I thought we might try something new today, to really make the scripture come alive this morning, so I’d like for anyone whose ever been mad at Stephen for not programming their favorite hymn to please come forward with a handful of stones. It’s an awful text, isn’t it? How quickly things have escalated in the book of Acts! Two Sundays ago we encountered the beautiful text in Acts 2 about the awe that permeated Jerusalem because of the signs and wonders being done by the apostles. The signs and wonders were so compelling that day by day the Lord added to their number as they persisted obstinately in their life together; they held all things in common, prayed together, and broke bread together at their dinner tables. And now here we are with a text about some religious folk becoming so enraged with a man that they stone him to death. This stoning is a pivotal moment in the story of the book of Acts, the book that chronicles the way in which the spiritual and political movement of Jesus gives birth to the early church. But how did we get here? How did we go from the picture of the beloved community sharing life together and increasing in number in Acts 2 to the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7?
After the passage in Acts 2, we find the apostles Peter and John praying, preaching, and healing. The religious leaders were threatened by what they said, so threatened that at one point they threw Peter and John in prison. When brought before the religious council to be questioned, Peter and John said that they would continue to speak about what they had seen and heard, of what Jesus had done, and who Jesus was. They told them the healing they had done was done in the name of Jesus Christ, the one they crucified. After they were released from captivity, Peter and John met together with their community and prayed to God, asking for boldness. From the very beginning, the apostles knew that this movement they were a part of was dangerous because it called into question the way the religious authorities saw God. They continued to make such an impact by healing so many people that the high priest and his leaders were filled with jealousy, so those who were following in the way of Jesus continued to be arrested and imprisoned. Yet every day they persisted, at the temple and at home, in teaching and proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah (5:42).
During this time of healing and tension with the authorities, the twelve apostles received complaints that the widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. In response, the apostles called together the whole community of disciples and told them to select from among themselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, to whom they could appoint this task of food distribution. One of these men that they chose and anointed for this task was Stephen. Acts tells us again and again that Stephen was full of faith and grace and power, that he was full of the Holy Spirit. He did great wonders and signs among the people and pretty soon people started arguing with him. Particularly some who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, started arguing with him. They could not withstand him because he was filled with wisdom and the Spirit. So they instigated some men to speak against him, to say he had said blasphemous words against Moses and God. They stirred people up, plotted false witnesses to testify against him, and then brought him before the religious council and the high priest. They lodged two major complaints against him: that he spoke against the temple, saying Jesus would destroy it and that Jesus would also change the customs that Moses handed on to them. The high priest asked him a question: Are these things so? In essence, are you with us or are you our enemy?
Stephen responds with the speech of all speeches, a lecture on biblical history to group of folks who were supposed to know this history better than anyone. He takes them through a retelling of Israel’s history, talking about Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, their patriarchs. He connects their rejection of their leaders, particularly Moses who had once accused his people of being stiff-necked too, to their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. He tells them that the one Moses said was coming was Jesus! His speech comes to its climax right at the beginning of our text for today, “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.” These are some harsh words to be sure. We can almost understand why they wanted to stone him! They were so offended that they became enraged, which literally means “their hearts tore open,” and they ground their teeth.
They don’t really have a compelling case against him, but what happens next pushes them over the edge. Stephen, again filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he tells them what he has seen. He claims that this executed and resurrected enemy of the state is in close relation with God, and they can’t handle these words. They see them as blasphemy because it goes against all they’ve ever known about God. They refuse to be open to another way of seeing things and cover their ears because they will no longer listen to anything Stephen has to say. They are done. What he says arouses a fear in them that they cannot shake. By covering their ears, they decide together that what he has said is blasphemy. There is no order now, not even a semblance of order. Stephen had been brought before the council, but there is no trial, no sentencing, no negotiating. He gets rushed by an angry mob, taken outside the city, and stoned to death. The mob is so big that those who are witnessing him being stoned strip their coats and lay them at the feet of a young man named Saul; it’s as though they are readying themselves in the effort to participate in this violent act, a second wave of people forming around the first, willing to step in and execute as needed.
Stephen’s life has continually witnessed to the way of Jesus and now in his death, he is a witness too. As the faith community pelts him with rocks, as the very people with whom he has worshipped and shared meals murder him, he cries out and says, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.” And as he nears death he cries out in the same way Jesus did on the cross and says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen imitates Jesus in the very moment of his death. It’s this moment when you step back and wonder, “How did it come to this? How are these people capable of such barbaric action?” Make no mistake. This is not some random group of people. This is an angry mob of religious leaders, killing someone because they are so offended by his vision of God. They would have called it a righteous killing. They killed in the name of God. A storm of fury as been brewing slowly and now all hell breaks loose! It turns out persisting obstinately in the faith can get you killed. That very day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. After the stoning of Stephen, Saul ravaged the church by entering house after house and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. Never again will there be an evangelistic effort in Jerusalem in the book of Acts; the movement will focus its attention on Rome as the disciples get forced out of the holy city.
