Saul. And Saul cheered them all on. He was glad. Stephen deserved to die. In the name of God, Stephen deserved to die.
From a distance, we can see how wrong and unjust and mean-spirited it all was. How could this happen? Was there no one willing to speak up for him? But if we had been there that day, it might not have been so easy to resist going along with the crowd.
It’s easy to get caught up in ganging up on somebody, especially when there is an instigator that has authority, or at least puts on an air of authority. What’s more, uniting against a common enemy brings its own sense of power.
And there’s the tendency in times of tension and difficulty to make a scapegoat out of somebody, to find some third party to blame. Beating that party up literally or figuratively temporarily makes the gang feel better. The world saw scapegoating on a grand scale, for example, when the Nazis blamed all of Germany’s problems—its economic woes for example—on the Jews and on others those they labeled as deviant and weak. Scapegoating is common. Our problems are those other people’s fault. And then it’s just a hop, skip and jump from regarding these “others” with contempt, to treating them with contempt, and then—to perhaps even worse.
And there’s this simple reality: the pressure of what others around us are saying and doing. If you dare to do or say something different, you will attract attention—perhaps, maybe even likely, negative attention.
When I think about times when I wish I had had the strength to speak up here’s one powerful memory. In the fourth grade we got a new student in our class, a boy. And it soon became apparent that this boy had problems. He couldn’t sit still. He couldn’t focus on what he was supposed to be doing. I think he probably had some other issues, too. He was a big challenge to the teacher, and one day she had just had it with him. She got a paddle out of her desk, and she used it on this child right in front of all of us. And the whole class, including me, started laughing. She humiliated him in front of us and reduced him to tears in front of us. We never saw him again after that.
I knew there was something wrong with this, but I laughed anyway. Whatever this boy’s problems, I knew the teacher shouldn’t be treating him that way, even if he did need some kind of intervention. But I just laughed. I’ve got a feeling his story didn’t have a happy ending.
I know, I know. I was only nine years old, and perhaps I couldn’t challenge the teacher, and couldn’t be expected to have the gumption and poise to say, “I don’t think this is right.” But what about now? What about when I see somebody being bullied or otherwise treated unjustly? What about when I hear a whole group of people being stereotyped and maligned and scapegoated? What if I witness somebody getting a tongue-lashing, and especially one which they have done nothing to deserve?
Perhaps the most horrible thing about what happened to Stephen was that it was done in the name of God. His attackers truly believed they were doing God a favor!
What’s even more horrible is that in the centuries that followed, the church itself used these kind of tactics to try to stamp out what it believed to be mistaken theologies and mistaken interpretations. This week I watched the most recent film version on the life of Martin Luther, one of our greatest ancestors in the protestant branch of the Christian family tree. He lived in the 1500s, a time when the Roman church burned people who refused to recant of dissenting views. Nor was the protestant church immune to this same kind of behavior. For example, in the name of God, our ancestors persecuted the people who are the ancestors of the people we know today as Mennonites and related groups. For all his profound understanding of God’s love and grace, Luther himself published writings that encouraged persecution of Jews.
Even our own Presbyterian father, John Calvin, got caught up in this kind of behavior, in the name of God. Yesterday I refreshed my memory on the sad story of how he participated in the cascade of events that led to the burning of Michael Servetus. Servetus was a Spaniard who did not hold the majority view about the Trinity, and who disapproved of baptizing infants. And Calvin approved of the execution.
Maybe Christians don’t still kill one another in the name of God. (Well—usually they don’t.) But they still frequently fight one another in the name of God, writing one another off and stirring up dissension and division. Christian family fights can still be pretty nasty.
Recently there has been a great deal of discussion of a new book called Love Wins, by a young man named Rob Bell who is pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church up in Michigan. In this book Bell wrestles with the question of hell, what is it, and whether or not it is a literal lake of fire. Before the book even came out, certain well-known pastors were labeling Bell as a heretic. They burned him in the media. One who uses the twitter messaging service tweeted this: “Farewell, Rob Bell.” In other words, “I don’t want to have anything to do with you any more because you’re wrong about hell.”
Stephen didn’t respond to his attackers in kind. He didn’t try to fight. They were intent on wiping him and his message out. But Stephen was intent on keeping his eyes on Jesus. As the rocks came down on him, he echoed the very words of Jesus. On the cross, Jesus had said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Stephen said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” On the cross, Jesus had said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Stephen said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And then he died. And Saul was glad.
Just one chapter later in Acts heaven opened again. This time, a great light came down, hit Saul and stopped him in his tracks. A stunning light, painful to the eyes, overwhelmed Saul, and he fell to the ground. The light of truth will do that to you. And with the light came the voice of the Lord, not in a gentle whisper but in an agonized cry: “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord? Saul fell off his high horse. He fell off his arrogance and certitude and self-righteousness and gung-ho to “get” the enemies of God. God did a major intervention to draw Saul’s attention back to where it needed to be: to the living God—to the God behind the scriptures he cherished. To the light behind all light. God grabbed Saul by the eyes.
How much easier it is when people humbly try to keep their eyes on Jesus And if they find themselves tempted to bask in self-righteousness, tempted to gang up, tempted to attack somebody, in God’s name, they stop and focus on Jesus again. They hesitate long enough for the Lord to redirect if necessary. Chances are, they will find that they are at least partly wrong.
In later years Paul spoke with regret about what he had done to Stephen and to the church. The killing of Stephen was not a happy memory. But there was a word of comfort in the memory. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” Stephen had prayed. That prayer was for Paul, too. And that prayer was answered.