April 26, 2015
As we continue our way through the book of Acts
during these weeks of Easter,
today we hear some of the story of Stephen –
the first person (and only the first)
who wound up following his shepherd all the way to death.
The first Christian martyr – “proto-martyr” as he is known as.
In hindsight, Stephen probably could have prevented what happened.
From how Luke, the writer of Acts writes about it
Stephen just didn’t have any tact.
He could have used more ‘emotional intelligence.’
I got an email from VOICE the interfaith community organizing group in our area
that they have some trainings coming up.
Their promotional material says that the trainings will
“teach the art and the craft of the relational meeting.”
Stephen could have used some training in community organizing.
His relational skills needed a little work.
Stephen was a Jew who had had a spiritual transformation.
He was now one of those Jews who were following something called “The Way…”
Of course not all Jews in Jerusalem had such a transformation.
They were fine with their practice of Judaism as it was,
thank you very much.
In Jerusalem, this new church called “The Way” is growing exponentially.
The disciples who are leading this new church realize that they just can’t do everything…
It’s brought to their attention that the poor,
and in particular the widows, are in need.
The disciples choose seven people to help –
they are to be deacons in the church.
Stephen is one of them.
Their role is to be sure that the widows and orphans in the community
are fed and cared for.
Well, as it turns out, Stephen doesn’t just take care of the needs of the poor….
he is filled by the Holy Spirit and like the other disciples
he also begins to do great “wonders and signs” among the people.
There are some people from Alexandria… (and Cyrene and other places)
who get jealous…and so they start spreading rumors about what he’s saying.
They talk about how he’s dissing not only Moses but…but also God!
(It’s a little like Lutherans spreading rumors
that the leader of the Lutheran church down the street
thinks Dietrich Bonhoeffer is over-rated.)
What really gets the rumors going around though,
is that the Alexandrians and others
start saying that Stephen wants to change the 8:30am worship service…
“He’s going to change our customs!” they say.
They start spreading their rumors on the social media of the day,
and people start clicking ‘re-tweet’ and ‘share.’
Soon it reaches the point where
Stephen is brought before the Jewish leadership council – the Sanhedrin.
And here’s (in hindsight) where Stephen perhaps could have chosen his words better…
It starts out okay.
He reviews their common history
of the times where the Jewish people –his own people – have been disobedient to God:
That was all well and good – nothing new there.
But then, all of a sudden, Stephen ratchets it up a notch.
No longer is he talking in terms of ‘our’ common history.
Instead he turns to the council, points his finger right at them and says,
“You stiff-necked people…”
“You’re just like your ancestors.”
“You persecuted the prophets and now you killed the Messiah.”
“You! You! You!”
(He could have used the relational training.)
This infuriates the members of the council.
They grind their teeth and
Stephen is dragged outside to be stoned.
Stephen doesn’t stop talking though.
He has a vision he feels compelled to share with them of Jesus at the right hand of God,
and this blasphemy (Jesus next to the one and only God?)
infuriates them all the more.
The take off their shirts – actually their cloaks – to get to business –
throwing them at the feet of a man named Saul (who we’ll hear more from later).
And in a gruesome display of what human beings can do to one another,
Stephen is stoned to death.
But he’s only the first.
He’s only the first Christian who died for what he believed in.
Last summer I was at Princeton Seminary for a preaching conference.
In the entryway to the dining hall,
there are three plaques with the names of their graduates:
- Walter Macon Lawrie: thrown overboard by pirates in the China Sea, 1847.
- John Rogers Peal: killed with his wife by a mob at Lien Chou, China, 1905.
- James Joseph Reeb – fatally beaten at Selma Alabama, March 11, 1965.
If we spend most of our lives in the United States,
where our right to free speech is protected,
chances are we won’t be martyred as Stephen was.
But James Reeb?
That hits a little more close to home.
Before he went to Princeton,
James Reeb graduated from St. Olaf college –
that Lutheran college which is real close to home for some of us here.
As a pastor, he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
and answered Martin Luther King’s call to march for voters’ rights in Selma.
After having dinner in an integrated restaurant with two other pastors,
a group of angry white men beat the three of them with clubs
because of their support of the rights of African Americans.
It took several hours before Reeb was brought to the hospital,
and there he died.
When we are followers of Jesus…
When we follow the Good Shepherd…
sometimes we wind up following him all the way to death.
As Barbara Brown Taylor says,[i]
When you put Stephen and Jesus (and James Reeb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King ) –when you put them together,
you get the idea that this is what Christian success looks like:
not converting other people to our way of thinking,
not having the (…) prettiest church in town,
not even going out of our way to be kind and generous…
Christian ‘success’ is telling the truth so clearly
that some people want to kill us for it.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor in Home By Another Way