When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he 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. When 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.
I was standing in front of a packed lecture hall, talking about Jesus according to the gospels, when I began to notice that the crowd was turning against me. For the previous three weeks I had stood in the front of that same room, a brilliantly bright powerpoint displayed on the screen behind me, making my way through the original Greek text of the gospel according to St. Mark. Each week we focused on a different element of Mark’s writing, comparing his gospel with the others, and generally reflecting on how this gospel still speaks fresh and new words into our lives.
It had seemed as if everyone was on board with what I was talking about, until the conversation moved to the cost of discipleship. I recognize now that I probably went to far, but at the time I felt the truth was worth exploring.
This is what I said: “In the gospels, particularly Mark, Jesus makes it very clear that following him, taking up our own crosses, being a disciple, will cost us our very lives.” Many people in attendance nodded. But then I continued, “Most of us here have no idea what that means. We sit in the comfort of our homes here in Michigan, sure we hear about all the bad things happening in the world, and even the bad things happening down the road in Detroit, but our lives will never be taken for our faith. We exist in such comfort with our faith that we can no longer even imagine what it would mean to give our lives for Christ, the cost of discipleship for us doesn’t cost very much at all.” “Well excuse me young man,” one of the women began, “but I go into downtown Detroit every week to serve food and give away clothing. My life is on the line for Christ every seven days. Don’t lecture me about the cost of discipleship.” This is when I should have stopped, apologized, and moved on, but I couldn’t help myself. So I asked her, “Do you go downtown every week because you believe thats the most and the best you can do as a disciple? Or do you go downtown with food and clothing every week because you feel guilty?
The early church had a problem. While the disciples were increasing in number, an argument developed over the distribution of food. Like us modern Methodists, a major conflict erupted not over proper theology, or reverence, but instead who was getting the appropriate amount of food. The twelve got together and asked for seven leaders to come forward in order to help with the organization of the early church, and to faithfully distribute the food among all the people. Stephen, described as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, was one of those chosen seven.
In a short amount of time Stephen began to do great wonders and produce signs among the people. Once he stepped into the limelight of the early church, he rested under the microscope of many leaders and elders of the synagogues who argued with him. The leaders instigated some others to raise charges of heresy against Stephen and he soon found himself standing before the high-priest in order to defend his words and actions.
What followed is one of the most concise and deliberate retellings of the entire salvation story of God with God’s people. Stephen’s speech contains remembrances of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and the prophets. He weaves the story in and out of the major moments; the beginning of the covenant, the flight to Egypt, Moses’ calling, the delivery from slavery to the Promised Land, the commandments being given on Sinai. In just a few short paragraphs Stephen perfectly encompassed the Old Testament for the high priest.
Though very descriptive, Stephen committed no blasphemy in his speech. He fairly repeated that which we have detailed for us in the scriptures, but before he finished speaking he had one final message to deliver: “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 have received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
It was only after hearing these words that the people became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. While they began to torment him, he looked up and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing along the right side, and he declared this triumphantly to the people. But instead of listening, instead of looking up to see what he could see, they covered their own ears and with a loud shout rushed forward to grab him and take him out of the city. While they stoned him, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And with his final breath he cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
Stephen’s speech to the high priest and those gathered sealed his doom. Did he speak the kind of blasphemy against Moses and God like he was accused of? Nope. But Stephen went too far when he claimed that Jesus was at the right hand of the Lord, ready to rule. Stephen merely affirmed the same thing we claim every week when we stand and affirm the Apostles’ Creed, yet when he did it, it cost him his life.
Some scholars and theologians claim that the climax of this episode in the book of Acts is Stephen’s death, when in fact the defining moment is the exaltation of Christ. Surrounded by his accusers and killers, Stephen continues to assert that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God, that he is the long awaited Messiah already changing the world.
Jesus is there with Stephen at the final moments of his life, and how fitting considering the fact that Stephen utters the same words that Christ did at his own death. While the stones were flying through the air, Stephen’s prayer was not for deliverance, but a declaration of trust. Not, “Lord, save me!” but “Lord, receive my spirit.” His prayer is one that looks forward, not backward. His prayer was for his enemies, and not himself.
At his death, Stephen did what all of us are called to do in every moment of our lives: he acted like Jesus. He was serene while everyone else was going crazy; he was forgiving while the crowds were vindictive; he prayed while the people acted as if God was not among them; he loved when he saw nothing but hate; he trusted the Lord when everything was claiming the contrary; he kept on hoping when there seemed nothing left to keep hope alive. All of this to tell the truth to the high priest and the crowd. All of this to die for what he believed in. All of this as the cost for his own discipleship.
What happened to Stephen is paradigmatic for what the church was like. Thousands upon thousands of Christians have given their lives in order to speak the truth of God’s reign in the world.
In the United States we have “freedom of religion.” This was instituted during the foundation of our nation and has secured the right to practice religion, regardless of orientation or denomination. For Christians, the freedom of religion means that we are free to exercise our faith in whatever ways necessary so long as we do so within certain limits, as long as we do not become fanatical. We can pray as a family at public restaurants so long as it is not too loud to disrupt the other patrons. We can teach our children to turn the other cheek and love their enemies so long as we are still willing to let them serve in the military. We can talk about controversial issues in church so long as we limit those conversations to this building.
Yet the story that we read today, the remembrance of Stephen’s final moments, reminds us practitioners of polite, civil, and calculated religion that once there were Christians who readily and joyfully parted with possessions, family, friends, even life itself to remain faithful.
Some might call Stephen fanatical and crazy (after all he was willing to give his live for his faith) but he is presented as a very rational person who died for the same faith by which he lived.
When I stood in front of that crowded lecture hall, talking to the Methodists of Birmingham, Michigan, I could sense their desire to be affirmed in their faith. They wanted me to believe that they were willing to give their lives for Jesus, but the truth is, most of them, and most of us here, will never be in a situation like Stephen’s. Christianity has become so complacent and accepted within our culture that we no longer feel the need to be radical and controversial when considering the ways of the world versus the ways of God.
Our faith used to be a movement. The early church used to be attacked, arrested, and silenced for their dedication to the Word. The first methodists used to be ridiculed for their methodical dedications to spiritual disciplines, feeding the poor, and befriending the outcasts.
What would it take for someone to ridicule you in your faith? I’m not saying that we are all called to stand trial for our God and give our lives like Stephen, but instead we need to ask ourselves if we are living up to the potential of faith that God sees in us.
Not all of us can be Stephens, but we can all be Christians. We can all speak the truth of what God has done for us. We can reclaim our commitment to changing the world for the kingdom of God. We can discover our faith in God by opening our eyes to the kind of faith that he has in us. How far would you go to demonstrate your faith in the world? What would it take to start ruffling people’s feathers here in Staunton by living as Christ’s body?
Speaking the truth can be the most difficult thing in the world, but at the same time it can also be the most faithful thing in the world. Perhaps you know someone who has, for too long, relied on alcohol to fill an emptiness in their lives but you’re too afraid to saying anything. Maybe you know someone who treats their spouse horribly and you’re unsure how you can help the situation. Perhaps you’ve seen someone embarrass or harass their children in public. Or maybe you need to be honest with yourself about something you need to change in your own life.
Stephen was willing to speak the harsh truth to a people who desperately needed to hear it. Stephen was prepared to give his own life for a man he barely knew that died on a cross and was raised again. How far are you willing to go? Amen.