Settle Down, Stephen - thrive UMC Official Blog

Settle Down, Stephen

Acts 6:8-15, 7:51-53

            In our reading from last week, we saw how the early Christian community approached problem-solving.  There was a complaint that arose because some women were being overlooked at mealtime.  And the way the apostles responded to this complaint was by calling a meeting.  All the disciples were gathered together, and they were invited to identify seven people to take charge of their food-service problem.  And the problem was then handed over to them, and they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

            Our reading for today starts follows the story of one of those seven new leaders.  We’re picking up in Acts, chapter 6, reading verses 8-15, and the very first verse of chapter 7.  This is what it says:

Stephen, who stood out among the believers for the way God’s grace was at work in his life and for his exceptional endowment with divine power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose from some who belonged to the so-called Synagogue of Former Slaves. Members from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia entered into debate with Stephen. 10 However, they couldn’t resist the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. 11 Then they secretly enticed some people to claim, “We heard him insult Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people, the elders, and the legal experts. They caught Stephen, dragged him away, and brought him before the Jerusalem Council. 13 Before the council, they presented false witnesses who testified, “This man never stops speaking against this holy place and the Law. 14 In fact, we heard him say that this man Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and alter the customary practices Moses gave us.” 15 Everyone seated in the council stared at Stephen, and they saw that his face was radiant, just like an angel’s.

The high priest asked, “Are these accusations true?”

            There’s a little more to our reading for today, but I wanted to pause right here for a minute to point a few things out.  First of all, if you’ll remember from last week, these seven new leaders were raised up in the church to handle a specific problem related to food distribution. But the next thing we knew, Stephen is out of the kitchens doing wonder and signs out among the people.  Then, in immediate response to those public signs and wonders Stephen performs, there is more trouble, and he ends up getting put on trial by the Jerusalem Council.  Does this sound familiar? 

            This is almost exactly what happened to the apostles, right?  Even the accusations brought against him are similar: notice how he’s accused of ‘speaking against the temple and the Law.’ And the specific allegation against him is that he had been heard saying that ‘Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the temple and change the customs that were passed down from Moses.’ 

            So, first of all, notice how we’re seeing a pattern here.  The movement of the Holy Spirit seems to have a reliably repeatable process: step one: hear God’s word.  Step two: partake in God’s word through sharing. Step three: be empowered by God’s word; step four: share God’s word. Step four-point-five: get arrested, immediately.  That’s how it works: the Holy Spirit will raise you up into trouble.

            So that’s the first thing: the Holy Spirit leads apostles into conflict. 

            The second thing I want you all to notice here is the nature of the conflict that keeps arising; because again, this opposition isn’t coming from some foreign enemy.  It isn’t the Roman government, or some pagan god who keep reacting against the Jesus movement. But it’s their own people.  This conflict is arising from within their own ethnic and faith community: and it’s over two very specific concerns.  The reason the authorities and these other Jewish groups are getting defensive and feeling so threatened by the Way of Jesus is because it sounds like these people who have been empowered by the Holy Spirit are undermining two things they care a lot about: 1.) their tradition, and 2.) their temple. 

            In other words, their accusers are going: “What? Are you suggesting that our temple sacrifices aren’t important?  And you want to change or ignore our prescribed rules and rituals!  That is blasphemy! Call the cops!”

            Then, in the very first verse of the seventh chapter, the high Priest, while this whole trial is just ramping up, he asks Stephen: “Are these accusations true?”

            Now, we don’t have time to unpack Stephen’s whole response today, because it goes on for about 50 verses and recounts several hundred years of Jewish history.  But what Stephen doesn’t say, when asked if the accusations against him are true, is ‘no.’  He does not tell the high priest, “I plead not guilty, your honor!” and then sit down.  Instead, he goes through a very elaborate illustration of the ways in which the relationship between God and the people has changed over the centuries, with the only constant being that the people always resisted what God was doing right in front of them. From Abraham, to Moses, to the prophets –every person who God had inspired was resisted by the people around them, because they wanted to cling to the idols of the past instead. 

