Sermon for Sunday, May 24, 2020 || Easter 7A || Acts 1:6-14
Early on a Wednesday morning last June, I stood in line at a checkpoint leading to the Western Wall below the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem. Turning around, I watched the sun rise over the Mount of Olives, turning the distant tower of the Church of the Ascension into a dark silhouette against the thin clouds. And for a brief moment, my heart rose with the sun, and I was transported back to that spot 2,000 years ago. I watched with the disciples as Jesus was taken up into heaven. I gazed up at the sky and felt his final words settle in my gut: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
(Sermon for Sunday, December 26, 2010 || Feast of St. Stephen ||Acts 6:8—7:2a, 51c-60)*
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, the writers killed off this extra a few minutes later to show the dire urgency of the crew’s predicament. 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’s dead by the end of chapter seven. The patron saint of this church appears in all of two chapters of one book of the Bible. And his death shows that the situation for Jesus’ followers is, indeed, dire. Could the founders of this church have possibly named our parish after an expendable crewman?
At first glance, Stephen sure looks like a prime candidate for this expendable crewman status. We know nothing about him besides the fact that he was among the first seven deacons chosen by the apostles. Also, his feast day happens to be the day after Christmas, which is like having your birthday and Christmas right near each other and only getting one set of presents a year. And furthermore, the framers of our lectionary readings effectively gutted Stephen’s story. We just heard the beginning and the end, but we missed Stephen’s epic sermon in the middle. These three reasons all but confirm Stephen’s expendable condition. I might as well stop right now because Stephen was never part of the main crew anyway.
But wait just a minute. Let’s look a little bit closer at this by going backwards through my three reasons for Stephen’s supposed expendability. If you look at your bulletin, you’ll notice that we skipped from verse two to verse 51 of chapter seven of the Acts of the Apostles. The stitching up of the hole between these verses happens so seamlessly that you’d never ever notice. Here’s what I mean: “And Stephen replied, ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me. You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.’ ”
Did you catch the break between verse two and verse 51? Stephen says, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me,” and then he launches into a beautiful and concise summary of a sizable chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures. He recounts the stories of Abraham and Joseph and Moses. Finally, he arrives at David and Solomon and the building of the Temple. All the while, Stephen teaches about the history and traditions of Israel, and his audience is the very group of people, who are supposed to be the most knowledgeable about those topics.
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 less expendable now for sure. Stephen’s epic sermon (which I’m assigning as homework for next week – just kidding) serves as a link between Stephen’s witness as a follower of Jesus and the oldest traditions of the Hebrew people. His accusers brought him to the council on trumped up charges of blasphemy against the very tradition that his speech confirms. But buried in his sermon is something that shows that Stephen, though a courageous Christian witness, doesn’t quite have everything figured out.
Nine times during the speech that we didn’t read this morning, Stephen refers to the folks in the old stories as “our ancestors.” We all come from Abraham, our common ancestor, Stephen says. Our ancestors were enslaved in Egypt. Our ancestors made the golden calf. Our ancestors brought God’s holy tent into the land of promise. Nine times, he claims kinship with his accusers and with the angry council members.
But then, when the reading we heard this morning picks up again, Stephen switches. “You stiff-necked people,” he says, “uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” 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, as well.
With this switch from “our” to “your,” Stephen severs the connection he had with his accusers and the council. A few minutes later, they violently drag him out of the city and stone him to death. Of course, their act of murder is the greater sin. But 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 ancestor have somehow shaped, or better yet, misshaped him.
And this is where we come back to reason number two for Stephen’s supposed expendability. His feast day is today, the day after Christmas. Many saints have their feast days on the anniversaries of their deaths, but we don’t know on what day Stephen died. There is, however, a blessing hidden in this seemingly unfortunate placement of Stephen’s feast. Stephen’s death and Jesus’ birth are linked by virtue of our calendar. In both Matthew and Luke, the Gospel writers take great pains through lengthy genealogies to plant Jesus squarely in the line of Israel’s succession going back to Abraham and beyond. And in his birth in that little town of Bethlehem, the town of king David, Jesus marks the culmination of the tradition of David, as well as the other folks Stephen mentions in his sermon.
Thus, Jesus’ Incarnation happens as part of Israel’s history in order to redeem Israel’s history. By removing himself through his judgment of the council from the negative pieces of that history, Stephen removes himself from the need for that redemption. Of course, no one, not even a man “full of grace and power” (as Luke names Stephen) is above the need for redemption. Even the first martyr of the church, for whom our parish is named, is misshapen by the corporate sin of this world.
The good news is this: through Jesus’ Incarnation as a flesh and blood person and through his death, which Stephen’s martyrdom recalls, Jesus accomplished that redemption and gives us the chance to be reshaped into new and better forms. And this is where we come back to reason number one for Stephen’s supposed expendability. We know next to nothing about this man who died for the love of his Lord. But we do know that, at the end of his life, he did not add to the world’s cycle of violence by wishing vengeance on his attackers. We do know that he loved and served people in need as one of the church’s first deacons. We do know that he was a man “full of faith and Holy Spirit.”
And finally, we do know, that whatever his misshapenness and his sin, whatever his success and his witness, Stephen’s life and death find redemption in the love of God, made known in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.
* At church, I preached this text to three gracious and attentive women at the 8:00am service and decided it didn’t work read as a manuscript. So, at the 10:00am, I preached this content without the text and it worked so much better.