The Story We Didn’t Choose

Acts 7.55-60

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. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Something happened to Stephen.

What exactly? Well, scripture doesn’t give us much.

All we know is that he was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the earliest days of the church. He was full of the Spirit and, apparently, had the face of an angel, but he was eventually dragged before the council and accused of blasphemy.

His response to the accusation?

Stephen tells a story, in fact he tells the story of scripture from Abraham to Jesus.

And it gets him killed.

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The lectionary text for today doesn’t give us the whole speech from the first martyr, but the speech sealed his fate. Stephen repeats the history of God with God’s people and points them to the truth of Jesus’ lordship. But that is enough for those who gather. So much so, they cover their own ears and rush against him, drag him outside of the city, and stone him to death. 

Such is the fate of those who choose to speak the truth.

And the truth Stephen told was a story that he would not have picked on his own.

After all, why would anyone tell a story that would get them murdered?

Something happened to Stephen.

And the something that happened, was Jesus.

This is who Jesus is, Stephen tells the crowds, the long awaited and exalted Messiah who rules now and forever. Jesus Christ is Lord.

We call that a confession. For, to confess the Lordship of Christ is to affirm there is no other lord over our lives. It means that our allegiance is to Jesus and to no one else. It means we cannot remain as we are.

Which sounds good and fine until you consider the countless others that are constantly vying for our allegiance even today, and how stuck we are in our ways.

For instance, we like to talk about the Freedom of Religion in the US. It means we’re free to exercise our faith, so long as we do so within certain limits. It means that you and I can say and do and believe and act according to a tradition, and that we are somehow protected in our practice. 

And yet, this Freedom that we hold so dear has often resulted in religiosity being confused with national allegiance.

The terms “good American” and “good Christian” have become tied to one another without us having to consider whether or not those things have anything to do with each other.

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Part of our presumed goodness, as Americans or Christians, has a lot to do with not upsetting the status quo; a certain delight in things remaining the same and never calling anything into question. Politeness and kindness and deference have become virtuous in a way that those behaviors are called upon to be emulated from the time we’re children whether its in a public school classroom, or tucked away in the furthest reaches of a Sunday school lesson. 

But this story of Stephen is an ever ringing reminder to us practitioners of polite and civil religion that once there were Christians who did things we would never imagine – who quite joyfully parted with possessions, their families and friends, and even their very lives in order to remain faithful.

There was a time when Christians spoke the truth.

But now we’re addicted to whatever lies disrupt our lives the least.

The vast majority of us live under the tyrannical presumption that each of us get to do pretty much whatever we want whenever we want to whomever we want. And we have the gall to call it the pursuit of happiness. 

In this distorted view of reality, every person gets to make up his or her mind based on the presumption that our choices are made free from the influence of others.

It doesn’t take long to look around and see how much we really are under the influence of other people and other things. Our diet of media consumption alone says a tremendous amount about what we think, believe, speak, and act. 

Christianity, on the other hand, reminds those of us with ears to hear that we don’t really have minds worth making up. Precisely because we regularly chose to do things we know we shouldn’t. 

And we do it all the time.

We struggle with the choices we make, and the stories we consume, and even more the stories we tell.

And it’s not just a matter of which grocery store to shop in and what television shows to watch. We’re talking about what’s good, and true, and beautiful.

But how in the world could we ever be expected to know what choices to make?

That’s, actually, kind of the point of the church. The church grabs hold of us and says, “Look, you don’t know what powers and stories have you under their control, so we’re going to make you part of this story instead, the story of Jesus.”

We might like to think that we had something to do with all of this, that we chose Jesus in our time of need. But the truth is, we don’t get to chose God, nor would we on our own.

I mean, why would anyone willingly sign up for turning the other cheek, and giving away 10% of their income, and reaching out to the last, least, lost, little, and dead?

God chooses us, in spite of us.

God happens to us.

Just like God happened to Stephen.

And we can read this story of his willingness to proclaim the truth, we can encounter the punishment that rained down upon him by the crowds, and we might feel tempted to just remove ourselves form the wider society. If people aren’t ready to hear about Jesus, why bother risking life and limb? And, without even realizing it, we find ourselves back in the position of doing whatever we can to maintain the status quo and to avoid upsetting the apple cart at all costs.

But, turning things upside down is what we do. 

Or, at the very least, it’s what Jesus does.

