A sermon given May 12, 2020, by Dr. Deborah Wilson on Acts 7:55-60…
When I was growing up, we used to have missionaries come speak to our church at least once a year. After a term “in the mission field,” they would come home on “furlough,” during which they had to travel around to churches raising enough money to support them during their next term. Their stays in foreign countries weren’t brief “mission trips.” These people actually lived most of their lives in those countries. I always loved their visits. First of all, they stayed with us in the parsonage, so I had plenty of time to bug them with endless questions. But they also usually preached wearing the native clothing of the places they lived, and had all kinds of crafts, tools, musical instruments, and fascinating, often strange (at least to me) artifacts on display. My favorite missionary when I was a child was my family’s dear friend, Morris Plotts, who worked in Kenya until he retired. He once taught me a song in Swahili. I remember a horrifying film he showed of the Mau Mau rebellion (which I now know was an uprising against British colonial rule, and not at all what was represented to me in the late 50s. The role of missionaries in colonization was unknown to me as a child, unfortunately). I also vividly remember the stories he told of African Christian converts who were murdered for their faith.
I never actually knew a missionary who was killed on the mission field, but I knew of them. And there were more than a few. At the end of most missions services at our church, we would sing about sending workers into the field because the harvest of souls was ripe. As a child and even into my teens I wanted to be, and was at the same time terrified of being, a missionary. Although I am sure there were many motives entwined in such a desire, being a missionary seemed to me the greatest self-sacrifice I could make to God. And the IDEA of martyrdom can have an odd attraction (Joan of Arc comes to mind). Southern author Flannery O’Connor writes of a 12-year-old Catholic girl in the story “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” who thinks about both sainthood and martyrdom. She decides she couldn’t be a saint because she is too sinful, “but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick. She could stand to be shot but not to be burned in oil.” As she ponders being torn apart by lions, “She began to prepare for her martyrdom” in a fantasy that includes “herself in a pair of tights in a giant arena,” converting the lions one by one. “They finally cut off her head quickly with a sword and she went immediately to heaven.” Her greatest sin, by the way, is pride. And her vision of martyrdom makes that evident.
In today’s first reading, we are dropped into what seems to be the end of a narrative, without any context, without knowledge of either the situation or the man at its center, just in time to watch the violent death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. We are given only 6 verses from the 7th chapter of Acts, beginning with Stephen’s gaze into heaven at the glory of God. Stephen seems to both invite and command those about to murder him: “LOOK!” He then tells them what he sees: “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they refuse either to look or to listen, covering their ears as they drag him outside the city and begin to stone him to death. His last two statements echo Christ on the cross: he asks Jesus to receive his spirit, and, finally, as he is dying, he asks the Lord not to hold this sin against them.
Brief as it is, this is a powerful scene with powerful words. But what leads up to this moment is worth our attention as we seek some way to personalize what happens here in a way that empowers us in lives much less dramatic. Who IS this man Stephen? He is neither a disciple nor an apostle. He is, we are told, “filled with the Holy Spirit.” In fact, the first mention of him, in chapter 6, singles him out as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” So how does he so quickly become Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr? The beginning of his story does not prepare us for what happens at its end. The early church at Jerusalem had already become divisive. The Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews largely from Greco-Roman lands of dispersion) were at odds with the Hebrews (Aramaic-speaking Jews, primarily natives of Palestine), arguing not over theology, but over food. The Hellenists accused the Hebrews, who administered the daily allocations, of unfair distribution, specifically of neglecting their widows. The conflict finally came to the apostles, who insisted they were too busy praying and preaching to deal with such matters as waiting tables, so the church elected seven men to take charge. The apostles appointed and anointed these men, Stephen foremost among them, to administer food and other charitable allocations. I want to emphasize that Stephen took on what was in some ways a rather menial job, one beneath the apostles’ calling. That is where his New Testament story begins, in humility. He did what was at hand to do, what was needed by his church.