            That’s a very rough, ineloquent summary of Acts chapter 7; but we’re going to pick our reading back up with Stephen’s closing remarks.  Jump with me, if you will, to Acts 7, verses 51-53. Stephen has just shared his interpretation of the history of Israel with the court, and then he says this:

51 “You stubborn people! In your thoughts and hearing, you are like those who have had no part in God’s covenant! You continuously set yourself against the Holy Spirit, just like your ancestors did. 52 Was there a single prophet your ancestors didn’t harass? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous one, and you’ve betrayed and murdered him! 53 You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it.”         

            You can just imagine how well this closing argument would have gone over with, say, Judge Judy. Like, woah-there: settle down now Stephen!

            But what I to draw our attention to today is the character arch of this guy Stephen.  Pretty much the only background information we have on this guy is his name and that God was powerfully at work in his life.  We don’t know what his vocation had been, what social class he had belonged to, how smart he had been, what has family was like –none of that. We just know that he had belonged to this Jesus community, and that the Holy Spirit was with him.

            One quick note about that: in our reading from last week, the apostles had asked the whole community to identify seven people to become leaders, and the only two qualifications they put forth were that they were 1.) well respected by everyone; and 2.) that the Holy Spirit had endowed the individuals with wisdom.  What’s interesting about this is that when they name Stephen as one of the seven, they say the Holy Spirit had endowed him –not with exceptional wisdom- but it says that the Holy Spirit endowed him with exceptional faith.  And the Greek word here for ‘faith’ here refers to one’s commitment to fulfill his or her responsibilities.  So one way to interpret this little interjection here about Stephen is to say –‘hey Pete, we know you asked for someone who’s really wise and all; but Stephen over here… he’s such a swell guy, and well, he tries real hard!’

In any case, this is obviously good enough for the apostles, so they lay hands on these seven new leaders (including Stephen), and they bless them, and in this way they become responsible for making sure everyone has the food they need.  But when we pick up today’s reading, do we see Stephen hard at work tending to the Greek widows, and weighing out portions of bread at lunchtime, as he was appointed?  No!  Instead, he’s out in the community –and I quote- “doing great wonders and signs.” He is literally causing a spectacle! And again –notice what the scripture doesn’t tell us.  It does not tell us that Stephen is out in the square healing people, or casting out demons, or raising the dead, or restoring sight to the blind, or aweing people with his profound interpretation of Torah or the prophets.  And the fact that the story doesn’t record what kind of wonders and signs Stephen was performing is a little suspicious! Because the nature of the signs and wonders on display are clues about what God is doing in the world, right? 

If a journalist today recorded a story like this, they would immediately be fired! 

I mean, can you imagine turning on the news and hearing a report announce: “This just in, huge crowds gather in downtown Des Moines to see what could be the spectacle of 2019!”

            Then they flash to the news Anchor: “What kind of a spectacle is it, Bob?”

            To which the reporter replies: “An amazing one, Susan!  People are just in awe; they cannot believe what they seeing!”

            News Anchor: “And what are they seeing, Bob?”

            Reporter: “I already told you Susan, a spectacle!”

            And then the News goes to commercial, but when they come back, they just go to a completely different story, so we never hear from that reporter again!  That’s what’s happened here –what sounds like one of the most important details of the story is just left out. The thing God was doing through Stephen was left out.  So all we get is: ‘a thing happened with Stephen, and it got people’s attention.  And then immediately after that, these accusations start coming up against him: that he is speaking against the temple and the law. 

            And of course, the text goes through great pains to show us that these accusations were false, and that there was something of a conspiracy rising up against Stephen, from this group called the Synagogue of Former Slaves. But if we just look at the charges that were brought against him, I think most of us would have to admit that they seem pretty believable. I mean Jesus himself interpreted the law in such a way that it disturbed some of the long-established Jewish customs and rituals.  And we already know from the gospels that Jesus went into the temple and he turned over the table of the money-changers.  And Peter and John had some pretty strong critiques of the temple power-structure.  So to think that Stephen might continue on in that same spirit of critique, and have some harsh things to say about current practices of the law and at the temple, does not at all seem implausible to me. 

            In any case, Stephen is brought before the Council, and the accusations are made: he is being charged with opposition to the temple and for speaking against the law. 

            And then the story tells us: the whole crowd turns their eyes upon Stephen, and they see that “his face is radiant, just like an angel’s.” 

            The High Priest then asks him if these accusations are true, thus inviting him to plead his case. 

