God in our Midst

Posted on 14 May 2017, Pastor: Adam
  • Acts 7:44-60

    ‘Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, who found favour with God and asked that he might find a dwelling-place for the house of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says,
    “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.
    What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest?
    Did not my hand make all these things?” ‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’ When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.

 

T

he story of Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles is one that carries some baggage, and it is an important story. It is a story with baggage because it has been used as a text to support anti-Jewish ideas and behaviors by lazy and/or cowardly preachers and scholars through history. In our modern day, when white nationalism and anti-Semitism are trying to force themselves to the surface of our society and gain support in our communities, we cannot pretend that this history does not exist for this text. So, let me be clear. If we read this story and hear it in any way as justifying anti-Semitism, then we must stop. We must go back and read it again, this time with our hands no longer covering our ears, so that we can hear what God is speaking to us.

Because this is an important story! It is one of only three times that Jesus appears in the book of Acts, and it is the only time that the glory of God is witnessed. As such, it is one of the only times that all three persons of the Trinity are present in the same story. What’s more, this story is the first time that Saul, who becomes Paul, appears. It is our first glimpse of him before his conversion and his ministry of spreading the Gospel around the world. This story is also what is used to define martyrdom for Christianity. Stephen’s death becomes the archetype of the martyr’s death. Unless one dies an innocent death that imitates Christ’s own death in some way, unless one forgives and blesses those who kill them, and unless one has some beatific encounter with the divine, one cannot be called a martyr.

Now, admittedly, these are pretty nerdy reasons to be excited about this text. Unless you are a scripture geek or a church historian, you probably didn’t lose any sleep last night in eager anticipation of the reading this morning. But there is one more reason this story is important to all us here today. This story is important because it is the story of our namesake. This is our Stephen, the same one depicted in the stained-glass window above the altar. And we don’t get to hear his story very often—only once every three years.

His diminutive presence in the lectionary in no way reflects on his significance, however. Rather, it is a testament to the shortness of his career. The first deacon of the church, the apostles ordained Stephen to help them shoulder the burden of caring for the community of Jesus’ disciples, who were daily growing in number. But he didn’t last very long.

Shortly after beginning his ministry, Stephen was brought before a council of religious leaders. Filled with the Holy Spirit, or perhaps a severe lack of common sense, or perhaps both, Stephen gave a fiery testimony to his faith, and his interpretation of the scriptures. But most of all, Stephen made the claim that God was not in the Temple.

God was not in the Temple. The Temple had been built by Solomon and rebuilt when the Israelites returned from exile. It had stood for centuries, the psychological center of an entire people, the theological center of an entire religion. Within its walls was the holiest of holies, the place where the divine intersected with creation. And Stephen said that God wasn’t there.

More than that, he claimed that God had never been there. For all these years, Stephen argued, God’s people had turned to something that was empty, even as God was in their midst. God is not in the Temple. God is with the people. God is within the people.

“The Stoning of Stephen,” Peter Webb, 2013

So, they stoned him. Thus, the brief but memorable ministry of Stephen came to an abrupt end.

It would be easy for read this story smugly, smiling to ourselves that these religious leaders could have believed something so foolish and be so blind to the truth of what God was doing around them in the life and death of Jesus. It would be easy. And it would be the lazy and cowardly was to read this text.

It is lazy because it requires no thought and no self-awareness. It is cowardly because it is a reading that comforts us and reassures us of our own rightness, rather than take seriously that God is speaking to us through this text. It is terrifying to think that God is challenging us through this text.

The reality is that these religious leaders were not bad or foolish people. They were well-meaning, deeply religious people who were trying their best to honor and uphold their tradition, but nonetheless simply could not recognize what God was doing in their midst.[1]

If that doesn’t give you pause, if that doesn’t shake you, then I don’t know what will.

The easy way to read this story is to read ourselves in Stephen. We want to be like Stephen. Well, maybe not the death part, but we want to be the ones who see the truth. We want to be the ones who challenge the powers of the world with our words of wisdom. We want to be the ones who are filled with the Holy Spirit, the ones whose faith is so strong that not even the threat of death can deter us.

But most of the time, when we stop and listen, we are not the ones with words of blessing and forgiveness on our lips for those who persecute us. Most of the time, when we stop and look, we see a stone gripped tightly in our hand.

Though we may strive to live up to the name, to be a church named after Stephen is to be a church constantly tormented by his words. It is to be a church constantly on the verge of putting Stephen to death. For he warns us that God is not in the things we hold most dear, and we hold on dearly to so many things. God is not in the rituals we perform, the prayers we utter, the music we sing, or the buildings we sit in. No, God is in our midst. God is in the world around us, just waiting to be seen.

Too often the church, and here I mean the whole church, gets caught up in itself. It gets caught up maintaining the things we hold dear, the traditions that bring us comfort. It gets caught up perpetuating the structures, the privilege, and the power it has enjoyed for so long. Too often the church gets caught up maintaining and perpetuating its own self.

But the church’s ministry is not its own self. The church’s ministry is not even its own at all. It is a continuation of Christ’s ministry. The church’s ministry is Christ’s ministry. And Christ’s ministry leads to the cross, where God endured even death so that our relationship with God might be restored. Therefore, we the church are called to take on the cross, the crucifixion, that we the church might also take part in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and the restoration of relationship with God.

The Good news of Stephen’s short ministry are twofold. It is the Good News that God is already at work in our midst and in the world around us; that God is already working to restore relationship with us. And it is the Good news that if we only put down the stones in our hands, if we but take our hands away from our ears, then at last we will find that we too have a hand in the work to be done. We will find that we too have a place in the new creation that God is unfolding before us.

[1] Matt Skinner

Preached by Adam Yates