The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 18, 2017
Scripture: Acts 7:54-60
In Spite of Death
Let us pray …
Does anyone who was here last week remember what we talked about? What we learned and were called to do, ourselves? (I’ll give you a moment or two.)
In this first month of summer, June 2017, we’re re-discovering “Life after Jesus.” That was last week’s sermon title. We’re exploring the very first communities, or “community” (singular) after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, and the arrival of the promises Holy Spirit. Remember this, or these, wouldn’t be any of the communities that Paul founded, not any of the churches in Thessalonica, Philippi, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Rome, or anywhere else. We are not jumping from Pentecost to Paul this year, but “living” first in the gathering and communities of the “Way” that was being established before Paul began his missionary work.
We know that these communities existed, of course, in some way, shape, or form – whether as a separate religious practice or a sect of ancient Judaism – because Paul (then known as Saul) persecuted these communities before he produced any. Christianity – again, in whatever shape or form – had to be born before Paul could notice its existence and persecute its presence. So, we are trying to there in these weeks: to the earliest Christian communities – Post-Pentecost but pre-Paul.
So, I’ve given you a little time to remember what we talked about more specifically last week. Anyone? We read Acts 2:42-47, a description of the first, rather “utopian,” fledging Christian community, the one that is referred to later in the book of Acts as men and women “of the Way” by Saul/Paul, himself (9:2). This community began with a bang according to scripture. I challenged that interpretation, suggesting that a bit of hyperbole was used by Luke, but we read last week that “three thousand persons were added,” baptized, after Peter delivered the very first sermon in this new life after Jesus. And “all devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Acts 2:42
This morning’s reading recounts a response that is the polar opposite of last weeks. If chapter two of Acts portrays the best response ever given to someone’s first sermon, this morning’s preacher receives the worst response imaginable to what was definitively his last sermon. I found myself envious of Peter last week. I have no such envy for Stephen this morning.
Listen for the Word of God: Read Acts 7:55-60 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I must say that, while I’ve never preached a sermon that provoked three thousand baptisms, at least I can take comfort in the fact that you all have, thus far at least, only complained about any lack of results I may showing. And if those complaints ever lead to any sort of terminal action, I trust you would only go so far as to fire me. Not, uh … well, Stephen was not so fortunate.
So, just as we read of the “response” or reaction to Peter’s sermon last week, we read of the response to Stephen this week.
In the passage just before our reading, as chapter seven of the Book of Acts begins, Stephen was called to bear witness before the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of the Jewish people in the first century. He has been charged with blasphemy. Those who seized him and brought him before the council, the “witnesses,” said, “We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” 6:14
In the opening verses of chapter seven, Stephen steps before this council and the high priest asks, in essence, “Really?”
Perhaps Stephen was wishing in that moment that Peter was close at hand. His sermons seem to evoke more positive, or at least less lethal, responses. But Peter’s not here and Stephen chooses a different tact. Rather than offering a sermon, he gives a summary lecture on biblical history to the learned assembly. A lecture that ends in insults and rebukes. Read it later today, the whole of chapter seven leading up to the last seven verses we read. He never mentions him by name, but after speaking to the learned council about Jewish history as if they were children coming to Temple for their first instruction, he accuses them of Jesus’ murder.
And he dies the first martyr of this new movement called “the Way.”
Interestingly, the Council cannot be directly blamed for the death of the church’s first martyr. Stephen’s death is carried out by a “lynch mob.” The “witnesses” who brought him here in the first place have also heard this lecture. The Council, powerful as it may have been for the Jewish community, was still under the heel of Rome and had no authority to sentence anyone to execution. But they didn’t have to in Luke’s telling of Stephen’s death, and they certainly didn’t stop the crowd from carrying it out.
As this terrible is narrated, we can’t help but hear the striking parallels that Luke’s telling of Stephen’s last moments in Acts share with his telling of Jesus’ last moments in the gospel. Three times Stephen speaks, and each time his speech echoes the words Luke gave to Jesus.
Jesus spoke of “the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God,” just as Stephen does.
Jesus called out as he was dying, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” as Stephen does.
And, Jesus, of course, cries from the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” as does Stephen.
In this grisly narrative, Luke really could not make it any clearer for us: The followers of Jesus Christ are to live as Jesus lived, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and sharing the Good News. And they are to die as Jesus died, confessing the saving love of Christ, professing their faith in the God of this Christ, and forgiving those who have done them wrong in any way, even when we are stoned … to death.
