I’m going to be a little immature for a second here, I hope you won’t hold it against me. This is obvious a very serious passage with very serious things going on, but did you catch what the Sanhedrin does when Stephen has his vision? They are so angry and riled up that when they’ve had enough they literally stick their fingers in their ears and shout over him like children. Like “I can’t hear you blah blah blah blah.” Also right before that in verse 54 we’re told in the NIV that they’re so angry when he finishes that they “gnashed” their teeth, in other translations it says “ground,” which is a great way to describe anger. We’ve all had that moment right? That moment where we’re so mad but we also don’t have a good comeback so we just…(grinds teeth). Maybe it is just me but I feel like those moments give a little bit of levity to what is otherwise a very heavy passage. Stephen’s story gets two chapters and there isn’t really a light moment in there at all.
We’re introduced to Stephen as the result of a somewhat messy situation. Two weeks ago we were presented an image of the early Christian community that was really utopian. They shared everything they had, when there was a need it was met, and the wealthiest folks would sell property when they needed to to help out others. Last week we saw a first example of how things might not have been as perfect as they looked with Ananias and Sapphira lying about what they gave and dying, probably as a result, and this week we get another scene that shows us that things aren’t as perfect as they could be. The community is made up of Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews, that’s folks who speak Hebrew and folks who speak Greek, so natives and transplants, and the Hellenistics, the outsiders, bring a complaint that the widows among them are getting forgotten when food is being distributed.
Now the way this is presented there’s no reason to think there’s anything sinister here. The implication is that this oversight is completely inadvertent. Just an aside, I’m not going to dwell on this, but is it a coincidence that the outsiders, the ones who speak a different language and come from a different place, are the ones who get forgotten? Is it a coincidence that the ones they forget are the widows, folks without anyone to speak for them? Inequality being inadvertent doesn’t make it any less real and doesn’t make it any less of a problem. It is easy for us to overlook or dismiss the problems of people who don’t fit into our sphere, if we’re going to live in community with people we need to listen for the ways we’re not living up to the promise or ideals of that community. And to their credit, the disciples don’t dismiss the issue, they bring the whole community together and they figure out a solution and we’re introduced to Stephen as a part of that solution. He’s one of seven deacons (first time we see that word) assigned with making sure that doesn’t happen again.
Pretty quickly we learn that Stephen has gifts that go beyond the administrative side, and his story picks up with him performing signs and wonders in the presence of Jewish converts, specifically from Egypt and North Africa, and in a fairly familiar scene for Acts opposition arises, they can’t argue with Stephen on merit, so they make up charges to get him arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. Like Peter and John before him when he’s given a chance to defend himself and instead launches in to a sermon, he goes back to Abraham and recounts the history of the people of Israel as a history of people to slow to catch on to what’s happening and too quick to resist the presence and guidance of the Spirit. That leads to the teeth grinding incident we discussed earlier, Stephen has a vision of Christ standing up as if to be a witness on his behalf, that pushes the Sanhedrin and the gathered crowd over the edge and they drag Stephen off and stone him, in the presence and under the supervision of Pharisee named Saul. And as Stephen dies he follows the example of Jesus by asking God to forgive the people doing him harm.
Stephen is the first martyr of the church. His death is going to mark a turning point in Acts, it is going to be the catalyst for major changes in the life of the church. Persecution picks up at this point and a lot of the members of the church have to flee Jerusalem after this.
Martyrdom is not as foreign a concept as we might like to assume, we all know the stories of Christians in other places in the world who face intense persecution and risk death on a daily basis by practicing their faith but martyrdom is also not really a reality for us. As much as some folks like to talk about Christianity being under attack I don’t think any of us would argue that we’re risking our lives for the faith today. So while Stephen’s story speaks to a need for Christians to be prepared to be faithful even in the face of death that’s much more of an abstract thought to us than a practical reality so I want to draw our attention to a different aspect of Stephen’s story, what happens to us when our reality doesn’t live up to our expectations, how do we face the hopes and desires in our lives that go unrealized.
