text : Acts 7:54 - 8:1
theme verse : “And Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 8:1)
No one expects to brave the wilderness without experiencing some unexpected setbacks. Many a mother has said, “There’d be days like this.” Nothing worth braving happens without some resistance. The Jesus movement ran into such resistance regularly. Stephen, a rising leader within the movement, is among the many victims of this new wilderness in the life of the Church. Such moments can either kill a movement or be met with perseverance. Some hearts, in the process, while longer to crack, may very well find their way into being part of the persevering movement forward. Case in point? One Saul of Tarsus.
special music : 'Come to the Table' (Sidewalk Prophets) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
reader : Geoff Brewster
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
offertory : 'Ave Maria' (arr. Bach/Gounod) :: Kelly Ford, tenor; Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
anthem : 'I Have Felt the Hand of God' (C.Courtney) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly Ford, director
I love my mother. Her genuine faith and heart to serve is unmatched. I repeat – unmatched. To truly and deeply know her and to truly and deeply be known by her is among the greatest gifts of my life. Here she is mothering me in my early years. I post very little on Social Media but I posted this picture a couple of Mother’s Day’s ago with the caption – “She introduced me to cake and Jesus. I think we’re in good shape. No better momma! Much love…”. It is Mother’s Day and I wish all of the mothers, step-mothers, foster-mothers, adopted-mothers, mother-figures, she’s-the-mother-I-never-had’s, and every other configuration of mother out there a very happy Mother’s Day.
Mother’s Day wasn’t a thing when Jesus walked the earth but I think he’d be in favor of it. He and Mary had this amazing bond – his birth, his death, his re-birth – all moments they shared more intensely than any other combination of humans. I think he would send her a card, buy her flowers, take her out to Red Lobster and craft a hand-made end table or something as a gift – he was a carpenter after all and moms cherish all the stuff their kids make for them, right? My mom still has an amazing set of clay Santa figurines I made for her one Christmas as a kid. Who needs jewelry when you can have a handmade treasure from your eight year old?
In all the joy of the occasion, I also want to acknowledge upfront that this day is a mixed bag for some of us. This day can bring sadness, heartache, even anger – the gamut of emotions – as relationships shift, moms or children drift, or as death and loss find us all. Whatever the state of your relationship with this day, may you find in this space, peace and grace enough to hold all of our emotion and feeling before God, knowing God can handle it – not only can but longs to hold it with us. You’re not alone in your experience. As the Rolling Stones famously sang in 1989, “You’re not the only one with mixed emotions. You’re not the only ship adrift on this ocean.” And their solution to that reality may not be my recommendation but the human experience? – always diverse, always unique, and yet strangely and in so many ways – the same as everyone else.
We’re still braving the wilderness today in this Eastertide sermon series imagining the movement of the early church as the everyday disciples of Christ were thrust into the role of leading the movement Jesus started into the future. We often take church, faith, spirituality for granted as if it is a given of some kind. While spirituality certainly has an innate quality to it, we may take for granted that everyone knows how to “do religion.” Traditions and customs that form the rhythm of our lives together may have always been for us but they certainly have not always been. The early Christian movement was on the frontier of faith without much instruction other than the tough teaching and parables they had gleaned from Jesus, his word to “love each other as he had loved them,” and the gift of the Holy Spirit to propel them forward. That’s plenty of power, yes, but me selling out to the truth that, in Jesus, God so loves the world, and building a church are not exactly one and the same.
So, the disciples are sharing the message and as we’ve encountered in this series, we have seen them growing in their influence – to the point where we are seeing thousands added to the number of those who claimed Christ as Messiah day by day. Truly incredible. But like anything that grows, thrives even, setbacks are bound to occur. You know this on a personal level I’m sure. You finally commit to a regular exercise routine to get your body in gear and day three or four, you blow out a knee. Setback. Or your business is getting off the ground and things are building with great momentum but an unforeseen glitch knocks you way off course, leaving you with the wonder if it’s worth the blood, sweat and tears. Setback. Your relationship is improving, counseling is helping, but stress hits, relapse in judgment. Setback.
Because the movement was growing with such strength, the disciples decided that they needed additional help. They called a congregational meeting and said, “We’ve got our hands full preaching and teaching. We need some people who can lead the effort in serving for the poor.” We may call them deacons. A motion was quickly made, seconded, all approving said, “Aye!” Nominations were made – Stephen, a man who Luke (the author of Acts) says was a “man full of faith and the Holy Spirit”, was chief among the deacons nominated. The apostles laid hands on him and the other six nominees commissioning them for their task. Stephen was immediately an asset to the movement – “brimming with God’s grace and energy,” the text says. He was doing wonderful things among the people. But, as is often the case, some weren’t on board with the message and were out to end Stephen just as they did Jesus. Adversaries were secured to send out some fake tweets about Stephen – saying he was blasphemous in his word against the Temple and the Torah. The High Council, while mesmerized by the glow that radiated from Stephen’s very being, tried him against these accusations. They give Stephen the floor to explain himself. He starts right in with their faith history – from Abraham to Isaac, to Joseph and Jacob and Moses and on and on, saying how this all was building to the coming of the Just One – the Messiah, who was Jesus of Nazareth. Then he slips in a strong word or two about their bullheadedness. Eugene Petersen translates it this way in The Message, “So bullheaded! Calluses on your hearts, flaps on your ears! Deliberately ignoring the Holy Spirit, you’re just like your ancestors. Was there ever a prophet who didn’t get the same treatment? Your ancestors killed anyone who dared talk about the coming of the Just One. And you’ve kept up the family tradition – traitors and murderers, all of you. You had God’s Law handed to you by angels – gift-wrapped! – and you squandered it!”