That’s powerful, powerful stuff. We thought last week’s requirement for “life after Jesus” was tough: selling our possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need; spending much time in the Temple together, and; having the goodwill of all the people always in mind. We thought that was just unrealistic. This week’s life after Jesus lesson makes that one seem quaint. Stephen died living life after Jesus.
And those are the most striking words in our short reading this morning, aren’t they? When (Stephen) had said (these things) … “he died.”
This is where disconnect again. Like last week’s argument that the community Luke described at the end of the second chapter probably never really existed, but was just an “ideal” meant to provoke us to live and play together “more nicely” than we are, we sanitize the last verses of chapter seven, interpreting them to mean we should be more faithful, “much more” faithful, but not really fateful. I’m not sure it was, actually, meant to be understood figuratively and metaphorically, at least not totally. Hundreds of Christian men and women in the first centuries took it quite literally. But the truth is none of us is going to die by stoning because of our faith. That’s just the truth. So, again with our “disconnect,” what do we find to focus on in this passage? Where is our attention directed?
I suggest here: In spite of death – Stephen’s or many others in this first community, post-Pentecost but pre-Paul – in spite of death this new movement, or Way grew in number and in spirit. How and why? The “witnesses” that carried out Stephen’s stoning, or the Council that allowed it, could not have imagined as they were killing the first apostle that this movement would continue for much longer, let alone spread far and wide, eventually becoming a new world religion. Not when death by stoning was a consequence. So, first we ask “How could this have happened?”
Well, Stephen’s murder spawned a greater persecution. The apostles were already being thrown into jail and flogged, but as the mob began stoning Stephen, our reading notes, they laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. Did you hear that earlier? Yes, that Saul. And as innocent as he may seem to be in this reading, he is more directly involved than as just “a guardian of the clothes of the stoners.” Take a look at the very next verse in your bible, now or later. Chapter eight begins with this: And Saul approved of their killing him. Verse three in chapter eight reports how “Saul was ravaging the church … dragging off both men and women … committing them to prison. He’s not an innocent bystander. The persecution has begun in earnest in Luke’s telling.
This persecution forced these early believers to flee Jerusalem, to get away, scattering throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. This was surely not part of Saul’s plan, but it is a primary message of Luke’s: persecution will lead to a broadening of the base. The scattering only serves to spread the word of the gospel and introduce the mission of the church to the Gentiles.
That’s one of the answers to “how” the Good News of God in Jesus Christ spread far and wide, eventually becoming a world religion. But why would it do so? Why in the world would anyone want to become a “Christian” after hearing about what happened to Stephen, or other Apostle’s, or the “men and women being dragged out of their house churches and thrown into prison?” The growth of the church and the spreading of the gospel is happening despite the persecution and opposition by a force that will not be stopped, “God” to be sure. But why would men and women, young and old, pledge allegiance to a “God” who requires death?
Here’s what I believe: Because the God of Jesus Christ offers life in a way heretofore unimagined in the world – at least in the Roman and the Jewish worlds. And here’s what I further believe: The life that the men and women, young and old, were offered and responded to in the first and second centuries of “life after Jesus” had little to do with personal, eternal salvation in a life beyond the only one they knew. No, that’s a motivation that the church well after even Paul would offer as an incentive for growth and compliance. I believe this new movement, this soon-to-be-Christian community spread, grew, and prospered in spite of death precisely because of the life it offered to its followers in the “here and now.” A life where all are given worth, where possession and goods are used for all as any have need, where bread is broken and shared with glad and generous hearts, and where the goodwill of all people was of primary concern. It was salvation in this life that conquered the fear of death to this life.
The Jewish community already believed in separate spaces for people both before and after the “final judgment” based on different types of earthly behavior. And the Gentiles, especially the poor and disenfranchised ones that this new “Way” appealed to, found death an escape to be welcomed. But a life worth living? A life of family, parents and children, in a community that cared whether you were happy or sad, thriving or struggling? That life was something to die for.
And it still is.
Though we may never be asked to literally die for our Christian faith, our faith still calls us to live up to the call of Christ, to measure our priorities against those these first Christians espoused – like the common good and compassion for all; to take a stand against tyranny and injustice wherever it is found, and; to express our belief that the goodness of creation is planted more deeply than all that is wrong. It is the assurance of a future such as this that empowers our living right here and right now, in the present life. Jesus died for it. It is our charge to live for it.
No amen again this week. As much as I want to end with a “So be it / May it be so,” we still have a bit more to learn, a bit more life to live. So, for now, and once again, if you’re comfortably able to do so, please stand with me and let us remind ourselves that we must not get discouraged, that in spite of death, there is life abundant, offered each and every moment of each and every day. A life that heals us and makes us whole. Let us sing together …
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / June 18, 2017