The Stoning of Stephen Acts 7: 55-60

I usually preach on the gospel reading for the day, but I’m opting today to preach on the reading from Acts.  The book of Acts records the trials and tribulations of the early church and is sometimes called Luke’s second book, as it was written by the same author as Luke’s gospel.   Today we heard about the stoning of Stephen.  Stephen, in time, was canonized as a Saint of the Church and interestingly his feast day can be celebrated on two days, either August 3rd or December 26th—the August long weekend or the day after Christmas.  So I’m thinking that Stephen’s story doesn’t get heard often in church!  It’s an integral and significant part in the formation of the early Christian Church.  So I thought I’d use this opportunity to talk about Stephen’s story.

We just read a very few verses of it today. It is fraught with disagreement and controversy, literally to the point of death.  Stephen’s claim to fame, as it were, is that he’s known as the Christian Church’s first martyr.  Now, Stephen’s career in the church, such as it was, came about as a result of a disagreement between two factions in the new Christian Church in Jerusalem.

Its membership was drawn from two groups of Jews – those who were native Palestinians and those who belonged to ‘the Dispersion’…Jews who had been born and raised in other lands; their native tongue was Greek, and so they were called ‘the Hellenists’. Rivalry between these two groups had been a feature of Jewish life for a long time, and converts to Christ brought it with them when they entered the Church.  It made the Greek-speaking members quick to complain that their widows were not getting a fair share of the community’s food and financial support. [1]

In response to the concern, the twelve apostles essentially called the whole church membership together – kind of a first century version of a vestry—and told the group that this issue needed to be addressed, but their job as apostles was to focus on spreading the word of the Lord, not the distribution of food.  So the membership was tasked with finding seven wise and spiritual men from among themselves who could deal with this properly.  Stephen, whom Luke describes as a “man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5) and six other men were raised up by the community for the job.  A first century styled service of commissioning, complete with laying on of hands was done, and here we have the first organized, structured and official order of Deacons within the church.  Now, to be sure, there were people, men and women, who led lives of service to Jesus and the early church:  caring for the sick, the orphans and the widows, and the bible is full of examples.  But this description sets out almost a prototype for a specific and recognized ordained ministry of service, later to be called the Diaconate, or the order of Deacons.  These words come from the Greek diakonos which literally means ‘servant’.

This ancient biblical model of the diaconate is the one that our Anglican Church still continues to use.  Deacons are one of the three ordained orders in our church, and they “have a special responsibility to minister in Christ’s name to the poor, the sick, the suffering and the helpless”.[2]

Now Stephen was special among this first group of Deacons.  He performed great miracles and signs among the people.  And that too stirs up some controversy, especially with a group from one specific synagogue who couldn’t stand up to the wisdom and the spirit with which Stephen spoke.  So they incite a group of members against him and persuade some to accuse Stephen falsely of blasphemy against Moses and God.  He is arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council.  Is this starting to sound like something you’ve heard before?  Stephen is told to speak to the accusations against him and he responds by retelling the history of the Jews in the light of Jesus as Messiah.  His frustrations with his accusers come out at the end of his speech, and he calls them on their behaviours.  “You stubborn people!  You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth.  Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit?  That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you!” (7:51) I’m sure you can imagine how well this goes over with the High Council and other people gathered there.  Stephen is full of the Holy Spirit, his face is shining and he tells them he sees Jesus standing at the place of honour at God’s right hand. In other words Jesus is God’s Son.   This is the breaking point for the crowd, for them this is blasphemy.  We read that they “cover their ears”; they literally stop themselves from hearing what Stephen has to say.  They shout him down, drag him out of the court, out of town and proceed to stone him to death for his blasphemy, without even finishing his trial.

As Luke tells it, there are definite similarities in Stephen’s death and Jesus’ death.   Like Jesus, Stephen didn’t fight against his captives either.  And Stephen’s dying wish is recorded by Luke; he asks God to receive his Spirit, and not to hold his killer’s sins again them.  Stephen’s death makes him the first martyr of the group of believers, who will soon come to be called Christians.  Now, Luke also makes a point to record that a certain Pharisee, one Saul of Tarsus, was keeping guard over the cloaks of the group doing the stoning.  Not only does Saul approve of Stephen’s stoning, but later continues the persecution of those who belong to this new movement.  This causes many new Christians to flee Jerusalem and scatter around the middle east—taking the message of Christ with them.