Now, they don’t exactly cover all of this in Homiletics Class in seminary – but most anyone could tell you that making such a tirade on people isn’t likely to be overly endearing – such is the life of a prophet. Truth is, we have all likely been a part of such a crowd – as the text says, “They covered their ears.” They had no desire to hear the truth of the Spirit of God. They wanted to hear what they wanted to hear and anything else wasn’t going to fly. Are you ever stubborn like that? I am sometimes. And what happens? The people grind their teeth, close their eyes, plug their ears, and bum rush Stephen to stone him to death. Did I say Happy Mother’s Day already?
I know this isn’t all that flowery of a scripture for today but show me a mom who is not acquainted with hard things, challenging children, setbacks of many varieties. Moms get this stuff. They are tough, tough, tough. I remember entering Middle School knowing I would have Mrs. Amidei as my English teacher. The legend of her strength was tremendous. The story long told was of the day Ms. Amidei lifted a giant, farm tractor off of her daughter’s body who was trapped beneath it – a herculean moment of brute adrenaline and strength, albeit leaving her with back problems as lifting a tractor is apt to do. The legend may have grown over time but by all accounts a true story… and, everyone knew the story. I was amazed to walk into her class on the first day of school to find a relatively older, silver haired, woman of smallish stature – mostly unassuming. How could she do that? But – the strength, the will, of a mother is undeniable. And it’s beyond physical strength isn’t it. I have a friend and colleague who has a elementary aged son. She said, “After reviewing his spelling words this morning, my son says, ‘Mom, you’re not ready for my life, are you!?” Ready or not – I’d rely on the strength of a mother over any other human on the planet – their spit alone has magical cleaning powers that instantly wipe clean any smudge on your face. Amazing.
So the crowd, like a defiant child, plugs their ears and throws a temper tantrum because they are not hearing what they want to hear. They can’t hear the hard truth. So, getting Stephen stoned it is – and we’re not talking a Rocky Mountain high. And… this was not a judicial trial, okay? It was a lynching. The Sanhedrin had no right to put anyone to death. Stoning as a conviction to a trial occurred by witnesses of the crime throwing the criminal down from a cliff, or at least a significant height of some kind. If the fall killed the man, fair enough. If not, boulders were hurled down on him from above until he died. The people were familiar with the practice and went into beast mode to stone Stephen, if even unjustly. Our primal instinct to kill another who seems a threat – if even a threat in ideology alone – is remarkable. We feel this tension in our culture right now. It’s palpable – people are on edge. Whereas respectful disagreement once seemed reasonable – now, a simple label of blue/red, republican/democrat, right/left, liberal/conservative is enough to cause a riot. We forget that we are people, human brothers and sisters, loved and treasured by God in equal measure. God surely grieves at our immediate ability to judge each other by labels of any kind.
The crowd reaction is one significance here – and enough for me to note to myself – don’t be in that crowd – don’t live with plugged ears, constantly seething and grinding my teeth – that’s no spirit-of-Christ way to live. But we move to Stephen’s countenance in this passage that is likened to the ability of Jesus to forgive those who persecuted him on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they don’t have a clue.” Stephen, amidst his certain knowledge that his moment of death has come, has a peace that I have only seen in those who have found their way past perfection, past pretenses, past surface appearances to the depths of the peace and grace of God. In the midst of the chaos, Stephen says, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” I suppose one could argue that he was attempting to distract the riot – “Look, guys, over there – what is that?” hoping they’d all look the other direction while he got the heck out of Dodge. But I don’t think so. It was the gaze of peace. It was the full view of his Lord and the ultimate calm of his heart’s knowing. What does your heart know… truly know? It was a look every mother, every parent, longs to see one day on their child’s face – ultimate contentment with self, with God, with life.