Stephen responds by goes on a long monologue about the history of Israel, and the Jewish people, and he ends by accusing the temple authorities of being outside the law, and having a long history of trying to suppress God’s word through violent means. 

If we’d read just a little further, we’d find that Stephen’s words aren’t well received by the council, and he’s promptly taken out into the streets and stoned to death.

Now we’ll talk a little bit more about the temple authorities in this case next week, but for this morning, I want to invite all of you into the question of Stephen’s charges.  He was accused of speaking against the law of Moses and the Temple.  Join the jury and examine the evidence.

For starters, we know he caused some kind of ruckus in public –he was stirring people up- with magic or miracles, we don’t know. 

We know he belongs to a kind of extremist group that has an established track-record of causing trouble at the place of worship.  We know their group doesn’t practice their faith like we do.

We know the testimony against him: that he won’t stop speaking against the law and the temple; and we had a witness on the stand tell us he had said that Jesus would come and destroy the temple.

And we heard his own rebuttal, where he rambled for a really long time until he lashed out against the whole court, wildly accusing us of being stubborn and  ignorant of God –us, the most learned and well-respected leaders of the whole community!  He even accused our council of killing a prophet –one Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Romans had executed for sedition.  And in his closing sentence, he tried to redirect our attention away from his crimes by turning the charges against us –saying that we had lost our grip on the law that had been put in our care.

What do all of you think?  Does Stephen sound guilty of the charges brought against him? Does he sound like someone who might oppose the law, and the institution, and the tradition we believe in?

Perhaps some of you may have a hard time putting yourself in the shoes of a first-century Palestinian Jewish High Priest.  So change the setting a little: what if someone came into the Catholic Church and accused the Pope of idolatry and corruption? I don’t know, maybe he even nails his criticisms to a church door, because they don’t check their email.  Would he be guilty of speaking against the Church?

What if someone here came in and interrupted our Sunday morning service, and accused me of being a bad pastor, and accused you all of being sorry excuses for Christians? 

Would they be enemies who are opposing God? 

Even as we read this story of Stephen’s trial, we’re invited to question: whose side of the case is right, and how do we know?

And I think if we look at this case as honestly as we can, and try our best to set our Christian prejudices aside –if we succeed in doing that, I think we could sympathize with the decision this council made against Stephen.  I think we could see how, from their vantage point, Stephen’s defense looked to them like an admission of guilt.  When they heard him speak out against them, somewhere deep inside I think it felt to them like he really was blaspheming against God –because he was definitely speaking against them, and they were God’s servants after all!  And isn’t speaking against God’s servants pretty much the same thing as speaking against God?

This, I think, has always been the greatest temptation facing people who are striving to be faithful: it’s so easy to fall into the trap of being faithful to the forms of the spirit, instead of being faithful to the Holy Spirit itself.  We so prize our tradition, and our rituals, and our holy-places, and our institutional structures, and our labels, that we cling to them and miss what God is doing right there in front of us.  We let the tools that are supposed to help us grow closer to God become idols.  And when we hold them too tightly, or when they’re wielded for the sake of control or defense, then these holy tools can actually become cages that keep us from the living God working in our midst.

Our church building can be an idol –if we’re more worried about it than the people we’re supposed to be sent out to serve.  Our institutional structures can become an idol –if we’re using our rules to reinforce a separation between God and certain kinds of people.  Our procedures and protocols can become idols if they keep people down instead of helping them rise up in service to God.  Our leaders and pastors can become idols if we ever treat them as anything more than human.  Our bible can be an idol in our hands and minds if we’re using it as a weapon instead of a welcome to witness the Holy Spirit at work at us and the world.  Our worship here is an idol if it’s keeping us pegged down to the same spot in our faith and our pew, instead of taking us somewhere new. 

Because God is constantly speaking!  God’s mouth is open, speaking words of life and creation and re-creation in the world right now.  God is doing something new. God is doing something new in the cosmos and in us.  And God will not shut up just because it’s not church time.  The Holy Spirit will not refuse to work for and in someone just because they don’t wear the correct religious label.  But instead God is free to do as God sees fit.  God will be as God will be, and this is our good news this morning: there is absolutely nothing we could ever do to stop it.

So let’s drop our worries and defenses, and get busy looking for new inspiration.

Let’s pray.