The Stoning of Stephen (a Sermon on Acts 7:55-60)

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But filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 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 had said this, he died.


Q: Good King Wenceslaus looked out …when?
A: on the Feast of Stephen

Yes, the ‘Feast of Stephen’ or ‘St Stephen’s Day’ – remembering the day when Stephen was stoned, normally celebrated on December 26th (the day after Christmas). So why are we reading about Stephen again this morning? This is the question that I’m sure many of the more ecclesiastically-minded amongst us are puzzling over this morning?

 Of course the less ecclesiastically-minded may barely have a clue what I’m talking about. Indeed, some of you may be wondering why anybody should celebrate the fact that Stephen was stoned. Most of us, if we get stoned, don’t want the rest of the church to even find out about it!

Yes, I’m kidding (sorta) but I do think it is still a good question why we should celebrate the stoning of a great saint in this day and age when the Christian faith (and indeed when all religious faiths) are generally viewed as being a means to an end, whatever that end may be (a longer life, better sex or a bigger bank balance).

I am right, am I not? It is almost a truism in our culture, is it not, that religion (not this religion or that religion but any religion) is seen to be a means to an end. You adopt a religion because it has the potential to give you something that you want – eg. eternal life or inner peace, or election as President?

We take on religion because we think it’s going to take us somewhere. So why does the church continue to hold up before us as examples of the faith men whose religion led them to ignominy, suffering and a painful death?!  Why celebrate the death of Stephen? Why not spend today celebrating the happy life of St John, who was, I believe, the only one of the Apostles to die peacefully in his sleep?  Why not hold him up as an example of the faith instead of someone who died a brutal death at the hands of a lynch mob?

It’s a good question, isn’t it?  And behind it lies another good question – namely, why was the poor guy lynched in the first place?  After all, the man was an accountant (in charge of the church’s welfare distribution payments). You could understand it if he were a lawyer or a politician (or even a priest) but you’d hardly expect an accountant to be the sort of guy who would stir up an angry mob?

And the passage we read this morning didn’t give us many clues: Stephen gazed into heaven and said “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

I appreciate that guys who talk like that can seem obsequiously pious and make you wince a bit, but they are hardly going to motivate you to pick up bricks and beat them into a bloody pulp!

Stephen comes before us this morning as a man of mystery.  From our brief reading today we know how he died but we do not know why he died or even why the church calendar seems so insistent on reminding us that he died!

What was so special about Stephen’s death? What was so special about Stephen?  What did he do that upset everybody so much?

Well, I’m going to cut to the chase here and suggest that what made Stephen so special and what made him so hated was not that he was an accountant any more than it was because he was Greek (or rather, a Greek-speaking Jew), but rather that it was because he was the first in the church to proclaim that radical (and very distinctively Christian) message that God is not Jewish!

Now that is my summary of his message and it may be a summary that makes Stephen’s message sound a little anti-Semitic, which of course it was not. For his message was not so much that God wasn’t Jewish, as such, but that God is in fact bigger than any one nation or history or people, and that neither the Jewish law nor the temple could contain God such that God was their exclusive property. And of course it was this message that got him killed.

Now I’m drawing my summary of Stephen’s message from the long speech he gave, as recorded in Acts chapter 7, but you can see his message distilled clearly enough in the charges that were brought against him:

“This man never stops saying things against this holy place [ie. the Temple] and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” (Acts 6:13-14)

The people who bring these charges against Stephen are described by Luke the author as ‘false witnesses’, but not so much because what they said about Stephen wasn’t a true representation of what Stephen had said but because they were being false before God by opposing the truth that Stephen was teaching.

Stephen indeed spoke against the temple – warning his contemporaries that not only was this place that they all worshipped in about to be physically dismantled, but also proclaiming to them that since the resurrection of Jesus, the entire system of temple worship and animal sacrifice, with all its laws and rules and rituals and sacraments, had been made redundant.

Stephen was accused of ‘changing the customs handed down to them by Moses’ and indeed you can see in Stephen’s words the seeds of what was to come – a complete dismissal of all those distinctively Jewish practices that helped maintain ethnic identify, so that Jewish people might always see themselves as ‘separate’ – holy and set apart from the rest of the world.

