Last week I said that because of Easter we don’t have to be sad, angry or scared any more. Now we can be joyful, loving and bold. [remembering] “Oh, yeah!”
And today Stephen gets stoned to death. He gets pelted with rocks, to death, because he preached a sermon. (No pressure.)
Not the most riveting sermon. You can read it for yourself in Acts Chapter 6. All he does is rehearses the salvation history, like we do in the Eucharistic Prayer at Holy Communion, the story of God’s faithfulness to God’s people down through the ages, starting with Abraham and Sarah, down through David and Solomon... It’s a great retelling, but nothing really controversial or incendiary. Pretty exhaustive and long-winded. (It’s interesting how revisiting history -- as dramatic! and controversial! history can be, as revolutionary! its characters, as long as it’s not connecting to our modern-day situations and us specifically -- it’s pretty non-threatening, and can even boring.) Stephen’s just going on and on, like a drab history professor or a droning preacher -- no problems with the crowd...until he concludes by comparing the ancient Israelites’ stubbornness to his own hearers, and suddenly every sentence is packed with a punch...
‘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 that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.…
So were they justified in reacting like this, wasn’t it their right to make sure their preacher said what they wanted, or was Stephen just trying to preach God’s word? Was Stephen in the right for calling them out? Quite a turn in action that these chapters about Stephen take -- from a sleep-inducing family story lullaby to blood-boiling rage. From remembering (putting back together) to stoning.
All he did was hold up the mirror. “You are them,” he’d say. Stephen was a prophet. That’s what prophets do.
And what might we learn from what’s happened here?
I think there is much to be said here for standing up in the face of opposition. This story takes place in a book called the ACTS (the actions) of the Apostles, which comes after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and after the Holy Spirit filled/infused the disciples in all their diversity. It’s the “Now What?” Book of the Easter season. “Christ is risen indeed”...so now here’s what happens! And one of the “actions” of the apostles is the rising up, albeit unpopular and even life threatening, and preaching the hard word. Calling our friends, our sisters and brothers in Christ, out, when they need to be. Speaking the truth in love (I think of MLK & Bonhoeffer...) [pause]
It’s also very important to note that Stephen was not a pastor or a bishop. He wasn’t one of the 12 disciples. He was a deacon, i.e. a server. A lay person, a muggle not a wizard. Just a member of the church. Just an everyday Christian -- someone who, it says, “served at the table” so that the apostles could minister the Word -- and yet he was the first to speak out and tell the truth in love -- “you all aren’t listening and learning from God’s story here, you all are opposing the Holy Spirit, uncircumcised in heart and ears” -- Stephen was the first martyr of the church. This is God-incarnate and at work, the Holy Spirit poured out on, infused into, God’s people. And you too have the power to do this -- to speak the truth in love! Yes?
How might we speak together better? Say what we know God needs us to share to the people we love, even if that’s a hard word? I wouldn’t recommend starting with “You stiff-necked people,” but then again maybe that’s the attention grabber in this era and this region of surface sweetness? Maybe a harsh intro opens the ears and the hearts -- gets the attention -- for telling the truth to those who need to hear it. This is an intervention, we do interventions with the people we love. We sit them down, maybe even call them a jerk -- and then, ultimately, call them back to God who loves them and a life that reflects that.
Let us all be about God’s work of standing up and doing the right thing, even if it’s counter-cultural, unpopular or frightening. We don’t have to be sad, angry or scared anymore. Let’s not oppose the Holy Spirit. [pause]
Finally, I am also struck with how St. Stephen was filled with forgiveness as he’s being stoned to death. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” he cries out before his last breath. Sounds just like Jesus on the cross, right? “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (He also says: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Sounds just like, “Into thy hands, I commit my spirit.”)
On this side of the resurrection we too are filled with the power to say and do things as radical as Jesus -- to shower love and forgiveness on our murderers! [pause] That’s how real Easter is! And we’ve seen Christians do this, and we pray every Sunday that we too would have this kind of joy, love and courage. (Actually we already have it, because of Christ, we pray that God would embolden us to use our powers of forgiveness and grace and mercy.)
Life on this side of Easter morning means that everyone (not just bishops and pastors and people who work in the church, or have fancy theological degrees), every one of Jesus’ followers is capable of extra-ordinary things: 1) standing up for truth in the face of opposition and pressure, and 2) forgiving our persecutors, resisting violence. Life on this side of Easter morning means that everyday followers of Jesus are infused with God’s love and the ability to forgive. Forgiveness is what it’s all about. It’s the Christian’s version of circumcision, i.e. it’s what sets us apart: not limited to gender, “hurting” a bit in that it’s a challenge and not natural, yet marking us as different. The rest of the world’s reaction, and I think the natural reaction, is to get even with someone who throws a rock at you, an eye for an eye, a stone for a stone. But Jesus told us (and showed us) and even “Everyday Stephen” reminds us and shows us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It’s not not just the bishop’s Twitter line for the media: “Let’s be sure to pray for our enemies.” Stephen reminds us, that its every Christian’s call to forgive! Oh, and we can be stiff-necked at times. Stephen was right. But filled with the Holy Spirit, as the resurrected Jesus has filled us with the Spirit, we are capable of both courage and forgiveness.
Remember how Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Well, what do you think that looks like? Stephen shows us: it means we are given courage to stand up and speak, and it means we are given strength to forgive the people who throw rocks at us! We knew it was coming: Remember Dylan’s famous song, based (in part) on this text? “They’ll stone us just like they said they would.” We knew this baptized life wasn’t a cake walk.
But, sisters and brother in Christ, we have just what we need to withstand, even in the face of death! This is God’s power. This is God’s gift. This is grace. This is God’s love and faithfulness, poured out for us. This is the Holy Spirit. What we have, what you have, St. Stephen teaches us today, is enough to stand up and do the right thing, enough to forgive and love our enemies and those who have wronged us. We have that ability within us, thanks be to God, we have that strength. And God will not abandon us this day, in this fiery and frightening season of our lives, or ever. God gives us enough. Alleluia! AMEN.