“This Stephen never stops saying things against God’s Temple and Law! We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple, and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us!”
Well you know, those church officials are right. Jesus did say the Temple would be torn down, and in 3 days would rise again. But of course, Jesus was talking about Himself- the new Temple, the body of Christ, the body of God. And He was torn down, and 3 days later rose from the dead.
And they are right that the customs of Moses will change: the Gentiles will be welcomed in to the body of Christ, the new Temple. And they will be uncircumcised, and unkosher, and unsuitable; why, they won’t even be Jews who get to worship at this new temple of Christ.
They are right. And yet, in their rightness, they fail to hear the voice of God. God is not just a God of eternity, but a God of change, and those who are unwilling to change will miss out on God.
I paraphrased the scripture Adam just read, because it is so long. But Stephen, the disciple of Jesus… well he didn’t set out to make friends, just to tell the truth as he understood it. And so Stephen called all the Jewish leaders stiff-necked people (which was what God called God’s people throughout the Hebrew scripture.) And Stephen said, “You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit,” the spirit of change, of growth and revealing.
And then Stephen, in his very long sermon, starts recounting the history of faithless Israel:
- How Joseph’s brothers, those patriarchs is Israel, sold Joseph, the chosen of God, to slavers.
And how despite their sin, God used Joseph to save his brothers and all the Hebrew people.
- And how when Moses, the chosen of God, was sent to save the Hebrew people in Egypt, they turned on him, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us??”
- And how, after Moses had finally managed to free them from bondage in Egypt, and started leading God’s people into the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, they rejected Moses, and turned their hearts back to Egypt and demanded a golden calf to worship as an idol.
- And when God sent the prophets- Elijah & Isaiah, Hosea & Amos & Jeremiah & all the others, God’s people opposed them and persecuted them.
- And when the last Voice of God- Jesus- came preaching God’s revealing truth to them, they killed Him.
Philip ends his sermons saying, “You are the ones that received the law, and yet you have not kept it!”
He spoke the truth, that we are forever- not just turning our backs on the revealed Voice of God- but turning against those who speak those words to us.
And then, as they had so often, those pious people became enraged, and started stoning Stephen to death. And Saul- who would later become St. Paul, the greatest apostle to the uncircumcised, unkosher, un-Jewish gentiles- watched them killing Stephen with a grim smile on his face.
I guess Stephen had it coming. He didn’t back down, he didn’t tone down his words, and God’s people became enraged, and wouldn’t- couldn’t- hear the good news wrapped in Stephen’s judgment.
We do that, too. Someone says something that we disagree with, but rather than listening for the possible truth in their words, we grow enraged, and our mind closes down, and all we can see is red. And we strike back with words, with malevolent silence, with actions. It’s a really human thing to do. But it doesn’t help us to hear the challenging, changing word of God. The word that will transform our lives if we will but listen.
One thing about Stephen, though. In all his words and in all his actions, he tries to be like Jesus. And so when the people start to do violence to him, Stephen looks to the heavens, just like Jesus, and commits his life and spirit to God, using Jesus’ own words: “Lord, receive my spirit.” And then he speaks one last time, just like Jesus, Stephen says, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
That’s what a Christian does: We commit tour lives and our spirits to God, and then ask for God’s forgiveness for those who hurt us. Just like Jesus.
There was man, back in the 1950’s, when North Korea was being invaded by the Chinese. His name was Pastor Sun. Now back in the 1950’s, there were a lot of Christians in North Korea; that’s where most Korean Christians lived. Today, most Christians live in South Korea, but in the 1950’s, most Christians lived in North Korea. This Rev. Sun had two sons. Now, the eldest son, in Korean culture, is the most important person in the house. In him, all hope and inheritance lies. It is the eldest son who is given the best food, education, and clothing. The other children are dearly loved as well, but it is in the eldest son that the future lies.
And Rev. Sun’s eldest son was a fine, godly young man. He was president of the Student Christian Union, and a leader in his high school: a very bright, dedicated youth. Rev. Son’s other son was about two years younger, and was also a joy to his family. He too was a natural leader, and a dedicated Christian in his school.
As the communist Chinese grew in power in North Korea, there were outbreaks of terrorism. One day, a group of young terrorists broke into the high school, and lined up all the youths, holding guns on them.
They were led by a young man about 18 years old. He walked up and down the line of students, and recognized Rev. Sun’s elder son as a student leader and a Christian. The young terrorist pulled him out of the line and said, “I’m going to shoot you as an example to the other students.”
The younger brother jumped out of line, and begged the terrorist to shoot him instead, since the death of his elder brother would crush his parents and ruin all hope for the family. The young terrorist agreed with the young brother’s request, and shot the younger brother. And then he shot the elder brother as well.
Soon, the police raided the school, and everyone scattered. They called Rev. Sun to come to police headquarters to identify the bodies of his children. Rev. Sun went down, and recognized the bodies of his two beloved sons. It was a scene in red, blood red. His hope, his joy, his children lay dead before him.
The police had hunted down the young terrorist who killed the boys; they brought him into headquarters and asked Pastor Sun how he would like his children’s murderer to be killed. The humane thing to do, of course, would be to have a quick death: get rid of the public menace. The more satisfying thing would be a slow, painful death.
Rev. Sun looked at the pale, defiant youth before him, and said to the police chief, “If you will release him to me, I will take him home and raise him as my own son, and make him inheritor of all I have. I will be responsible for his further actions.” The police chief objected, but the pastor insisted, and so the murderer of his children became Rev. Sun’s child and heir.
And God’s truth was spoken: “Forgive them, Father, for they knew not what they did.”
There is a power which transcends all barriers.
There is a power which creates life even out of grief and loss.
There is a power which reaches out to those who would destroy us, and makes them a part of us.
There is a power which binds us as one people, despite the fear, the hatred, the prejudice, the isolation, and the loneliness which separate us.
That power is the love of God, embodied in our lives as we give our spirits over to God’s care; as we try to live just like Jesus.
In the Name of the One who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
SCRIPTURE FOR JUNE 23, 2019. ACTS 6 & 7 (paraphrased)
Stephen, a disciple of Jesus, was full of grace and power, and did great wonders and signs among the people. Some of those who belonged to the synagogue stood up and argued with Stephen; but they could not withstand the wisdom and the Holy Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly provoked some men to say,
“We have heard this Stephen speak blasphemy against Moses and God!”
They stirred up the people as well as the officials of the synagogue. Then they suddenly seized him and brought him before the Council. They set up false witnesses who said, “This Stephen never stops saying things against God’s Temple and law! We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” And all who sat in the Council looked intently at him… but what they saw was that his face was like that of an angel.
Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things true?” And Stephen replied,
“Brothers and fathers, listen to me… God has been faithful to the covenant with you throughout our history, but time and again you have rebelled against God and gone your own way… You stiff-necked people! You are forever 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, and yet you have not kept it!
When the religious leaders heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus. “Look!” Stephen cried, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
But the leaders covered their ears, and with a loud shout, all rushed together against him. Then they dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnessed 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, Stephen died.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.