A few thoughts to share with you about Stephen’s story.  It’s interesting that we find it in the lectionary in this season of Easter.  The comparisons Luke makes between Jesus and Stephen are hard to miss.  Jesus gave us a way of living a life of based on love of others, of hope, forgiveness of sin and eternal life and Jesus was killed by the people to whom he was sent to give that message.  And Stephen, obviously a man of God, full of the Holy Spirit, performing miracles, and preaching the message of Christ, he too calls the members of the synagogue to task, is also violently killed.  Yet, both Jesus and Stephen prayed for their perpetrators’ forgiveness.  What a model for us to uphold even today, in a society that is becoming increasingly litigious, where the phrase “don’t get mad, get even!” is upheld as justice!

The phrase: ‘they covered their ears’ jumped out at me.  The members of the High Council, the crowd gathered were angry and didn’t want to hear what Stephen was saying.  Stephen’s words just incited them.  They were so entrenched in their way of believing, they didn’t want to even consider there might be another way to look at their scriptures in light of the Messiah.  He was bringing a new understanding, and they literally closed their ears to anything new.  When you’re convinced that your way is the right way and the only way, it can be hard to be tolerant and open-minded and see things or think about them in a new way.  It’s hard to hear the voice of Jesus coming to you in a new way, if you don’t even want to hear it!  Sometimes we are so convinced our way is right, we feel angry when presented with another way, and we can miss an opportunity to hear the leading of the Spirit guiding us, because the only thing we hear;  is what we want to hear.

Another thought occurred to me: how God uses the evil in the world, the wrong-headedness that humanity commits and turns it to the good.   God’s love overcomes evil, in ways we cannot possibly fathom.  Jesus went willingly to his death, knowing what would transpire.  God’s son is crucified as an enemy of the state.  And look what came of that!  A new religious movement, a new way of life and belief that changed how people live, worship and relate to each other and to God.  Those who were involved in the executions of Jesus and Stephen were convinced they were doing the right thing in trying to prevent these two upstarts with their new and blasphemous ideas from infiltrating the synagogues.  The very public nature of Stephen’s accusations, the response it arises resulting in his death causes heavy-handed persecution for the followers of ‘The Way’, as this new Jesus movement was first called.  Many left Jerusalem to escape persecution, taking the message of Jesus’ new way with them.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how this actually helped to spread the Christian message.  And that same Saul, who guarded the cloaks of those hurling the stones; he later undergoes an incredible conversion and he too believes.  He is renamed Paul to mark this very special re-birth of himself to the way of Jesus, and becomes the champion of the message of Christ to the Gentiles.  This takes the message of Jesus the Christ even further afield.  Amazing how God can take evil and use it for good!

And this is the message of Easter, God uses the negative situations that humanity causes as opportunities to bring about positive changes[3] in our world, the world humanity continues to mess up!  God is in the struggle, the pain, the change, doing God’s work, even if we don’t see it at the time, or even in our lifetime!  God’s world, the universality of God is much larger than we, in our limited humanity can imagine. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.   I suspect those first century Christians really had no idea what the outcome would be of all the persecution they were experiencing, what it would lead to centuries and centuries later!  We Christians are people of hope, because we have the model of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to sustain us.  No matter how bad things are at the time we’re going through them, Jesus is there with us, sustaining us, through the darkest of times.  “Often our times of greatest growth occur during or in response to our greatest struggles.”[4]  As people of faith, we hold on to our hope in the transforming power of God in Christ in times of distress, like these current times.  Because even in the bad times, we know God is there.  Amen

The Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector  The Regional Ministry of Hope

[1] Stephen Reynolds:  For All the Saints (ABC Publishing: Toronto 2007) Feast day of Stephen.

[2] BAS p. 631

[3] Timothy B. Hare in Homiletical Perspective for Acts 6: 55-60 in Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 2 (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Ky, 2010) p. 145

[4] Ibid