This is a sermon from Acts 7:55-60 and I Peter 2:2-10 that I preached on Sunday. It has been reworked a bit before adding it here. It speaks to an issue that confronts many of us today as we get “siloed” together with our group and drown out other opinions and don’t see other people.
Stephen’s execution is a horrific example of a widespread human tendency that sometimes turns lethal.
Before he was martyred, Stephen was one of those who came to believe in Jesus sometime after the day of Pentecost. After that, he rose to be a deacon in the Jerusalem church. His primary work there was to distribute food and other aid to the poor.
Unfortunately, as happened with Jesus, and continually happened to his early followers, Stephen became controversial. He did so basically because he talked and taught Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ being the long-awaited messiah.
Over time, his beliefs and actions upon those beliefs gained a growing number of enemies. Some of them accused Stephen of blasphemy, of saying untrue and profane things about God.
We don’t do it in America these days, at least not formally, but back then in Israel, there were people who policed blasphemy. You might remember them. They were who arrested, tried and convicted Jesus of blasphemy. We know them as the Sanhedrin, the group of men who together ruled and enforced the Jewish religion. So, just as Jesus had been drug in to respond to charges, Stephen was drug in to respond to similar charges.
To be fair to the members of the Sanhedrin, I left out of today’s reading some verses that tell some hard and harsh things Stephen said to them. He spat out that they were traitors and murders who were unfaithful to God.
If any of them were sleeping, those words woke them and flipped their anger switches. You can imagine that as Stephen spoke those words, he got their full attention and they leaned forward to hear what else the man might say.
It was then that Stephen crossed the line. The Bible says it was the Holy Spirit who led him to do it. Medieval paintings portray the moment the Holy Spirit did that, with Stephen looking worshipfully and beatifically up to heaven where he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Stephen then voiced his vision. His words transformed his judges into his executioners.
Stoning of St. Stephen, by Saint-Etienne-du-Mont
To use a modern term, they got weaponized. They covered their ears, shouted to drown out his voice and charged toward him as one. Then they dragged him out of the city and stoned him until he was dead. As the stones broke his bones and tore his skin, Stephen prayer his last words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
In those words, he echoed words Jesus prayed as he hung from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” It is likely that none of his executioners heard those words. They had long since quit listening to him, devoting themselves instead to ensuring that his voice was permanently stilled.
The Human Condition
The horrible irony is that Stephen did not die for blasphemy nor did he die for speaking falsely about God. Quite the opposite, he was stoned for speaking what he believed to be the divine truth of Jesus Christ.
Another way of looking at it is that he died because he said some his judges and executioners disagreed with. He offended them and they hated him and killed him because of it.
Friends, be careful if anyone who offends you. If anyone does, be careful how you react to them.
This mob shows us what people are capable of when we judge others; think of them as beneath us; consider them to contemptible or unworthy. Oh, what horrors can happen when we see a person or group of people in those ways.
The long, sad history of America’s tolerance and practice of slavery, followed by decade after decade of hard-hearted, dehumanizing and sometimes murderous racial discrimination bears sad witness to this.
Of course, racial discrimination continues in the United States as we speak. On Saturday, white supremacists demonstrated in Charlottesville. Va. with KKK-type torches blazing while they chanted that they would not be replaced. Never mind that the term “white supremacist” alone defines them as a hate group that menaces others and that the torches linked them to the viciousness of KKK lynchings and terrorism.
To be sure, people in other countries also are guilty of dehumanizing, demonizing or murdering others.
The most-cited example is the Holocaust and Nazi incineration of millions of Jews and others they considered inferior and unworthy. Last week, we also learned of Chechnya’s brutal and often torturous or murderous treatment of LGBTs. Yesterday, we learned of Syria’s mass murder and incineration of its own people.
We have the same human tendency
We might absolve ourselves not only of the stoning of Stephen but also of the examples of hate I just listed. Unfortunately, we have the same seeds within our hearts and minds. We have the same tendency to judge, belittle, condemn others.
Oh, I wish I could escape that fact for myself but I cannot because I am guilty, too.