But he did much more than just that: “full of grace and power, [he] did great wonders and signs among the people.” He was so adept in debating, that dissidents “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” His opponents finally set up false witnesses who accused Stephen of speaking against the Temple and Mosaic law, and they brought him before the Sanhedrin. This WAS about theology. Jesus had earlier been charged for saying, “I will destroy this Temple made with hands and in 3 days build another made without hands.” And now Stephen is probably charged for quoting Jesus’s claim, which his opponents interpreted literally. When the high priest asks, “Are these things so?”—Stephen launches into one of the longest sermons in the New Testament, and he does so with a face “like the face of an angel.”
I won’t be preaching such a sermon with such a face today. Before a summative look at HIS sermon, I want to interject a side note about the centrality of the Temple in the early church in Jerusalem. I had forgotten that, after the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, we are told in verse 46 that, “day by day they spent much time together in the Temple.” Then chapter 3 begins: “One day [a phrase that seems to imply a regular event] Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.” As they are about to enter, Peter heals a lame man. When a crowd gathers there in Solomon’s Portico, Peter preaches to them. He and John are arrested by priests and the captain of the Temple, only to be released the following day. In chapter 5, the apostles, all together in Solomon’s Portico, are arrested by the high priest, imprisoned, and in the night released by an angel who tells them, “Go, stand IN THE TEMPLE” and preach. So at dawn, there they are again. Arrested, flogged, and threatened before release, these same apostles, according to the final verse of chapter 5, taught and proclaimed Jesus as Messiah “every day IN THE TEMPLE and at home.” The Jerusalem church had not left the Temple but preached Christ from and within it.
All of this is to say that, by the time we get to Stephen’s accusers and his sermon before the supreme rabbinic court in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, in chapter 7, we can more clearly see why there is so much animosity surrounding Christians in relation to the Temple. Stephen’s lengthy discourse includes the history of God’s relationship with Israel, beginning with Abraham and working his meticulous way to Solomon building a house for God. When he comes to the Temple, he makes his central point: “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands.” Then begins his attack on his audience, and their history becomes an indictment rather than a celebration: “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.” He turns their own accusations about Mosaic law, about opposition to the ways of God, against them. THIS is the moment when he gazes into heaven, and the appalling violence that ends in his death begins. He is yet another persecuted prophet in that line stretching back to the beginning of their history as God’s chosen people.
Historically, what good comes from Stephen’s murder? When the stoning begins, we are told in a rather offhand, parenthetical manner, “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” And immediately following the verse stating that Stephen died, is this verse: “And Saul approved of their killing him.” On that same day, “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” THIS is the beginning of the missionary work of the early church. Stephen’s death and the subsequent dispersal begin the fulfilling of the Great Commission as “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” In Acts 1:8, Jesus told them one of the reasons they would be filled with the Holy Spirit: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The church is now forced out of Jerusalem, out of the familiar Temple space of their former worship, into the surrounding countryside to spread the Gospel.
This concept of a mobile church appears in Stephen’s sermon when he speaks of the Tabernacle in Israel’s wilderness wandering. Stephen tells us that God is not restricted to one nation, to one people, to one material, fixed structure. In chapter 9, God meets Saul on the ROAD, traveling from one place to another, and the man who watched and approved of Stephen’s death, the man who forced the dispersal from Jerusalem, soon becomes Paul, the preeminent New Testament missionary.
And today God abides in US, whether we are in this sanctuary made with hands, or in our homes with our families, or alone on the road. WE ARE His temple, his tabernacle. He dwells in us. He meets us wherever we are, and goes with us into whatever we face. He takes us into others’ wilderness experiences as well, and, like Stephen, we are to bring the light with us into the darkness. We are to be witnesses by reflecting Jesus in our lives so that others see Him in us. How do we do that? We lift our gazes to heaven, and see Christ standing at the Father’s right hand, as he gazes back at us, immediately accessible, and we say to others, LOOK. It is not just that he WAITS for us at the moment of our deaths. It is that he is with and in us in the midst of our lives. Amen.