Stephen was something of a rising star in the community. We don’t know how many Hellenistic Jewish Christians there were but he was one of seven chosen to be a servant leader in the community. He was considered by his community to be one of seven people who showed the most leadership potential. We don’t know how old he was but tradition holds he was a younger man in the grand scheme of things so at a young age he was recognized as someone with a whole lot of potential, someone who would probably do big things. He quickly showed that he deserved the faith people put in him, he said and did great things. He began to work to expand the community, going to his people and connecting to them in ways the disciples who were all Jews by ethnicity as well as religion couldn’t. He was in the temple, convincing and persuading people, and then it all fell apart. He had a choice in that moment, he could give up or he could keep going. He could lament his fate or he could use the opportunity he had.
John F. Kennedy was never supposed to be president, as least not according to his dad Joe’s plan. John and Robert and Ted are all remembered for their years of public service but there was another brother, Joe Jr. And Joe Jr. was the one who was going to be president. His grandfather actually said that in the boy’s birth announcement in the local paper, “this child is going to be the first Roman Catholic president.” He flew planes for the Navy in World War II and died in 1944 during a secret bombing run when the explosives on his plane went off accidentally. The Kennedys had very different reactions to the loss of their son and brother. JFK was also serving in the Navy at the time but went home for a brief time and apparently when he got their he immediately rounded up his younger siblings and took them sailing because “Joe wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Rose Kennedy, the matriarch of the family, went church. And she went more and more after that, dedicating herself to charity and the social works of the Catholic Church, she was eventually recognized by the Pope for all her work to advance the good work and causes of the church. Joe Sr. went to his office. And he was rarely seen in public for the rest of his life. It was apparently a struggle to even get him to inauguration because while he had worked hard behind the scenes to get John elected when it happened he was overcome by the fact that it was the wrong son taking the oath of office. We cannot control how things go in our lives, the different circumstances we might face, but we decide how we deal with them. We can choose to dismiss them, to act like it doesn’t bother us or impact us and move on. We can embrace our opportunities and do what we can with what we have. Or we can give up. Stephen is remembered because when things didn’t go his way he didn’t give up or surrender but used the opportunity he had.
We get a nice little tidbit at the very end of this passage that Saul is there when all this goes on. He watches it happen. He might have encouraged it. It’s a pretty fascinating thing that the man who will eventually be the driving force in evangelizing the Greek world is there when the first person to try it is killed. The President of PC while I was there always gave the same speech at Freshman Orientation. He read from Deuteronomy 6, where Moses addresses the Hebrew people and says: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, 11 houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied,12 be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” After he read that he talked to us about cities we didn’t build and houses filled with things we didn’t provide, wells we didn’t dig and vineyards and olive groves we didn’t plant. He told us that over our time at PC we would be the recipients of benefits that others provided, heirs to things other people left for us. He challenged us to leave behind cities and wells and vineyards for those who came after us. As Stephen is killed for attempting to spread the gospel to Greeks the man who will evangelize the Greek speaking world and write most of the New Testament is right there. Sometimes we’re called to be the ones to build the cities other people will live in. Sometimes we’re called to dig the wells future generations will drink from and plant the fields that other people will harvest.
Today churches across the world are commemorating 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation. There are names from the Reformation that are familiar to us: names like Luther and Calvin, maybe Zwingli for those of us who’ve studied it. But the reform of the church was about lot more than the few men we remember. The reform of the church happened on the backs of people who were willing to take a stand for something they might not see come to fruition. People willing to lay the foundation for cities they’d never see. People willing to plant fields they wouldn’t get to harvest. The Iroquois have a belief that we in the present live out the results of decisions made by people seven generations before us and that the things we do today will impact seven generations from now. Stephen didn’t get to see the results of the work he started. But 2000 years later the church of Jesus Christ is still going strong. Faith is being willing to build the cities and dig the wells and plow the fields so that they’ll be there for the folks who need them later. We show our faith when we face the challenges of our lives with an eye to future and faith that the God who stared a work in us will see it through