February 17, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Acts 6, at Evensong on Sunday 17th February 2019, the Third Sunday Before Lent.
In the racy drama of the Acts of the Apostles, which charts the rapid spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, there are some sobering stories. The martyrdom of Deacon Stephen is one of them.
Among the first Jewish-Christian disciples in Jerusalem there were competing factions: Greek-speaking Jews, linked to other groups dispersed around the Mediterranean, and Palestinian Jews, who spoke Aramaic or Hebrew.
The tension between these groups boiled up over the issue of provisions to widows, funded by the common purse. It may be that the Hebrews were in charge of the allocation, and favoured their own, leaving the Greek-speakers disgruntled at being unfairly treated.
As this practical problem was holding the community back from its mission to spread the good news of Christ, a solution had to be found to manage the problem. The apostles needed to find people to whom they could delegate this task, they found seven men from the Greek-speaking community and commissioned them.
Stephen is first on the list, described as ‘a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit’. No-one else receives this accolade. In other words, he is an exemplary and trustworthy disciple.
This appointment brings about exactly the intended results. The apostles are freed to get on with preaching, and many more disciples are made as a result, including from among the priests.
However, as is so often the case when good people are appointed, Stephen did a lot more than his administrator’s role required. He became a force to be reckoned with as an evangelist, which aggravated other Jews worshipping in the synagogue he attended. (This was in the time before the great cleavage between Judaism and Christianity.)
Notice how Stephen is beyond reproach here; in all that he does he simply acts in the power of the Spirit to say and do whatever is right – looking after widows and witnessing with grace and power to his faith in Christ.
The public impact of a charismatic leader is not unusual, and neither, sadly, is the reaction of others. Those who object to him – those of his own kin and community – aim to be rid of him. This is what often happens when ordinary, decent people are threatened. They do not set out to be wicked, but to protect the status quo – subtly, as they see it.
They spread half-truths about Stephen in secret, so that the blame should not attach to them. Lies, really; but these kinsmen could persuade themselves that their accusations were roughly true, because they did not like what they heard from him; it challenged what they knew was right. The measures they took were justified by their sense of offence and outrage.
They felt justified to set an ambush for Stephen, suddenly confronting him with what was now commonly supposed on the basis of their own slander. He was blaspheming against God. Perhaps few would have wanted Stephen dead. They were simply angry. The escalation, in the chapters following our reading, is again, unfortunately, commonplace.
How do we evaluate such murderous behaviour by ordinary, decent people? We can never condone it: whether it happens in Church or Parliament, in personal relationships or society, seeking to belittle and smear others is always destructive and leaves a legacy of resentment and dislike. However, though behaviour of this nature can never be condoned, Luke doesn’t see it as a defeat for the gospel. The human conflict I have described is set within a wider story about true and false witness.
While false witnesses may rise up against Stephen, Stephen witnesses to the truth. In the following chapter, 53 long verses are devoted to his hard-hitting sermon, in which he names what it really at stake, whether his people can abandon the proud understandings that prevent them from seeing something new, specifically the truth of Jesus Christ.
Luke’s view is that if they can’t, the truth will spread elsewhere, if not in Jerusalem, among those for whom the message was originally meant, then amongst others who would become the beneficiaries of the gifts of the Spirit.
Luke’s outlook is modelled on the story of Jesus. His own trial before the Council and its outcome. The plotting of the religious leaders was successful and Jesus was executed. Stephen, likewise, lost his battle and was executed; but God made use of their witness to the truth and changed the hearts of others as a result.
In the Gospel it is the Gentile centurion standing at the foot of the cross who sees what others do not. ‘Truly, this man was a son of God,’ he exclaims as Jesus dies. In the Book of Acts, the person whose heart is changed as a result of Stephen’s death is a Jewish zealot called Saul, who as the apostle Paul was to become the greatest Christian missionary of the early Church.
Stephen rejoices in the title of the first Christian martyr. He was not only a good man, but also and mainly a witness the conviction that defeat at the hand of the infuriated righteous is not a dead end. We hear that as Stephen faced his accusers, and as they were trying to read the truth of his position, they saw that ‘his face was like the face of an angel’.
I take this not to mean that he looked unbearably smug, but that he shared the beatific vision of those who stand in the heavenly courts. If his opponents had been able to notice it, they would have perceived the joyful calm of a someone who saw only God’s glory before him.
The story of Stephen is both a warning and an invitation. It is a warning against the closed thinking that puts us on the defensive and sets us against others; it is an invitation, instead, to have faith in the gospel of Christ, which can look beyond human scheming to see the power of God coming in judgement and hope.
We humans are capable of a vast span of behaviour, ranging from the murderous to the angelic. Our calling, however, is to be like the angels, to become more like Christ, renewed in his image. This means, by the renewal of his Spirit, becoming non-violent and non-manipulative. Both are difficult: violence includes harsh words, rudeness, snide comments, ganging up, labelling others as evil or the enemy – and these are things we do daily.
Non-manipulative means not being caught up in the power plays of others, being straightforward and consistent, having integrity, and listening and acting always with lovingkindness.
But rather than dissolving the gospel into moral imperatives, we should end as our lesson does, contemplating the face of Stephen. How it must have enraged those who were hoping to crush his spirit to see him enwrapped in glory. On the other hand, those with eyes to see, would have understood his transparency to the truth, his witness to the way that defeats evil, and opens up, in the face all that is ugly and devilish, a path to heavenly beauty instead.
So we end with a prayer, in which we ask Christ to work on the roughness of our characters with which we rub up against others. It hopes that one day we shall be made more beautiful through facing the worldly trials that beset us, and therefore more enlivened and animated by love towards those who threaten us.
O Christ, the Master Carpenter,
Who at the last through wood and nails
Purchased our whole salvation,
Wield well your tools
In the workshop of your world,
so that we who come rough-hewn to your bench
may here be fashioned to a truer beauty of your hand.
We ask it for your own name’s sake. Amen.