Sermon 05/07/2023 – The First Martyr

Acts 7:55-60

But filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] 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.

Sermon Text

Stephen is someone I look up to. A Greek speaking Jew, a Hellenist to use Biblical Language, he was something of an outsider in Judea. Judean Jews would not see him as being really Jewish. Likewise, Gentiles would look at him as just another Jew in the gutter. He is a foil to Paul in the book of Acts. His death inspired Paul to go on with his attempt to persecute the Church – a mission that was as much about Paul denying his identity as it was any genuine religious conviction.

Unlike Paul, Stephen embraced his identity. Though we are given just a handful of verses describing him, we can see that he was a trust member of the Christian community and someone who made a lot of difference. Firstly, we know he was a Hellenist by his name. Stephen is a thoroughly Greek name. While all the apostles names are written in Greek, most are cognates. In other words, people like John, are named Yoannen in Greek, which is just another way of saying the Hebrew Yohenen. In the same way today John is the same as Jean is the same as Johannes. Stephen is just a Greek name, and so we know that Stephen is of Greek descent.

Secondly, we know he was trusted because of the moment he enters the Biblical narrative. A concern is raised by Hellenistic Christians that their widows are not getting the same help that Judean widows are. We are never told the cause of this – was it intentional because of bigotry? A barrier of language? The scripture never says because the Disciples were focused on remedying the problem more than they were trying to find someone to blame. They called forward several Hellenists to take over the distribution of food. One of these people was not even Jewish, just a God-fearing gentile.

The work embarked upon by these men erased the issue. No longer did anyone feel that they were being overlooked. I think today of our modern struggles with racism. Sometimes you hear people worrying that if people of color are put in positions of power they would abuse white people in the same way that they have historically been abused by white power structures. While we must admit that power is a corrupting influence, we cannot have oppression ever be considered a natural condition of humanity. Stephen and the other Greek Jews did not begin to deny Judean widows food once they were in charge of food distribution. Why? Because the oppressed are never the enemy of one another. We could learn a lot about listening, and about promoting leaders from all backgrounds, from just this brief episode in Acts 6.

After this episode, Stephen is arrested for the preaching he has been doing in Jerusalem. Stephen is, again, an outsider. His preaching would have been easier to attack than that of the Judean disciples. The words he spoke were easier to paint as heretical, because people were already looking for excuses to exclude him for one reason or another. A false accusation of blasphemy is brought against him and a mob is formed to take him before community leadership. Reading the text, we might be led to believe this was the full council of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, but that is unlikely.

Jews in the first century were against the death penalty, those who were in power at least. This makes it unlikely that the death of Jesus or any other apostle was carried out with the full council present. Secondly, the full Sanhedrin was seventy people, good luck getting even half of them into a room at a given time. Instead, this is probably a small group of community leaders and a mob who opposes Stephen’s work. Stephen, who does preach a sermon born out of frustration with his Judean brethren, has angered a select group of people willing to kill. Stephen is lynched by a mob, not executed by a lawful authority.

Stephen’s death marked the first time someone died on behalf of Jesus. It started the series of events that would bring Paul to be converted, by first inspiring in him a plan to execute the same mob justice in other cities and towns. His ministry was perhaps the most dangerous one to the status quo of anyone who had been active in Jerusalem at the time. He was getting people to come together, Jews from Judea and from outside Judea. He had a Gentile under his leadership who had committed to living among God’s people as a believer. He created, in microcosm, the Church as it is meant to be. A people who care for one another, a people from all walks of life, a people saved by God’s grace and committed to the community they have become a part of.

Stephen will always be someone I look up to. He transformed his anger and frustration at the way the world was into action on behalf of, not only his own people, but all people. He was devoted to service and to love. Many have used him as a weapon, describing his murder as justification for attacking Jews. That is a travesty, a misuse of his legacy. Stephen, like so many advocates today, was fighting against a system that overlooked the least of these, and as a Greek Jew, his people were first on his mind. Stephen was willing to look injustice in the face and tell people that he and his people mattered just as much as anyone else. As such, he like advocates who say something similar today, he was rejected – and, yes, killed – for that belief.

We have to band together as a people, to serve one another, and to promote goodness in sthe same way that Stephen did. Listen to people when they tell you about their pain. Advocate for putting people in power who want to change the world, not double down on obviously broken systems. Work to repair this world that has become fractured, not by ignoring the problems that are but by fixing them at their root. We choose, day after day, if we will be with Stephen or with the mob that killed him. I choose to be with Stephen, with the Church, with Christ. – Amen.

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