This week’s readings are hard.
I don’t like them. And I don’t like them, because there is something deep within me that strongly resists their implication. Specifically, There’s this knot in my stomach that starts to form when I recognize that Stephen’s death is a direct result of following Jesus. It’s a knot that tightens when I wonder what that means for me. and for our emerging community of Christ-followers.
I remember growing up and singing this song, “I just wanna be a sheep” in Sunday School. And I think that song has really sunk in deeply. Growing up, I thought that being a sheep was a good thing. And in the context of the separation of the sheep and the goats, I guess there might be something to that. But metaphors are tricky. Metaphors are multifaceted, are complex, and can take us in different directions in different contexts.
And after Marnie’s reflection last week, pointing out how utterly selfish and self-interested, and conniving sheep are, well, that puts a whole new spin on things. Who needs wolves in sheeps’ clothing, when you’ve got sheep in…sheep’s clothing?
Because Stephen’s story. Stephen’s dedication. Stephen’s faith in Jesus. It’s audacious. It’s not push-everyone-out-of-the-way-to-save-my-own-life sheepish faith. Stephen’s faith puts me to shame. Because the faith that Stephen embodies is something that on the one hand, I admire, and on the other, scares the life out of me.
I’m not sure. Even on my best of days, I’m not sure if I would, or if I could go to the wall for Jesus. Sometimes, even on those days, I just wanna be a sheep.
I worry, some days, about whether or not I’ve cultivated the kind of life that, in the face of the danger of imminent death, would accede to, if not bring on the inevitable. Would I, like, Stephen, poke the hornet’s nest, or would I be more like Peter, denying Jesus, and skittering away when things get a little dicey?
Stephen’s ministry gains our attention in the sixth chapter of Acts, where he and six others are chosen to take care of the community’s widows. These ministers, whose role we might now characterize as the role of a deacon, serve the marginalized and the poor, caring for all in need within the rapidly growing Christian community. Receiving his ministry through the laying-on-of-hands from the apostles, Acts records that “Stephen, full of grace and power was performing great wonders and signs among the people.”
And that’s when the fight breaks out. As Luke records it in the book of Acts, those who took offence “were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” (6:10) So, like Jesus, he’s taken away to the high priest where he’s accused of disrupting and questioning, perhaps even threatening the established order.
Which is, of course, exactly what he’s doing. That’s what prophets do.
And standing in front of the high priest, asked if the charges against him have any validity, Stephen lets loose with a grandiose retelling of Israel’s story. And to be clear, this version does not cast his opponents in a very favourable light. And I wondered this week, if the way Stephen tells the story has any resonances with the way in which Jesus himself reinterpreted the story with Cleopas and his companion on the Road to Emmaus.
We’re reading Acts, which is a continuation of Luke’s gospel. If Luke focused on the life of Jesus, and his early disciples, Acts continues the story with the formation of the church, and the way it carries on Jesus’ mission after his death, resurrection and ascension.
Remember that Jesus launches his ministry in Luke 4 with the proclamation that he had come to bring Good News to the Poor, Release to the Captives, Recovery of Sight to the Blind, Freedom for the Oppressed, and the Release of Debts in the year of Jubilee.
And this week, in the reading from John’s gospel, Jesus tells us, “Very truly, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”
All along the way, the disciples have been meeting and preaching in the temple. All along the way they have been proclaiming freedom and liberation through Jesus. All along the way they have been calling others to join them in the Jesus way. And all along the way they have continued to call the temple establishment into question.
The temple is their place of worship. They gather with other devoted Jews, even though their understanding and experience of God’s revelation through Jesus is drastically different.
And Stephen’s speech in front of the high priest, the speech that gets him killed, and that serves as the prelude to a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, scattering Jesus’ followers to the four winds, Stephen’s speech makes it really clear which side of history he thinks this emerging Christian community is on.
Aligning the followers of Christ with Abraham, Joseph, the Prophets and Jesus, Stephen pits them against the Temple establishment who are compared to the Egyptians, to Joseph’s Brothers, to the worshippers of the Golden Calf, and those who killed the prophets, Jesus included.
There’s not much wiggle room there. This isn’t a fluffy “we all believe more-or-less-the-same-thing-so-let’s all get along” statement of inclusivity. It’s a shot across the bow of an establishment perceived to be more concerned with the work of its own hands than with the unfolding story of God revealed in Christ. If we’ve read the gospels, we know that this is nothing new. It’s a continuation on the same path that got Jesus killed as he bore witness to a way of embodying God’s peace, and God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
We can’t fault Stephen for his passion. Stephen, himself a convert to the Jesus way, cut his teeth serving the marginalized and dispossessed. As one being constantly and continually converted to the way of Jesus, Stephen knew that this life of faith was about more than right belief.
Stephen demonstrates, lives, incarnates for us the greatest of commandments: To love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. And to love our neighbours as ourselves. Love, it turns out, is more than a feeling. It demands faith.
Faith is multifaceted. Faith must be lived. If we get stuck in our heads. If we get stuck in the work of our hands, we’ve missed the boat. Fidelity to Christ is a way of life. It encompasses heart, soul, mind and strength. Emotions. Thoughts. Actions. And it’s costly.
The hard thing. The thing I must deeply struggle with is that this way of life, is also the way of death. It was for Jesus. It was for Stephen. And that’s what scares me. That’s the thing about the Gospel of Christ that upsets me. These are the days I just wanna be a sheep.
But Stephen’s prophetic critique, following in the way of Jesus, calls me, and calls all of us out of our self-centeredness. Out of our idolatry. Whether it’s a golden calf, or golden arches, whether it’s power, prestige, or glorified poverty. Whether it’s a temple or a bell tower, an idea, an ideology or an ideal body type, if we put them before the love of God and neighbour, they’re all the same. They’re all distraction. Pale imitation.
Stephen’s words to the High Priest and the whole assembly weren’t the only thing to get him killed. It wasn’t just what he stood for. It was what he embodied. He embodied an alternative way of being, one way, the Jesus way, that calls us to remember that God is with us wherever we go. That we are called to seek and serve Jesus amongst all the people of this world, come what may. We don’t need the temple. The tabernacle goes with us. God goes with us. And God meets us at many altars in this world.
As if all of this isn’t enough, Stephen leaves us with these most challenging words – the words of Jesus. Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.
And I kind of suspect, he’s not just talking about the stoning.