Grace Presbyterian Church
May 10, 2020, Easter 5A (livestreaming)
What Stephen Remembered
It’s an ugly scene, no doubt. The act of stoning a person to death is perhaps not as gruesome or grotesque as the act of crucifixion that Christ (and countless others across the Roman Empire) suffered. However, a stoning is hard to match for the sheer spectacle of violent, even unhinged rage that tended to motivate it. We’re not talking about easily-handheld rocks being thrown; these are boulders meant to do severe bodily harm. It was a violent spectacle, one of rage; one might think of the lynchings that dotted this country during the civil rights struggle for acts with similar rage behind them.
It’s hard to say exactly what Stephen did to provoke such an ending to his life at the hands of decidedly enraged enemies. We only meet him one chapter earlier, when he is one of seven members of the early Christian community appointed to oversee the distribution of food to the poor and widows of the community; this was done so that the disciples could concentrate on the Word of God and not be distracted by waiting on tables – yes, they really said that. (This “hospitality committee” consisted of all men; you knowhow well that would go today…) Stephen is noted immediately as being “full of the Holy Spirit,” and also as “full of grace and power,” and later as one who “did great wonders and signs among the people“; clearly he wasn’t limited to waiting tables.
This is most of Acts 6. As that chapter continues, a group from a local synagogue assembly apparently took offense at his works, and tried to play theological “gotcha” with him, only to end up thoroughly embarrassed and shamefaced at being unable to withstand his power of argument and command of the Word (apparently he didn’t have any trouble with doing that while waiting on tables). Those wounded snowflakes then ginned up some false witnesses and dragged Stephen before the council, where he let loose with a stem-winder of a sermon that must have made Peter proud, one full of Hebrew history (Moses in particular, since the false witnesses had accused him of disparaging Moses). Stephen was only beginning to connect all of that to the still-recently-crucified Jesus when he was dragged out of town and lynched with stones.
His final words, though, have done as much to seal his place in the church’s history as anything. First there’s the admittedly somewhat inflammatory part about seeing the Son of Man standing at he right hand of God – you can see how his enemies might get more enraged at that suggestion. At the last, he echoes the words of Jesus from Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do“) on the cross, asking that this sin not be held against his murderers.
But that middle one is of most interest today. Here it is translated “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Again it’s a lot like something Jesus said on the cross, again from Luke: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). But Jesus’s own words are an echo of a verse from today’s psalm reading.
Notice there in verse 5 of the psalm: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”
The excerpt of the psalm used as today’s lectionary reading doesn’t truly capture the full force of the full psalm. There is plenty of the language of despair throughout it. Verse 10 offers this: “my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” Or there is this extended lament in verses 11-13:
I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mine like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many – terror all around! – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
It’s quite a lament, as some of these psalms are, and seems far from relief.
And yet…the very next verse turns: “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, you are my God.” And from there we follow into those two final verses of today’s reading, with their note of trust in God’s provision.
Whether Stephen was consciously echoing Jesus’s words from the cross in his own exclamation, or was directly remembering the psalm on his own, we don’t know. What we do see is that, even knowing that his end was near, Stephen did not despair. His trust remained fast in Jesus, and his remembering these words seems to have been a help, in that moment of final terror, that allowed him to hold on to that trust in the darkest moment.
What is it that allows us to hold on to that trust in dark times? Where is the connection, where is the foothold that helps us to remain firm on that “rock” and “refuge” that is sung in verse 2? What is going to help bring us back in those times when, unlike Stephen, we don’t necessarily seem to be quite “full of the Holy Spirit“? When instead we’re unmistakably full of decidedly less sanguine fears and despairs and hopelessness?
On the other hand, what of the seeming, apparent fact that Stephen being “full of the Holy Spirit” ended up in his being brutally killed? How is that comforting at all? Is that what following that faithfully and devotedly gets us?
It’s hard not to think of Jesus’s own words in Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth: I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
As writer Enuma Okoro puts it in The Christian Century:
In theory, I like the idea of being close to God, intimate to the point of speaking regularly with God—and receiving clear directives. Whenever I was confused about something, I could just ask God and get clarity on the matter. I’d never have to wonder about what my next step should be. God would lead me and guide me and maybe even use me to get an important message across to other people.
It sounds divine! Except that in the Bible, an intimate relationship with God usually sends people’s lives into chaos. It makes them widely unpopular as messengers; it sends them to the margins of society. It also quite often gets them killed.
There’s the challenge: to hold on to the idea that even if this call to serve and to follow and to proclaim ultimately leads us into danger or hardship or marginalization, if it deprives us of the comforts of society to which we have become accustomed, even if all of those things happen we are still God’s own, sisters and brothers with and in Christ Jesus, and as the psalmist says to God, “my times are in your hand.”
Right now, the idea of “serving God” is actually best exemplified (as strange as it seems) by staying home, not risking being the one who brings illness and suffering to another. Who knows what form it will take for any one of us in the future? Yet we already have a place to turn for words that can guide and comfort, yes? Hear Jesus on the cross; hear Stephen at the hands of his killers; hear the cry of the lamenting psalmist, who knows that his times (or hers, who knows?) are in God’s hands.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #463, How Firm a Foundation; #719, Come, Labor On
 Enuma Okoro, “Living By the Word: May 14, Fifth Sunday of Easter,” The Christian Century 11 April 2017 (accessed 9 May 2020), https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/may-14-fifth-sunday-easter?fbclid=IwAR0i0pUWH2FmJ3ahUj3kbXF-DgtvQ0gitGZM1iMwPer-bDMQ98MuACeI65U