As we read through the book of Acts we see the church coming to terms with the fact that holiness really doesn’t have anything to do with any particular race, and that your ethnic pedigree never gives you any basis for any feeling of superiority over your fellow human beings, and that all the laws and rules and regulations that are designed to remind you of who you are ethnically (such as circumcision and special food laws etc.) are fine, but that they need not be imposed on other people from other ethnic backgrounds who don’t share your history but who nonetheless can share in the fullness of God!

What we see happen in the history of the early church, as recorded in the book of Acts is an incredible transformation where the church goes from being made up on Jews only to being a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic reality.  We see it move from being a community bound by a scrupulous list of rules and regulations on holiness to being a family bound only by love.  We see the church evolving from being a very stratified body, where not only were Jews superior to non-Jews but men were superior to women, just as the rich were superior to the poor, just as slave-owners were superior to their slaves, to being a free and open community where all are one and all are equal because all are in Christ and Christ is in all!

It is not by coincidence that Luke depicts the surly figure of Saul as hovering around in the background of the Stephen saga.  He’s ‘minding the coats’ of those who strip down to engage in the dirty work of slaughtering the noble Stephen.  God knows what effect the incident had on Saul (later to become our beloved ‘Paul’) but whether it effected him consciously or unconsciously I think we can be confident that it had its effect on him, as it was not many years later that this very same individual would be proclaiming to anybody who cared to listen that there is ‘no Jew, no Greek, no male, no female, no rich, no poor, no slave, no free but that Christ is all and in al!’ (Galatians 3:28)

The story of the early church is a story of radical transformation for ethnic exclusivity to true cultural and social inclusiveness, and it is Stephen who is the thin end of that wedge. It is Jesus, of course, who starts the whole ball rolling – refusing to be bound by the prejudicial barriers that separated the races, and giving equal place to women, and becoming the friend of tax-collectors and sinners, though Jesus leaves it to St Paul to most fully articulate this wonderful dogma of the church, that in Christ there can be no distinction or discrimination made between us on the basis of race or culture or skin colour or social class or status or anything else.  It is Stephen though who is the hinge (so to speak) between Jesus and St Paul.  It is Stephen who is the first to begin to articulate the inclusiveness of Christ.  It is St Stephen who is the first to shed his blood for the cause of inclusiveness, and it is St Stephen whose legacy is taken up by Saul (who becomes Paul) and others who begin the true multi-cultural transformation of the church.

Indeed, from a historical point of view, it was the death of Stephen that began the multi-cultural mission of the church. Up to that point, as we read about it in Acts, the church had been growing, but nobody was interested in taking the Gospel outside of Jerusalem or in mentioning it to non-Jews.  With the death of Stephen, a lot of people got scared and left Jerusalem to find safer environments.  The result was, of course, that they start setting up churches outside of Israel, in places like Samaria and in Antioch, and even in Ethiopia.  This was, of course, what those who killed Stephen most feared.  Ironically, it was through the killing of Stephen that they brought about the very thing they were trying to prevent – the wonderful multi-coloured reality we call church!

And that’s why we need to keep remembering this man, and that’s why we need to keep remembering this man’s brutal death too, as it helps remind us of that natively religious tendency in ourselves that we all have – to exclude people who we don’t think really belong in our community.

Left to ourselves we will do this. We’ll exclude black people or we’ll exclude white people.  We’ll exclude poor people or we’ll exclude disabled people.  We’ll exclude unattractive people and we will certainly exclude sinful people.

And of course we won’t admit to what we are doing but in subtle ways we will exclude those that we don’t want to be a part of us.  And when we find ourselves doing that we must remember Stephen, who shed his blood because he believed in a God who was bigger than our petty differences, as of course we must remember Jesus, who shed his blood in order to break down all those barriers and give us peace and make us one.

And that is why we are remembering Stephen today, just as we did on December 26th, and just as we may do again at some other time this year!  And that’s why we remember the brutal death of Stephen – as unsavoury as the whole episode is.  Because we need to remember that unity in community is not something we can take for granted.  This sort of multi-cultural inclusiveness that we can now enjoy is something that our spiritual forebears bled and died for.

Lest we forget!

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, May 2010.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

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About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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