David A. Davis
May 14, 2017
Stephen. In the Bible, Stephen appears in the Book of Acts. Tradition labels Stephen the first deacon and the first Christian martyr. Luke, the writer of Acts, spends a bit of time when it comes to Stephen. In what is otherwise a kind of fast-paced biblical book, Luke lingers on Stephen. Stephen’s lengthy response to the high priest, his sermon, is recorded in its entirety. Stephen’s conflict with the synagogue leaders and their plotting against him is described in detail. When writing of Stephen’s calling by the twelve apostles, along with the other six who were appointed to the task of feeding and serving the widows, Luke tells of the apostles praying over them and laying hands on them. And Luke gives these repeated descriptions of Stephen. The kind of descriptions the Bible reserves for people like Noah, who “was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God” (Gen 6). Or Job. “That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1). Luke repeatedly offers descriptors of Stephen. It’s like Luke wants you to get to know him, to get to know Stephen.
In Acts, chapter 6, the disciples tell the community to select from themselves seven people who are “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” When Luke names them, Stephen is the first one. “They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” Luke writes. The other six don’t get the extra shout-out. Stephen’s story continues with Luke telling of how the Word of God spread and the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem. And “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” Full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Full of grace and power. Some who belonged to the synagogue stood up to argue with Stephen. But Luke tells his readers that “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” They couldn’t best him rhetorically so they conspired to stir up the people, the elders, and the scribes against Stephen. They convinced some folks to lie about how Stephen was blaspheming against Moses and God and saying bad things about the temple and the law. Stephen sat before the council, who all glared at him intensely. “They saw that his face was like the face of an angel,” Luke writes. That Stephen, full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, full of grace, full of power, full of wisdom, and he had the face of an angel.
That’s when Stephen starts in on his long-winded sermon. Like one of those commencement speeches you know is going to go on forever because the speaker starts with a story from kindergarten, Stephen starts his response to the council with Abraham. He moves on to Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and his brothers and Egypt and then Moses and Moses’ younger years, and then Mount Sinai and the burning bush, and the deliverance from Egypt and wilderness wanderings and the golden calf and the people’s disobedience, and Joshua, and David, and Solomon. It is quite the history lesson, all coming down to an indictment of the people’s chronic disobedience, and their temple worship, and their mistaken belief that the Most High God would somehow dwell in a house made of human hands. Stephen brings it home with some harsh and scathing words. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” He accuses them of being the betrayers and murderers of the Righteous One, Jesus. “You are the ones who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” And that’s the end. No amen. No thanks be to God. No doxology here. What happens next is our text for the morning.
[Acts 7:54-8:8 is read.]
Now you know why Luke wanted you to get to know Stephen. Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit until the end. Filled with the Holy Spirit and beholding God’s glory. Filled with the Holy Spirit and echoing Christ’s words of compassion as he hung above the fallen world. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Stephen, filled with Holy Spirit. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit. “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Most descriptions of the heavenly throne room tell of Jesus seated at the right hand of God. That’s what we say in the Apostles’ Creed: “He sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Jesus himself tells of the “Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69). But here Stephen sees Jesus standing up. The Son of God rising to the defense of Stephen, rising out of respect for the one giving his life for the sake of Christ. The Lamb of God, the Savior of the world standing to greet Stephen at the gates of heaven. Stephen. Stephen, full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, full of grace, full of power, full of wisdom, and he had the face of an angel. And they killed him. Luke really wishes you could have known him.
Notice who doesn’t get any descriptors, any space, any character amplification. That would be a young man named Saul. “The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul… Saul approved of their killing him… Saul was ravaging the church.” Saul. Saul. The one soon to be known as Paul. Saul. Paul. The Apostle Paul. Romans. Corinthians. Galatians. Ephesians. Paul. That Paul. He comes on scripture’s stage to check coats at a stoning. They laid their coats at his feet. The witnesses. Like they were going to the theater. It’s a disgusting image that symbolizes humanity’s unquenchable thirst for violence. And that’s how the Bible introduces Paul. Not Saul, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. That was Stephen. Saul is up to his knees in the darkest side of being human. A sort of epicenter of sin.
That coat check boy ravaging church. It certainly casts a light on Paul’s Damascus Road conversion and underscores the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. According to Luke, Saul’s persecution of the church even contributed to the scattering, the spreading, of the Word beyond Jerusalem. Paul was spreading the Word when he was Saul. The story so quickly moves on after Stephen’s killing that by that last verse I read “there was great joy in that city” of Samaria as Philip proclaimed the Messiah to them. But Luke wants you to remember Stephen and not let his death just be the pivot that moves the story along.
You remember on the Day of Pentecost Peter preached a sermon similar to Stephen’s. He told the story of faith. He talked about Jesus of Nazareth. He offered words of indictment and accusation: “this Jesus whom you crucified.” Peter preached and three thousand people joined the church and the community of faith was defined. Stephen preached and was murdered. Peter preached and the church was born. Stephen preached and the Lord stood up. The church may have started with Peter but those who take the name of Christ entered the real world with Stephen. The world that is always and forever stained with gruesome violence and death. The promise for those who take the name of Christ is not one of endless mountaintops because sometimes the mountains themselves can begin to shake. There is no guarantee of a life without tragedy, or faith journey that comes easy, or that the cause of compassion and mercy and justice and peacemaking will ever be anything other than a daily struggle. The promise is of God’s presence through it all. The promise is of God’s love through it all. The promise is of God’s steadfast mercy and abundant grace through it all. The promise is that life shall overcome. And that the transforming, death-conquering, sword-smashing, life-giving resurrection power of the God we know in Jesus Christ will ultimately bring a kingdom of peace and once and for all mop up that stain and cleanse that sin and heal the self-inflicted wounds of our humanity.
When I was just starting out as a pastor, my mother thought it would be helpful to share newspaper clippings from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with me. For a season of life she regularly sent me clippings from that paper. It seemed that she was sending along any article that included the word “God” or “Presbyterian.” She would underline or write comments right on the clipping. Maybe it wasn’t all that helpful for my ministry but she had good intentions. And she taught me plenty of lessons about God and the Christian life and pastoral care along the way. When I was eight years old, my 21-year-old brother was killed in a car accident on a Saturday night not far from home. It was this time of year. I can still remember being in the backyard that sunny Sunday afternoon and hearing my mother’s cries from inside the house. It was years later when my mother told me about the friend who came to visit in the days afterward and said, “It must have been God’s will.” That didn’t go well for my mother’s friend. “Don’t you dare tell me it was God’s will. God has to be as heart-broken as I am.” Or to put it another way, when my brother Bobby died, Jesus stood up. That promise carried my mother all the rest of her days.
The promise that neither death, nor life, nor the violence that never wains, nor missile tests and talk of war, nor political chaos, nothing, nothing, not the heart-wrenching struggle to care for aging parents far away, nor the worry for a child whose marriage is in disarray, nor the private pain of a miscarriage, nor the tears for a 95-year-old child of God who now rests from her labor… nothing, nothing, not the stress of a prolonged job search, not the worry of sending a child off to college, not the fears for the world’s future for our children’s children… nothing, nothing… not burying your child, nor the loss of a spouse to dementia years before death, nor your world turned upside down by what a doctor tells you, nor staring into the face of your own mortality… nothing, nothing, shall separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.
You know that quote is from Romans. That means Saul wrote it. And remember Stephen. Luke really wants you to remember Stephen.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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