The Scripture reading this week are some portions of the Story of Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. (The whole arc of Stephen's story starts at the beginning of chapter 6 with the decision to appoint deacons and continues through to his death and burial. The majority of chapter 7 is a sermon by Stephen which leads to his stoning.) We are reading Acts 6:8-7:2a; 7:54-8:3
The sermon title is Witness and Reaction
Early Thoughts: Who knows who Stephen is? For much of my life the only reference I knew of to Stephen was in the first line of the carol Good King Wenceslas where we are told that the king looked out "on the feast of Stephen". And then even the first few times I was referred to his story in Acts it was in relation to the end when we see a man named Saul watching Stephen's execution with approval (reading into chapter 9 we find Saul having an experience on the Damascus road which leads him from persecution to proselytizing and , name changed to Paul, becoming the leading spreader of Christianity in the New Testament).
At the beginning of Chapter 6 it is evident that the Jerusalem church is not the utopia described back in Chapter 2. Earlier we were told that all things were held in common and distributed to each person according to need, now in Chapter 6 we find that there is dissension about this very distribution. And the 12 seem to think that waiting on tables is below them, they have "more important" things to do (which may well be a possible future sermon, remembering the Christ who knelt down and washed their feet). And so they decide to name a group of 7 deacons whose task it will be to serve the community. Stephen is one of those 7. Which brings us to our reading...
Chosen to serve, it becomes obvious that God has other things in mind for Stephen. HE becomes known for being " full of grace and power," and doing "great wonders and signs among the people.". And this attracts attention (how could it not), which leads to Stephen being put on trial [with charges that seem eerily reminiscent of those laid at the feet of Jesus] for his preaching about Jesus and The Way.
Then follows one of the longer sermons in Acts (and there are some long passages of sermon/instruction in these earlier chapters of Acts). Stephen rehearses the entire salvation story from Abraham, through Moses, into the building of the temple,and the work of the prophets into the execution of Jesus (the Righteous One). He further accuses his accusers and those who stand in judgement of being in opposition to the Holy Spirit.
And this is where our reading jumps back in, at the end of the trial. For some reason the trial panel is not feeling warm and fuzzy after being called stiff-necked and labelled as betrayers and murderers. In the face of their fury Stephen remains grounded and trusting in Christ, sharing a vision of Christ standing by the throne of God. ANd then even as he is being stoned he dies in ways that are indeed reminiscent of the death of Jesus on the cross. Stephen becomes the first martyr for the sake of Christ.
Sometimes sharing God's vision for the world causes complicated reactions.
What do we do with a martyrdom story in 21st century North America?
Do we ask what the price is for being part of a counter-cultural movement (as the church is becoming once again)?
Do we remember our brothers and sisters in Egypt whose churches were bombed on Palm Sunday?
Do we ask how willing we are to witness and test the reactions?