It’s sure easy to read this account from the book of Acts like a history book, though it was not written as one, telling ourselves, “Well, that was then.” That is what those crazy disciples of Jesus did back then. It’s particularly easy to do this as American Christians who do not experience persecution. But like we’ve talked about before, the writer of Acts left us no static document, no history book. The writer of Acts gave us an invitation to enter into the way of Jesus like those very first disciples did. The writer of Acts calls us to see that “then is now.” So what does it mean to let this text, the stoning of Stephen, speak into our lives? How does it compel us to live differently? We like to put ourselves in the role of the main character in scripture so we might be tempted to first put ourselves in Stephen’s shoes, in the shoes of the hero. But perhaps we need to see ourselves in the crowd first, as people capable of doing violence to those who don’t see God the same way we do. Even if we aren’t the ones who are on the front row throwing the stones, maybe we are the ones sitting on the sidelines, readying ourselves in case we are needed, sitting back and letting others get destroyed, making ourselves complicit in the harm done to other people. After all, it’s the upstanding religious folk who batter Stephen’s body. In what ways are we complicit in violence? When we cover our ears and stop listening to others, we become part of the mob. As one theologian says, “If our convictions leave broken bodies in their wake, or if our pursuits of our religious values and prerogatives snuff out people’s vitality in other ways, then we’re most certainly doing something wrong.”[i]
If we put ourselves in Stephen’s shoes, can we imagine being stoned to death for our unwavering commitment to Jesus as the Messiah? Stephen’s faith was so compelling that it offended people; it was so offensive that they killed him for it. How compelling is our faith? Does our commitment to God and God's kingdom over and against religious exclusivism and the kingdoms of this world offend people? Stephen got people riled up because he was not loyal to their customs; he had no idols; he understood God to be a God of liberation, a God who roamed, a God who could not be tied to a particular temple, a God who wanted to be in relationship with all people. As another theologian says, “The story of Stephen reminds us practitioners of polite, civil, mentally balanced religion that there were once Christians who quite joyfully parted with possessions, family, friends, and even life itself to remain faithful.”[ii] Are we tied to customs, to the norms of our culture, to being civil more than we are to our faith? Are our lives compelling or do we live like everyone else? Do we fit in with the world around us or are we filled with Holy Spirit? Are we offensive to those who live their lives based on the rhythms and customs of our culture? Martin Luther King Jr. often reminded his children that a person who had nothing that was worth dying for, was not fit to live. Is our faith worth dying for? Is our faith worth spending our lives on?
There was a really important witness in the crowd the day Stephen got stoned to death. It’s the first time he gets mentioned in the book of Acts. Saul, who later becomes Paul, one of the most important disciples in the Christian faith, is right in the middle of the mob that day. The witnesses come and lay their coats at his feet. Among the people who forced Stephen to appear before the council were the people of Cilicia. Cilicia’s capital was Tarsus, Saul’s homeland. It’s likely that Saul was one of the main leaders of the group of people who stoned Stephen. The witnesses lay their coats at his feet, indicating to him their willingness to participate in the stoning. After the stoning, Saul ravaged the church by dragging people off to prison. Later on in Paul’s testimony we learn that Stephen’s life was so compelling that it had a profound effect on him. The very man who plotted against Stephen and had a hand in his murder was changed by Stephen’s witness. In Acts 22 Paul tells of his conversion and what happened on the road to Damascus. While in a trance, he is told by Jesus to get out of Jerusalem because they will not accept his testimony; they remembered who he was and the violence he caused. Paul says to Jesus, “Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.” That moment never left him. Paul was complicit in the murder of Stephen, and yet the compelling life that Stephen lived becomes a part of Paul’s story. The Holy Spirit convicts Saul about the horrible, ugly murder he participated in; he is grieved by it, and it changes Saul’s heart. Paul cannot go to Jerusalem, but his witness to the Gentiles will change the world. His work in spreading the gospel will be great, and Stephen’s witness helps to make it all possible.
Malcolm Guite wrote a moving poem about the role of Stephen in Paul’s life, entitled “St. Stephen.” It says:
Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood,
Your martyrdom begins and stands for all.
They saw the stones, you saw the face of God,
And sowed a seed that blossomed in St. Paul.
When Saul departed breathing threats and slaughter
He had to pass through that Damascus gate
Where he had held the coats and heard the laughter
As Christ, alive in you, forgave his hate,
And showed him the same light you saw from heaven
And taught him, through his blindness, how to see;
Christ did not ask ‘Why were you stoning Stephen?’
But ‘Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
Each martyr after you adds to his story,
As clouds of witness shine through clouds of glory.[iii]
Are we stoning God’s beloved with our actions or perhaps our lack of action? Is Christ asking us, “Why are you persecuting me?” Are we persecuting Jesus by persecuting those Jesus loves, by covering our ears and not listening to others? Or is Christ alive in us? Are we sowing seeds that blossom in others’ lives? The story of Stephen’s death compels us to ask ourselves, “Is our faith worth dying for? Is the life that we lead compelling to the world around us?” What will be our answer to the question the spiritual asks us, “Who will be a witness for my Lord?” Only Jesus can transform us from stiff-necked people who are forever opposing the Holy Spirit into a people who are a part of the cloud of witnesses, a people whose lives give testimony to the glory of God.