Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31: 1-5; 1 Peter 2:2-10
During the season of Easter in the Church’s calendar, this period of seven weeks between the Resurrection of Jesus and the coming of Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the lectionary replaces the Old Testament reading with passages from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Today’s story of how God continued to act upon the Hebrew people after the death of Jesus, and after the coming of God’s Holy Spirit upon all women and men, is both a testimony to God’s love for the Jews and a resurrection appearance in its own right.
Make no mistake, at the time of his death Stephen sees the risen Christ. We don’t know whether Stephen actually met Jesus during his earthly life, or whether Stephen was a witness to the resurrection “in the flesh” as it were. Perhaps he was part of the 500 who are said to have seen Christ at one time, perhaps he wasn’t. What we do know is that like Saul who saw Jesus revealed on the Damascus Road, Stephen was a witness to the resurrection because he actually saw Jesus after Jesus was dead and rose to life. The story of the death of Stephen is the story of a resurrection appearance.
As he lay dying under a hail of rocks Stephen saw Heaven opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Unable to control his delight Stephen confesses and proclaims the risen Lord in the very words Jesus used from the cross: “receive my spirit” he asks God, and “do not hold this against them”, he says of his accusers and murderers. One commentary team sees these phrases as a bit of text shaping by Luke, the author of the book of Acts. So was this Gentile scholar trying a bit too hard to make Stephen sound like Jesus? Did Stephen actually say these things, or is it the poetic license of a skilled theologian to make a deeper point? As for me I don’t have a problem at all with Stephen emulating Jesus in his final words, no “putting words in the martyr’s mouth” is necessary for me to understand the significance of what is going on here. Stephen was a dedicated servant of Jesus, why wouldn’t he have adopted the same attitude as his Lord? Here is evidence that the mind of Christ lived in the early Church because the words of Jesus are spoken by his followers in circumstances similar to the conditions under which he spoke them. And once again, as was the story of the entire Old Testament set aside during the lectionary of Easter, God shows continued patience towards the Hebrew people and the Jewish religious authorities when they miss the point. Not only did God allow Stephen to pray in this way, not only did God honour the prayer by receiving the spirit of Stephen as God had received the spirit of Jesus, God also honoured the prayer of forgiveness from the lips of Stephen and did not hold the sin of murderous intent against the leaders. Think about that for a moment, if God had not honoured Stephen’s prayer of forgiveness then how would Saul have become what we later know him to have become. Saul did not throw rocks, but I am certain that he threw insults and meaningful grimaces in Stephen’s direction and as Jesus said about the intent of the heart in the Sermon on the Mount, to have thought evil of Stephen and to have delighted in his death makes Saul as much a murderer as those with stones in their hands. Saul was saved by Stephen’s prayers just as we are all saved by the prayers of the crucified Christ.
The council who heard and condemned Stephen is the same council before whom Jesus appeared the night before he died (Mk 14:62). These may well have been very same men, not just the same body. Their response to the prophecy of Stephen is the same as the response given by the crowd in Nazareth who wished to stone Jesus. The parallels are there to be seen, and much as I understand Luke to have been accurate in what he wrote we are supposed to see those parallels.
This event in the history of the Christian Church is significant for two reasons.
The first, in brief, is that this is the first scriptural mention of Saul of Tarsus. Here is introduced the man who will have such an impact upon the message of Christ as it has spread throughout world. All that we read of in Acts 9 of the Damascus Road experience, itself a phrase used in common English to describe a complete change in direction, and all that takes place in the remaining part of the book of Acts and the stories gleaned through the work of Paul’s own hand in the New Testament Epistles all begin from this moment at the front of the crowd as Stephen is murdered by self-righteous mob rule.
The second reason of significance in this story, in more detail, is that it acts as the hinge of the Christian Diaspora. With the death of Stephen Jerusalem’s Christians are dispersed throughout the world as all but the key members of the twelve run from Jerusalem for surrounding and far-flung districts. With the death of Stephen the gospel is taken into the further reaches of Judea, into Samaria, and across the world to reach beyond the places it was carried by those returning from Pentecost. A great and fearsome persecution broke out but rather than drive the Church into its shell this dispersion spread the word widely.
We read in Psalm 31 a cry for redemption and rescue at a time of trouble: “into your hands I commit my spirit” offers the Psalmist. We acknowledge these as the words of Jesus and Stephen, but I want to suggest that this is also the daily prayer of the Church, and that it can be prayed at times other than as the last gasp of a dying martyr. Our spirit, committed into the hands of God, may well see us united in an instant with the saviour who stands, rather than sits, beside the throne of the Father, yet it may also deliver our spirits to another place here on earth.
For some Jesus stands in welcome of the dear one coming home to Heaven, perhaps in acclamation of the deeds this good and faithful servant has done. It seems odd to me that a mere Christian would receive a standing ovation from the glorified Messiah, but maybe God The Son remembers the human experience of Jesus The Teacher and Son whispers to Father “this one deserves honour, even from me”. For others, such as Philip whose spirit was delivered to a roadside where he ministered to the Ethiopian eunuch or other Christian women and men who travelled safely beneath the threat to the far flung reaches of empire such as Thomas to India, John Mark to Egypt, and James to Spain we may think of the places into which God delivers the Church militant in its ongoing witness to Christ.
Into your hands, oh Lord, we commit our spirits.
At the back of the church today there are copies of the latest Barnabas Fund magazine. Some of you heard me speak about the work of Barnabas last year at Cafe Church. Of course the situation of Christians in the “Bible Lands” of Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Territories is dire today, perhaps more dire than it was in the era of Stephen and Paul. Many Christians are dying as Stephen did, if not as apparent blasphemers against the majority faith then certainly as witness to the glory of Christ. Others living in the tension of undeniable fear and unshakeable faith. Hundreds of thousands have escaped the immediate danger and made it to neighbouring countries where they live in camps. Tens of thousands live in places like Manus Island and Nauru. Thousands live in Australia and other receiving nations as settled, yet still traumatised and stressed refugees.
Into God’s hands they commit their spirits.
Today’s Christians are the living stones of the Church. In many places the Church is unashamed and bold, beaten down and often afraid yet causing stumbling to all who know of them. Some marvel at the resilience of refugees and the horrors they can’t speak of. Some marvel at the strength of faith Christians from very different traditions to ours, worshippers in ways that were familiar to the first friends of Jesus. Some despair that Christians live at all in such places and how the Church refuses to die no matter how much it is terrorised and terrified. The Church of living sacrifices is also the Church of living stones and like these faithful ones who emulate Christ and the first Christians we too are the Church. Peter encourages us to remember that the Church is never the bricks, planks and fibro sheeting that make up chapel and cathedral walls. Building the Church does not mean adding a lean-to kitchen to our hall, a narthex to our abbey, or putting three new desk jobs in the Synod office. The Christians of Stephen’s day and the present day Christians of Stephen’s homeland understand that building the Church means making ourselves bigger in influence and wisdom, and daily adding to our number those who are being saved. This will doubtless cost us our lives, whether by death at the hands of murderous opponents or simply, deliberately and consistently devoting our energies to efforts other than our preferred human endeavours. May we all end up as Stephen did, God make it so that we can be such people of influence and renown, however that looks in practice.
The Church must be unashamed and a stumbling block too many if it is to be the witnessing community of God. The price is high, but the reward is higher still.