Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina
The first deacon
55…[F]illed with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then 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. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then 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.
Acts 7:55-60 NRSV
Let’s back up a little bit for “the rest of the story.” After Jesus left, the disciples formed the church into a community. They soon learned how difficult church administration can be. The way they reacted is no surprise, really. Of all the ministers I’ve met, I haven’t once heard “you know, I just love managing the church budget and taking care of the bills.” For the early Jerusalem church, which lived together in community, administration didn’t really mean taking care of money, although there were people who did that. The frustrating part of the leaders’ job was distributing food. All of the people put their resources into a pot and were given the food they needed, but because not all of the people were of the same race or even spoke the same language, there were some disagreements about how things were split. So the disciples formed a committee, proving that the early church was Methodist. Actually, they ordained a new order of leaders—deacons—to do the work of the church while the disciple leaders continued to lead the spiritual life of the group.
When the disciples pitched this idea to the group, it was accepted with enthusiasm, and they quickly chose Stephen to be the first deacon. Before long, though, Stephen had some enemies. The Bible isn’t very specific about why these people didn’t like him, except to say that they had argued and Stephen came out on top. They reported to the Jewish authorities that he had been speaking blasphemy against Moses and God. Sound familiar?
When he appeared in front of the chief priest, Stephen told the story of Israel, and concluded by saying that the authorities had never received the prophets well, and that even now they refused to acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst. The Bible says that they became angry at Stephen and ground their teeth at him, like an animal backed into a corner. Stephen did nothing to defend himself, but rather looked into heaven, where he, a truly good servant of Christ, could see the glory of God in Jesus.
The crowd wasn’t going to receive him any better than all those prophets he had talked about as he told the story of Israel. It’s one of the most intriguing images of the Bible. They covered their ears and rushed at him, then pulled him outside the wall of the city and through stones at him. Stephen died a death worthy of his Lord: his last words were a plea of forgiveness for those who stoned him.
We’re doing the stoning
This story tells us our past: the first deacon, a church that was striving to live together despite its language differences and persecution from the governing authorities, and the rejection of a gifted servant and prophet. But it also tells us about the present. The tough thing is making peace with where we fit in the story. Stephen comes from the community of the church to face the crowd of mainstream society. It would be nice to think we’re the church from which he comes, but it doesn’t sound much like us. They all live together, they pool their money, and they were persecuted.
Then there’s the crowd. They represent mainstream culture. They have nice little homes that are a twenty-minute commute (walking, of course) to work. They live so as not to draw particular attention to themselves, and the radical kind of message that Stephen was bringing didn’t interest them at all. Of course we are all members of the church, but we are so rooted in popular culture, the media, and the market that we look a lot more like the crowd than the communal church of Acts.
Screaming and holding our ears
If Stephen were to speak up in our midst, what would happen? If he were to tell us of our history: how people have suffered through the ages so that the gospel might be proclaimed; how men and women have sacrificed so that we might be free to worship God as our tradition tells us; how people struggled in faith to build this very church. If he were to tell us that often we miss the point and that we refuse to see the radical message that the Holy Spirit offers, what would we do? The crowd in Jerusalem covered their ears and rushed to shut him up. We don’t have to cover our ears. Our world is loud enough now that Stephen could barely have made himself heard anyway. We have a sound-tracked life: music in cars, waiting rooms, and during stories of pain and violence on the news. Someone trying to get our attention would be hard to notice because the advertising industry is trying to buy our attention everywhere we look. There are ads on buses, highways, TV, radio, the internet, and even the back of the receipt from the grocery store. We’re way ahead of the crowd in Jerusalem. We don’t have to cover our ears when we hear dangerous truth. We’ve got our eyes and ears permanently stopped up.
What if we listened?
Though we are so completely surrounded by a society that even when it claims to be religious doesn’t look very much like something Jesus would have designed, there are times when the clouds part and let through a little of the glory of God that Stephen saw. There are times when we can hear the message through our clogged ears. What if we listened?
Do you remember when I read to you from the Cotton Patch Gospels one week—the Bible with a southern accent? It was written by a man named Clarence Jordan. He saw the glory of God and heard the calling of the Holy Spirit. He founded Koinonia Farms in South Georgia. Koinonia, which means fellowship for the common good, was a community much like the early church, intended to help the poorest farming families who were unable to make enough to pay rent on their land and provide for their families, much less to save anything. It was a distinctly Christian community, and it didn’t look anything like other farms. For one thing, there were black and white families living and working together, which upset many of the people around the farm. Although they had some moderate success at farming, for Jordan had taken care to learn as much as he could from sophisticated agriculturalists before starting, the crowd of the community saw them as the enemy. They were literally stoned: bricks were thrown through the windows of the farmhouse. They were figuratively stoned as well: other farms boycotted them, and supplies dried up because other farms threatened to withdraw their business from anyone who supplied Koinonia.
I don’t mean to say that in order to start acting like real Christians, then the first thing we would need to do is go start a communal farm. Some of you would probably be quite good at that, but you’d need a new intern for sure. I tell the story rather to be honest about the fact that if we are willing to really listen to God’s prophets and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, then we will become the targets of a world that doesn’t think much of the gospel message. At best, those who follow “the way, and the truth, and the life” will look odd. At worst, they will be stoned.
Our mighty fortress
The life of Christ sounds like a terribly lonely journey, with a destination that looks pretty unpleasant. It certainly was for Stephen. But he lived and died with incredible faith. He never stood on shaky ground but, as the psalmist says, took his refuge in God. Our psalm for today, the source of the words for “A Mighty Fortress,” tells us how to find the strength for this hard road:
For Stephen—and for us—there is support if we choose to hear the radical calling of the Holy Spirit and to live our life as servants of God.
1 In you, O LORD, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
14 … I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
Psalm 31:1-5, 14-16 NRSV
Looking back to the story of the stoning, maybe we’re not the crowd after all. There is an easy-to-miss little detail in this story that just might be its key:
There on the sidelines was a boy named Saul, not yet old enough to be doing the stoning, stood to the side and watched, holding the coats of some of the men in the crowd like a corner attendant at a boxing match. Saul would certainly have his day as the persecutor, and he was at one time the greatest enemy of the church. But God placed him there on the sidelines for the occasion with good reason. He learned by watching Stephen who Jesus Christ was, and what it meant to follow him. When God spoke to him on the road to Damascus, he knew who this Jesus was who called him to service with rather than persecution of Christians.
58Then they dragged [Stephen] out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Acts 7.58 NRSV, italics added
Like Saul, we sit on the sidelines of the persecution of the saints by reading the Bible and hearing the witness of Christian history. In our spiritual youth, we have a decision to make. We can choose to become persecutors like those people we watch from the sidelines, or we can become witnesses. We can take up the dangerous life of the gospel, resting on the foundation of his Word and resting under the shelter of the Mighty Fortress. “‘Look,’ [Stephen] said. ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing a the right hand of God!’” Here’s your chance.