Sunday, May 14, 2017

Living and Dying for Faith -- Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 7:55-60
May 14, 2017

            “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!”
            “We refuse to hear him, even if his words ring clear.”
            “We refuse to believe him, even if he speaks God’s truth.”
            “We refuse to accept him, what he says, what he stands for, who he stands for, no matter what!”
            “We will grind our teeth at him.”
            “We will cover our ears.”
            “We will close our minds.”
            “We will close our hearts.”
            “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!”
            “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he said this, he died.’”
            As we seem to be doing this Easter season, our passage begins at the end of a story. This is the end of Stephen’s story. What do we know about Stephen? Many of us know him as the first deacon. We know him because of the modern-day ministry he inspired – Stephen’s Ministries, which is a laity-led pastoral ministry. And we know him from these verses, from the end of his life. Stephen was martyred for his faith.
            How did Stephen go from being ordained the first deacon to being brutally stoned to death? How did he move from serving to sacrifice, from a ministry of life-giving compassion to giving his life for his faith?
            That is the part of Stephen’s life that most of us don’t know much about. That is the part of Stephen’s life that leads to this moment; the time between deacon and martyr.
            In those first days of the early church, the numbers of believers were growing by leaps and bounds. At the end of Acts, chapter 6, we learn that the numbers of disciples were growing so rapidly that the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews saying that their widows were begin neglected in the daily distribution of food. So the apostles gathered together with all the believers and decided that it was not right that they should neglect God’s word in order “to wait on tables.” It was decided that “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” should be appointed to serve. That way the apostles could continue with prayer, study, and “serving the word.”
            Everyone agreed, and Stephen was the first man chosen. It would seem that Stephen was not just good at waiting tables. He was also “full of grace and power,” and he “did great wonders and signs among the people.”
            Men who represented various places in the synagogue tried to argue with Stephen, but they were no match for him. When they could not beat him with logic, they decided to beat him with cunning. They whispered that he was speaking blasphemy. They stirred up the people against Stephen. They said that Stephen never stopped saying things against the Law and against the synagogue, the holy place. They spread the word that Stephen spoke of Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus’ plan to destroy what was holy and change the customs that Moses himself handed down to them.
            Stephen was arrested. And even though the men on the council heard the accusations against him, when they looked at the face of Stephen, they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
            When Stephen was asked if the charges against him were true, he did not recant his testimony. Instead he preached. He preached a sermon that told the story of the people going back all the way to Abraham. He preached a sermon that held the people accountable for rejecting the people God sent to lead them: first Moses, then Jesus.
With a prophetic voice, Stephen called them,
 “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.”
            The people were enraged at Stephen’s words. They ground their teeth at him. But Stephen did not seem to see or hear them. Instead, filled with Holy Spirit, he saw the glory of God and Jesus, exalted, in his true place at God’s right hand. He tried to tell the people what he was seeing. He tried to get them to see it too.
            “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
            But the people could not or would not see. They could not or would not hear. They could not or would not believe.
            They covered their ears. They dragged him outside of the city. They picked up stones and threw them at him, each blow chipping away at his life. Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit till the last, cried out for forgiveness just as Jesus cried out for forgiveness from the cross. With those last words, Stephen died.
            In Stephen’s end, we get our first glimpse of Saul. From what we can tell, Saul in not an active participant in this scene; yet he must have bore some importance or influence, because witnesses lay their cloaks in front of him.
            Why is such a brutal passage a chosen text for a Sunday in Easter? Why do we have to read about the stoning of Stephen when we should be rejoicing about the resurrection of Jesus the Christ? Why do we have this particularly hard text before us, not just in the season of Easter but on Mother’s Day?! There is no way to bring the joy of Mother’s Day into this. Believe me, I tried. Why? Because as one contemporary writer put it, the Roman Empire did not pack up and go home with the discovery of the empty tomb. Although we wish it were otherwise, Jesus’ resurrection has not caused the worlds’ inhumanity to cease. Wars continue to be fought; and they seem to get only more deadly. People still treat other people with cruelty. Hatred, bigotry, intolerance, injustice, every ism that we know of – none of those things disappeared with the resurrection. If anything, perhaps the resurrection causes us to see them in even sharper relief.
            The stoning of Stephen is a reminder that the terrible things we are capable of doing to one another still happened and still happen. In some ways, this story is a continuation of the questions I asked last week. As those who follow Jesus, are we living as Jesus lived? Are we loving as Jesus loved? And the question that we add today is, are we willing to die as Jesus died? Stephen was willing. Stephen was willing to live and die for his faith, as were so many others; as are so many others to this day.  
            I’m not saying that we should go looking for martyrdom; I think the opposite is true. Nor, do I think that we our faith will automatically place us in positions of life-threatening danger. But I think we do ourselves, the church, and God a disservice if we act as though discipleship is easy. It is not easy. It isn’t meant to be easy. How could it be?
            In the middle of joy, atrocities still happen. In the midst of life, death refuses to be ignored. Even as we celebrate the power of the empty tomb, the empire clings to the power of the world. People still lay their cloaks in front of the world’s Saul’s, but here is the good news, here is a word of hope; Saul’s become Paul’s.
            So with that hope, we go back to what we said at the beginning. Only now, we say this: we will listen! We will listen! We will believe! We will live and die and love for the sake of the good news, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. We will! We will!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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