Bible by Request: Stephen
Pentecost XIV (O. T. 21); August 26, 2018
Here's where most of us encounter Stephen:
Good King Wenceslaus looked out
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even…
The "Feast of Stephen" is the 26th of December, and so we've made this song one of our Christmas carols. In the year 415 bones were found that were believed to be the bones of Stephen and on December 26 they were reverently placed in a church outside of Jerusalem, and so Christians throughout the world observe December 26 as St. Stephen's Day. Well, there's your tidbit of church history; now let's hear and comment on Stephen's story.
In the early days of the Church, when it was growing rapidly in Jerusalem, there were two different factions (imagine that!). There were the Aramaic-speaking folks and the Greek-speaking folks; and since all the Apostles and other leaders came from the Aramaic-speaking group, the Greek-speaking Christians started complaining that they were being neglected. In particular, they said that when food was taken to the widows, the Greek-speaking ones were being neglected. So the Apostles said, "Look; there's too much work around here for us to do it all ourselves. In particular, we can't teach you the Word of God if we're spending all our time delivering food. So select seven men of good standing, spiritual and wise, so they can take care of those duties." The Church thought this was a good idea, and so they selected seven Greek-speaking men who are remembered as the Church's first deacons; one of those deacons was Stephen.
Stephen was quite a guy; Luke says that he "did great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8) but he doesn't tell us what they were. Instead, as you heard in the Scripture reading, Luke emphasizes what a brilliant speaker he was. He did such a good job at persuading people that Jesus was the Savior that nobody could refute him. So, since they couldn't out-argue him, they decided to get him arrested on trumped-up charges. Now, I suspect that the accusation that Stephen said "that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us" was correct, in a sense. Stephen probably did say that devotion to Jesus would replace devotion to the Temple, and that new life in Jesus would outdo obedience to the niceties of the Law of Moses. It's a good example of how you can take someone's words out of context and use them to condemn them. We hear that a lot in our politics. So they clipped a segment out of Stephen's message, tweeted it all over Jerusalem, and got him arrested.
So your picture is of Stephen, a young man with deep devotion to Jesus and highly passionate, standing in the midst of all these learned, reverent men. The High Priest asks him, "What do you have to say for yourself?" and Stephen begins to speak. Now, his speech is the longest speech recorded in the Book of Acts, so I'll summarize it for you. It is brilliant and it is powerful and it got him killed.
Stephen told the assembled priests and other leaders what they already knew: their community's story. He started with Abraham, and told about Abraham's descendants settling in Egypt, then their slavery in Egypt. He told about the Exodus, the Tabernacle, the Temple of Solomon. You may wonder why he told them a story they already knew. Well, part of the answer is the ancients weren't quite as impatient as we are. When I'm reading a book and a quotation from Scripture comes up that I recognize, I tend to skip over it. "Tell me something I don't know." The ancients enjoyed hearing their community's story told again; it reminded them of who they are. Well, maybe you have stories about your family or about your hometown that you enjoy hearing again and again. By telling them their community story, Stephen enlisted their sympathy.
But he did something else, a deeper purpose that led to his martyrdom. As he told the story, he kept emphasizing a theme: rejection. When he talked about the descendants of Abraham going to Egypt, he reminded them how Joseph was rejected by his brothers. He reminded them of the ways that God's people rejected Moses. He reminded them of the Golden Calf, when the people rejected their God. And as they were hearing their story, and their heads were nodding in agreement that their ancestors kept messing up by rejecting God and the people God had sent, Stephen then turned the tables on them:
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 received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it (Acts 7:51-53).
Well, the Council was furious, and they began to stir. Then Stephen looked up and said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" That did it; the men covered their ears in order not to hear his blasphemy, then they rushed at him, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him. Death by stoning was the usual penalty for blasphemy. As he was falling from his wounds, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" and "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And then he died.
Stephen is one of the first deacons of the Christian Church; he was the first martyr for the Christian faith. And one of my dreams throughout my pastorate was to start a church and to name it for Stephen. We have Presbyterian churches named for St. Andrew, for St. John, for St. Paul, but I love the witness of Stephen, a gifted man who gave his life for Jesus: gave it while he lived and gave it as he died. There are Presbyterian Churches named for Stephen in Houston, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Orlando, and Chatsworth, California, so he is represented well.
There are good moral lessons in Stephen's story: the leaders covering their ears in order not to hear what they did not want to hear; the importance of knowing the story of the faith; Stephen's forgiveness of his killers; and the presence at his stoning of a man named Saul, whom we remember as the Apostle Paul. But here is what comes to mind for me: something that happened last Sunday at a Catholic Church in Georgia.
The priest spoke to his congregation about sexual abuse. He was preaching his homily and he talked about the news from Pennsylvania of the widespread abuse of young people by the clergy and the ways the Catholic hierarchy covered it up. He said to his people, "I'm sorry" and he went on to say that the Church needs radical reform led not by the clergy or the hierarchy but by the people of the Church. He went to sit down – there is always a moment of silence after the homily, before the liturgy continues – but suddenly a man in the fifth row stood up. He was shaking and terrified – this isn't something you do – but he felt he needed to speak. He said to his priest, "How? How do we do that? Tell us how." And the priest didn't say, "Thank you, sir; please sit down and we'll talk after Mass." Instead he responded humbly, haltingly, much as I would if you were to interrupt our liturgy and ask me an important, profound question. The man said that he had a son who was about to make his First Communion and he asked, "What do I tell my son?" The priest asked, "What's your son's name?" And they talked a bit more.
The woman who reported this on NPR this week said she burst into tears; she said the people of the church were restless at first – she heard someone grumble, "Sit down" – but as the interchange continued they were attentive to this authentic, sincere interchange. She added that she has been a Catholic for thirty-one years and this crisis has touched her deeply and so she responded with tears when this man stood up in the midst of all the people and asked his simple, humble, important question.
Now, he didn't present an articulate speech that ended with accusations against the hierarchy; the priest didn't cover his ears; and nobody was martyred that day. But that man was St. Stephen that day: he dared to speak up, to speak his truth, to witness to his faith. He didn't wag a finger and accuse, but asked questions that went to the heart of this crisis among our fellow Christians in the Roman Church: "How do we do that? What do I say to my son?"
I suspect we have questions hanging in the air here, waiting for our own Stephens, deacon and martyr, to voice them. I hope it won't interrupt our worship, but the Holy Spirit will move people when the Spirit does. Someone may grumble, but no one will be martyred. At the right time, God made this man at St. Thomas More Catholic Church of suburban Atlanta a Stephen for us.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 "One Congregation's Question of Faith Following the Pennsylvania Clergy Report" from www.npr.org/2018/08/20.