I saw this look on my middle son’s face at one of his soccer games this week. It was one of those weeks for our family – six soccer games, two baseball games, band concerts, dress rehearsals, recitals, choir competition at Frontier City, field days, 6th grade dance, multiple practices, and on and on the list goes. It is ludicrous. But there was that moment. I saw it on my child’s’ face. He is loving soccer – the first season he’s played on a team. I don’t coach this team – I just keep the game-time for substitutions for Dane’s coach so I mostly just get the thrill of watching him discover his body in this new sport that he’s never played. He’s quick footed and determined and even at his size, he has no hesitation to get in the thick of things like a Rugby scrummer. Though he’s been close many times, he hadn’t scored a goal until this week. He told me as we walked to the field that he felt this was the game and I wanted it for him so much. And so a few minutes in, he breaks at mid-field with full ball control weaving in and out and around the opponent. I’m leaning with him each time he weaves and cheering him on. I knew this was a good chance for him to score and it finally came down to him and the goalie. He juked right, he juked left and stroked the ball just so past the diving, vested, gloved 10-year old and into the back of the net. I wondered how he would feel, how he would look, what he would do. His back was to me at first as the play ended but he swept left with his arms slightly lifted to his sides – not with any arrogance but as if they were going to allow him to fly. And then – his face. Oh, his face as he turned back my way. Satisfaction. Peace. Contentment. Joy that made any other matter that his soul was wrestling with disappear. In that moment – it was serene. And the only look that can surpass that moment was surely my own – a parent seeing his child in such a state. For a few seconds – nothing else mattered.
Scoring your first goal can’t compare to being stoned to death – I am aware that the gravity of those moments do not equate each other. But the look – I can only imagine the look on Stephen’s face, seeing his Maker and his Savior – his goal complete. I’m not sure how we get that look. I don’t think there’s a formula. But you know it when you see it… and I have seen it most in the faces of the saints before they died – a number of whom have literally said aloud, if even in their own words, “Look, I see Jesus.”
Stephen says those words before his earthly end – in his estimation, not a setback at all. But to the movement – certainly a cause for concern. The latter part of the verse one of chapter eight says, “That day, a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” Setback. Perhaps. But in the grand scheme of the movement – maybe not. Author Donald Miller wrote about a terrible experience he had in a relationship in his personal life – hurt him deeply. He wrote as if shaking his fist at God, “I will never thank you for this God! I’ll never be okay with this!” He noted a year later, “All I could do was thank God for that.” May we be reminded: we can do hard things. And by this I am not saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” What I’m saying is that “Everything may give us a new reason to grow, learn, and find a way to love better afterward.”
We meet a young Saul of Tarsus in this passage. We know him best as the Apostle Paul – but that’s a later story. Saul is a young, budding and growing leader. His eyes are wide open as the elders of his faith give him the task of holding their coats while they kill Stephen. May that, by itself, be a word of caution for us today. For what hate, what judgment, are we asking the next generation to hold our coats while we thrash someone, or a group of someone(s), because they are not like us. We must be careful with the responsibility we have to witness the faith to the very children we have walked up and down this aisle dedicating them to the Lord and promising to demonstrate to them what it means to be the Church – the loving presence of Christ in the world.
Saul holds the coats and nods approvingly to his elders as they stone this servant of Christ right before his eyes. You don’t forget something like that. And while his elders covered their ears and gritted their teeth, Saul was blinded to the truth of the grace of God he would come to know himself in the very presence of Christ. This may very well be why his conversion involves temporary blindness as he is struck down on the road to Damascus. It may have been the only way for him to re-learn how to see the world. Stephen’s witness – one that helped shift the movement from the church being a purely Jewish institution to one that was open to all people, Gentiles included, was one that Saul later appreciated as he began his own mission to the share the Gospel with the Gentiles. It was the early theologian, Augustine, who said, “The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen.” That prayer? “Lord, forgive them. Lord, receive my spirit.”
The movement could have folded in fear. It could have died out – a fad that was interesting for a bit but not worth persevering given the danger. There are always moments when we’re braving the wilderness that our preference is to retreat to safety – to lose our focus of purpose amid adversity and retreat but the movement persisted. Novelist Joseph Conrad says when he was a young sailor learning to steer a ship, a strong gale force wind blew up on him. The older, experienced sailor who was teaching Conrad gave him just one piece of advice: “Keep her facing it. Always keep her facing it.” The apostles were determined to face whatever dangers threatened them. Their persistence won over even their greatest persecutor – the young Saul of Tarsus: coat-holder turned Apostle Paul – arguably the greatest advocate for the case of Christ. Have you given up on someone in your life? Someone who you feel is a lost cause? Don’t forget Saul. People can change – they don’t always and there’s maybe nothing harder – but why are we here if we don’t believe change is possible?
I may have told you before this piece about my mother. No matter the event I was involved in, sport being played or otherwise, her voice (at least to my ears) rose above any other in the crowd. Her one word encouragement and instruction? “Focus.” I can hear her voice still plain as day. We laughed about it this week when we talked on the phone – even still, before a big day or big event that I may be speaking at or have some role in, it may be that text that comes to me right before I begin. It’s from my mom. One word: “Focus.” And that’s enough. It’s enough to battle the gale force winds, the criticisms of others, the failures and heartaches and setbacks. Focus. And with such a focus of faith… what are we bound to see? What did Stephen say? “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Not a bad view. Not a bad view at all.
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