Stephen the Red Shirt

Sermon for Sunday, May 7, 2023 || Easter 5A || Acts 7:55-60

The folks who put together our schedule of Bible readings did something really weird today. In our first lesson, they gave us the very end of the story about Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith. But they skipped everything about him leading up to his execution. So for the sermon today, I’m going to go back and talk through his story because the way it is written gives us a few things to think about.

But first – Star Trek.

There’s an old joke about Star Trek concerning “expendable crewmen.” When members of the main cast beamed down to a planet, the away team always seemed to include one extra person whom the audience had never seen before. Predictably, this crew member was killed off a few minutes later to show the episode’s dire urgency. Seemingly, Luke (the writer of the Acts of the Apostles) and the writers of Star Trek have this in common. Luke introduces Stephen in Chapter Six, and he dies at the end of Chapter Seven. Stephen’s death does, indeed, show that the situation for Jesus’ followers is pretty dire in those early days.

Could St. Stephen be the first ever expendable crewman?

Sure looks like it. One – we know nothing about Stephen besides the fact that he was among the first seven deacons chosen by the apostles. Two – his feast day happens to be the day after Christmas, which is like having your birthday and Christmas at the same time and only getting one set of presents a year. And Three – in today’s reading, we only get the very end of Stephen’s story. These three reasons all but confirm Stephen’s expendable status. I might as well stop right now because Stephen was never part of the main crew anyway.

But I’ve only been talking for two and a half minutes, so I should probably keep going. Let’s look a little bit closer at Stephen’s story. Maybe he isn’t quite as expendable as I first thought. Of the first seven deacons, Stephen is the only one given further description. He is “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Later, the narrator tells us, “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.”

He comes to the attention of the wrong sort of people, who conspire to have him arrested on false charges of blasphemy. Now, if you recall, at Jesus’ trial, Jesus hardly spoke a word, right? Not so at Stephen’s trial. At Stephen’s trial, he speaks for fifty-two verses. He lays out an incredibly concise summary of the stories of Genesis and Exodus, then continues all the way up to the building of the temple under King Solomon. He recounts the stories of Abraham and Joseph and Moses and David, all the while teaching about the history and traditions of Israel.

Now, I can’t find hard data to support this, but I’m pretty sure that besides Jesus, Peter, and Paul, Stephen has more dialogue than any other person in the narratives of the New Testament. And all in the space of two chapters! (He seems a little less expendable now for sure.) Stephen’s epic sermon (which I’m assigning as homework for next week)…Stephen’s epic sermon serves as a link between Stephen’s witness as a follower of Jesus and the oldest traditions of the Hebrew people. In effect, Stephen argues that Jesus’ followers are fully in line with the traditions of the people of Israel going all the way back to God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah.

But even as he follows this line of reasoning, Stephen does something so very human that all of us can learn from. Twelve times during his fifty-two verse speech, Stephen talks about “our ancestors” and “our people.” “The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham… Our ancestors were unwilling to obey [Moses]…Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness.” Stephen puts himself and all of Jesus’ followers squarely in the same group as the people who are about to stone him.

And then, when Stephen gets to the present time in his epic history lesson, he changes from “our” to “your”: You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears,” Stephen says, You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” All of a sudden, Stephen is no longer putting himself in the group of people following in the footsteps of the Hebrew ancestors. When Stephen accuses his accusers of persecution, he removes himself from the group. 

Because he is now being persecuted himself, he claims no complicity in the sins of “your” ancestors, who, of course, are his ancestors as well. By removing himself from the corporate sin of their common ancestors, Stephen ignores the negative effects, which that sin has on his life. He turns a blind eye to the fact that the sins of the ancestors have somehow shaped, or better yet, misshaped him.

When I read this all-too-human part of Stephen’s story, I can’t help but think of the ways we Americans place ourselves in the story of our own history. The history of the United States includes triumphs as well as atrocities; it includes incredible discoveries as well as genocide; it includes the loftiest rhetoric about freedom as well as hundreds of years of putting a thriving economy above the freedom of so many. History is complicated and fraught, and it impacts the present in ways that are hard to see, in ways that are built into the structure of society. Like Stephen, sometimes we claim our place in our ancestors’ legacy and sometimes we run from it. But it is all our heritage – both the vices and the victories. Confronting that history – celebrating it and lamenting it –helps us learn what our responsibilities are now, in our time.

I once heard a really good analogy about a building built a long time ago with lots of stairs and no ramps or elevators. Is the new owner who just bought the building to blame for its lack of accessibility? No. But is the new owner responsible for making that building accessible now? Yes. That’s the call God places on our hearts to do justice, as we strive to make our legacy more equitable than our heritage.

Let’s get back to Stephen for the end of the sermon. Even though he slips at the end of his speech and stops taking responsibility for the modern outcomes of his ancestors’ sins, Stephen ends his life with the most glorious witness to Jesus’ own mission. Instead of wishing vengeance on his attackers, Stephen does not add to the world’s cycle of violence. Whatever his own mishapenness, Stephen follows Jesus’ nonviolent example, praying at the end: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” With this last act, Stephen makes his legacy more just, more peaceful, and more forgiving than his heritage. And I like to imagine that this witness propelled Saul on his journey from persecutor of Jesus’ followers to becoming one of them as the Apostle Paul. For the truth of Jesus’ mission teaches us this: that no one is ever expendable.

Banner image: Guy Fleegman, who thinks he’s the expendable crewman of the movie GalaxyQuest, also known as the best Star Trek movie of all time.

One thought on “Stephen the Red Shirt

  1. Thank you, Adam, I am reminded of a personal experience. Years ago I read that one of my ancestors was a landowner in Georgia. I figured the family owned African slaves, but I told myself that MY ancestors would have treated their slaves well because my family was nice. Then several years later, I was part of a multi-church choir that was going to go on tour singing old American songs. One of the songs was “Lord, how come me here?” and was going to be sung by a young African-American man with a wonderful voice. When he came to the phrase “They took my children away. Lord, how come me here?” I was pierced to the heart, realizing my ancestors were no better than anyone else. After the rehearsal was over, I went over and said that my ancestors had owned slaves and how sorry I was for that.
    He graciously replied, “But you didn’t do that.” I was overcome by his kindness and forgiveness, and even now tears come to my eyes in remembering the incident.

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