A Christian is someone who calls a thing what it is. Which is just another way of saying that Christians tell the truth.

And we don’t do much of that these days.

Instead, we want to hear about God’s love, and mercy, and grace.

Which is all true and good and beautiful.

But we often talk about those things at the expense of telling the truth.

We want everyone to be happy all the time.

But how in the world can anyone be happy in a world of such horrific and terrible violence? 

How can anyone be happy in a world in which an innocent black man can be murdered for no other reason than the color of his skin? How can anyone be happy knowing that what happened to Emmett Till is still happening even in 2020? How can anyone be happy when an indiscriminate virus is actually discriminately affecting certain people more than others?

As Christians, our call isn’t to happiness. Particularly when one’s happiness is usually achieved through someone else’s suffering. 

Our call is to a life of adventure. The Good News of Jesus Christ tells us again and again that we’ve been grafted into the strange new world of the Bible through the work and the life of Jesus Christ.

Or, to put it another way, think about a time you received a gift you didn’t want. Perhaps you were hoping to get a new bicycle for your birthday but instead you got a book. Maybe you hated the book because you really really wanted that bike, but then one strange rainy afternoon you picked up the book and were immediately transported to another world. And, low and behold, you were trained to have wants you didn’t know you should have.

That what the church is all about – it’s an adventure we didn’t know we wanted to be on.

The adventure of Christianity is a life of truth telling.

We tell the truth and we have to the truth told to us.

That’s the name of the game. 

And, frankly, it’s not something we would really want on our own. It’s something that happens to us. It happened to Stephen all those centuries ago. It has happened to countless saints over the years who, unexpectedly and inexplicably, stood up and said things they never would’ve on their own. 

Without those who tell the truth, we are doomed to repeat our greatest mistakes over and over again.

It has been rightly said by many people in many places that America’s original sin is racism. 

This is the truth.

It has plagued every single moment and every single decision and ever single interaction. It festers in the foundation of all that we hold dear. And we still carry it with us in all of our comings and all of our goings even today. 

And rather than confronting the truth of the condition of our condition, we act like it’s not real.

But it is.

I alluded to it already, but a few months ago Ahmaud Arbery went for a jog one afternoon and it ended in his death. Two white men saw him run past their lawn and decided to chase him down with weapons in a truck. 

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That’s racism.

That’s sin.

And it’s not some isolated incident that happened in some far away place.

That racism happens whenever someone locks their doors when driving in particular neighborhoods, whenever someone crosses the street because of someone walking toward them, whenever someone has a knee-jerk reaction to whatever they might classify as other.

And we, more often than not, cover our ears whenever the term racism is uttered. And, to be clear, when I say we in this instance I mean those of us who are white. It is precisely our white fragility, to use a term that has come into vogue as of recent, that results in black bodies being locked up in prison at a staggeringly disproportionate rate, punished in schools for lower offenses than their white peers, and buried in cemeteries for committing the crime of running while black.

Christians need to be judged for their complicity in systems that are racist. 

Christians need to speak the truth about what is right and wrong and good and evil in our society.

It will obviously create conflict and not everyone will be happy, but at least we’ll be talking about things that really matter.

Like Black Lives, for instance.

Because right now, black lives don’t seem to matter at all to those of us who are white.

Otherwise it wouldn’t have taken months of discourse and social media upheaval before Ahmaud Arbery’s attackers were arrested. 

Christianity isn’t a story we would choose on our own because it requires so much of us. It calls us to look into the mirror and realize that when we read a story like the one about the stoning of Stephen, we are less like Stephen and more like the crowds who covered their ears and rushed forward. Christianity forces us to come to grips with our own sinfulness and our inability to transform ourselves.

After all, that’s why we call Jesus our Savior. It implies our need to be saved, and in particular our need to be saved from ourselves.

But we don’t like the idea that there’s anything wrong with us. So instead we trade out the Gospel of Jesus for the Gospel of the status quo. We say pithy things like, “Jesus was killed because he wanted us to love each other.” 

But that’s crazy.

Jesus wasn’t killed because of his talk of love – Jesus was killed because he challenged the powers that be. He was killed for telling the truth.

That is the story given to us, a story that confronts us.

It’s what happened to Stephen

It’s what happens to us.

Whether we want it or not. So be it. Amen. 

Getting Stoned With Stephen – Sermon on Acts 7.54-60

Acts 7.54-60

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.