The ugly truth is that no matter what Jesus might tell us, we still judge people. And, no matter what Jesus might tell us, we are not good at loving our enemies or praying for them. Even worse, we sometimes we do not even try. And, we sometimes we can even pick up a prejudice or even hatred without noticing. It comes naturally. It is as if we inhale from the air around us. Indeed, in some way that is just what we do. I know because I was born into a racist family and early in life had no idea there was another way to be.
It would be nice if we could be like Stephen and remain faithful to God in all things, especially as the worst happens to us. And, I understand that we might still consider ourselves above all the things I have described. After, we rightly think that we did not raise stones at Stephen, we did not own slaves, and we do not hate anybody that we know of.
Some questions to consider
Let’s look at ourselves though.
Do you refuse to listen to perspectives that challenge your opinion or worldview and look dimly on those who voice them?
Do you narrow your eyes and fur your brows at people who practice other religions?
Do you look askance at foreigners or undocumented immigrants and consider them unworthy?
What are your views of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals?
Whatever your answer to these questions, when we look at the world around us we see that there are many people who have fallen prey to judging, demonizing, and hating not just individuals but entire groups of people.
In fact, we in America are good at judging people and dividing out people who are not like us; people who do not believe what we believe; people who look or act differently; anybody who are different from us in some way that we think is significant.
We in the church are part of that. We cannot ignore that. It is for sure that recent polls indicate many people think we are the worst ones about clinging to our views and shutting our minds to those of others.
We may not be that bad, but we are likely just about as guilty as the rest of this fallen world. We’re just as guilty of dehumanizing, even demonizing, those people we deem to be “the other,” those people who fall into our definition of evil,
I think of the growing Republican-Democrat, Liberal-Conservative division. And the noticeable way many people regard those with different skin color or those who follow other religions.
There are others whom we might judge, too. The homeless, even though most are veterans or children. The addicted, even though many are those who have given up hope or fallen prey to something they cannot fight alone.
And we judge the poor or the sick or the inmate, even though Jesus tells us that when we seem them, we see him.
Who we are and what we are called to do
Peter tells us, though, that we are to fight against this all too prevalent human tendency. He says we are to aspire to something better, something higher, something divine.
He says that God calls us to be the kind of people who hear, see and remain open to “the other.” He says God calls us to see them as God’s children who are made in his image just as we are. He says we are called to do that because God has made us to be his living gospel.
Let’s remember together today’s reading from I Peter 2:
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Peter says that once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people. For us, that means in part that we are called out of the darkness of judging, dividing, hating, resenting, and demonizing and into the light of love, acceptance, conciliation and reconciliation. We are called not to live out of our basement selves but our highest selves.
Peter tells us who we are: God’s people. God chose us and united us so we might testify to the greatness of God’s work. Through the power of the gospel, all of us are brought together into one holy nation. That is Peter’s version of what Paul said that we are the body of Christ.
Irrespective of whether we think of ourselves as a part holy nation or part of the body of Christ, it does not mean that are to bask in our glory. It means that we are called to do the demanding work of offering love, grace and mercy to all of God’s children. It means that we are God’s people knit together by our experience of God’s love; that we are God’s people knit together by our experience of God’s grace; that we are God’s people knit together by God’s mercy. And, that of our common experience of God’s grace, mercy and love, we are called to show that some grace, mercy and love to others.
Stephen’s prayer shows us that, in Christ, there is another way. We do not have to succumb to the human tendency to judge, belittle or demonize the other Instead, like Stephen praying for his murderers, we are free to love people whom the world around us say that we should reject or even hate. That love doesn’t make our differences and disagreements fall away, but it allows us to accept and hear others despite those differences or disagreements.
As the Sanhedrin did, it is easy to cover our ears, and it is hard to keep our hearts and minds open to people we do not understand, people who are different from us, people who challenge our ways of thinking, people whose existence might even require us to change our ways of thinking.
But “the mighty acts of God who called us out of darkness and into marvelous light” call and empower us to take on this holy work.
If we look to him, like Stephen did, God will give us the strength to love and show grace and mercy . . . and live out the truth that we are his people.