In difficult times
We have seen the Lord, this week, in difficult times.
When I read this passage through when sat down to actually write this sermon I realised that I have always remembered the story wrongly.
I mean, I guess its not one of the best known passages in the New Testament, but I thought I knew it. If you’d asked me to retell the story I’d have been pretty confident: Stephen had been declaring the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, and when he wouldn’t shut up he was seized by the relgious leaders, and as they stoned him, he had a vision of Jesus standing at God’s right hand.
Only thing is, that’s not how the story goes. Maybe you noticed the error in my retelling straight away; that I got the sequence of events wrong.
In my memory, Stephen’s vision was something he saw in his last moments, as he was being killed – it was a vision, perhaps, of reassurance, that in those final moments he saw the truth of all that he had been proclaiming.
But, as I say, that’s not how the story goes.
Stephen’s vision of Jesus at God’s right hand isn’t something that comes as he is being executed. In fact, it’s almost the cause of his death – it is the final straw, the final blasphemy in the ears of those who heard him.
But let’s backtrack a bit. Because this story comes at the end of a long speech – the whole of Acts chapter 7, the brief moment in the early Church in which Stephen took the centre stage.
Actually, we have to go back a little bit further, and read Chapter 6 as well. Because this story starts with a problem in the early Church which is strikingly familiar.
Last week we saw that one of the powerful witnesses to the risen Jesus in the early Church was the way that those who had wealth, possessions, resources, would sell them, and give to those amongst their number who were in need. Not suprisingly, perhaps, one of the consequences was that many who were in need – widows, most especially, in that cultural setting – joined the movement. And I’m not suggesting that they just joined up for the benefits, so much as that those in need, who received the support they needed, experienced the love and grace of God in the name of Jesus.
But in Acts 6 we read the accusation made that in the daily distribution of food, the leaders of the Church – still almost exclusively Jewish at the time – were favouring Jewish widows over gentile widows.
So we have the first record – but certainly not the last – of a dispute within the Church over how limited resources should be distributed amongst competing priorities. A question we are still engaging with today.
And also not for the last time, the response from some of those leaders was to make it someone else’s problem. “We can’t be waiting at table,” they said, “we have important things to do.” So they appointed seven men to take on responsibility for this act of service, seven who became known as the first deacons, from the greek word for service. One of these seven, of course, was Stephen; another was Phillip, whose story we read in Acts chapter 8.
I think this is just brilliant. The apostles said they couldn’t do this act of service because they had the more important job of preaching: and then the next two and half chapters are dedicated to the ways that Stephen and Phillip ended up being the ones who shared the gospel, after which the narrative moves to the conversion of Saul. Peter does re-emerge later on, but essentially the story we read is that the work of spreading the good news got done, not by those who said they needed to focus on it, but by the ones they appointed to do the works of charity and service.
Stephen and Phillip both seemed to get something that we in the Church often forget. That our acts of loving service to others, and our declaration of the risen Jesus, are part of the same thing.
Sureka has often commented that the thing our international partners – especially those in a culture in which Christians are a small minority, such as Indonesia, or India, or China – are often baffled at the way that we in the western Church have pulled loving service and sharing good news apart, and treated them as two separate things.
So some Christian groups are all about preaching the good news, converting people to faith, with acts of service either an afterthought or a means to the end of evangelism; and others, like many of us in the Uniting Church, put off by that approach, swing to the other extreme, and love and serve our communities while treating the faith that lies behind our service as if it were a secret, perhaps even an embarrasement.
Not so Stephen, or Phillip. Called by God, and appointed by the Church to roles of service, of ensuring that the needs of all in their communities were met, were the ones who also made the case for Jesus. And people listened to them because they saw the reality of their words in their lives of service.
People saw the love of Jesus in the way they lived; and heard that invitation of Jesus in the words they spoke. It has to be both.
But our title today was seeing the Lord in difficult times. Because Stephen’s witness to Jesus led him, as it had led Jesus, into direct confrontation with those whose power the lordship of Jesus challenged. Rumours are planted against him, and when he is confronted he refuses to back away from the truth behind his life. He speaks the truth that he has lived by, challenges the conventionally religious to wake up to the call of God. And it enrages them.
And that is the point at which Stephen sees Jesus.
There’s no mention of Stephen earlier in the story – a tradition has it that he was one of the seventy sent out by Jesus, but there’s no record of that in the Bible. It seems just as likely that until this moment he was like us – one who had heard the good news, who had been grasped by the power of the message, but for whom it was still second hand news.
But at that moment, as he refuses to back down, and probably realises that this was not going to end well for him, he sees the Lord.
And, perhaps unwisely (but who are we to judge?) he blurts it out.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’
You don’t have to be a great student of first century Judaism to know that wasn’t going to go down well.
The result was that Stephen, first named deacon of the Church, was also its first named martyr. And when you read the account of his death, I think one quite striking aspect of it is the way that it mirrors the death of Jesus himself.
The two phrases that Stephen is quoted as saying during his execution both echo words spoken by Jesus on the cross, as recorded in the account of the crucifiction in Luke’s gospel. (As you probably know, it’s generally thought that Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts were written by the same person, so this is surely not by chance). Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”; Stephen says “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; Jesus died with the words “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”, Stephen prays “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”.
And we read, too, that “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul”. In the execution of Jesus, in Luke’s gospel again, this role is played by the centurion who we read “praised God, and said ‘surely this man was innocent’”.
An echo forward, if you can say such a thing, a foreshadowing. For that young man named Saul still needed a more dramatic vision of the risen Jesus, but he was to become the most significant figure in the growth of the Church.
What do we take from all of this, from the story of Stephen? I must admit that I don’t find a single thread in this story that stands out for me. So maybe you should feel free to choose.
Perhaps it’s Stephen’s calling; and the way that he brought loving service and proclamation of the good news together.
Perhaps it’s the way that, though his knowledge of the risen Jesus was probably second hand, he held to it, and received, almost as recognition, his own spiritual vision.
Or perhaps it’s the way that that vision of the risen Jesus, though it was the end of his service here on earth, was a catalyst in the story of Saul.
And it is to the story of Saul – as Paul – that we turn next week.