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In the Worst of Times -- Acts 7:55-60 (5th Sunday of Easter)




What a difference from last week’s scripture! Do you remember? Last week, we had this beautiful glimpse of the early Christian community – just after Easter and Pentecost.[1] They were all gathered together, living life together. They learned together, prayed together, broke bread together. They shared everything they had, as anyone had need. And they had the goodwill of all the people. Day by day, more and more people were becoming a part of their community. A lovely glimpse of life, together.


But in this morning’s Scripture, just a few chapters later, Stephen is proclaiming Resurrection, and he is stoned to death.[2] The crowd rushes in at Stephen, gnashing their teeth. They drag him outside the city... and they kill him. This week’s scripture seems an unlikely place to go looking for life. Where’s the bliss, where’s the peace? And even more fundamentally, what on earth has happened, in these few chapters, that has brought us to this tragic moment?


Well, first, let’s meet Stephen, and then, see what got us here, from last week to this week. Stephen is one of the very first deacons. If we had patron saints, Stephen would be the patron saint of deacons. Last week’s scripture hinted to the fact that their community is growing... fast... and it is. Two thousand here, five thousand there. And remember, they are committed to sharing everything, so, as the community grows... and the diversity and number of needs grow... they need to scale up their structures for making sure everyone has enough. This comes to a head when it becomes clear that the widows in one group – particularly vulnerable folks – are being overlooked in the distribution of food. So The Twelve decide to appoint The Seven – seven deacons to lead the care and sharing in community.


First among them is Stephen. By all accounts, Stephen is a good guy. Again and again it is said that he is filled with grace, and faith, and the Holy Spirit. We see that here. Stephen moves through the community – leading the care of the vulnerable – and performing wonders and signs among the people.


But opposition arises – another group within the community takes issue with what Stephen is doing and saying – and they stir up the people – and they have him brought before the council. Evidently, this group gives great importance to the Temple structure, to the place and its structures of power. This is where God is. And Stephen, with his experience of Jesus, but standing in the same tradition, emphasizes a God who moves in the world, in the midst of us – the God (1) of the Temple and (2) of the tent.[3] This opponents disagree with Stephen – view him as a threat – and bring him to trial.


And in the chapter just before this, Stephen presents his defense. He tells the story from their shared tradition of this God on the move – with Abraham, and Joseph, and Moses – with the people in slavery in Egypt, and in the wilderness, with the people in exile. He tells of the prophets who pointed the way, and their rejection, again and again. He connects that to Jesus, and then he looks to his opponents and says, “Was there ever a prophet you did not persecute?” And the crowd swells with rage.


Now, I need to pause here and say this. There is an abusive reading of this Scripture (and of other Scriptures in the New Testament) that is anti-Semitic and that has been used for great harm. That abusive reading looks at this text and says that something called “the Jews” are to blame for what happens here – it reads Stephen’s opponents here as “the Jews.” That reading is not historic; it’s not faithful to this text or to the gospel of Jesus Christ; I categorically reject it, as should we all.


What’s going on here is both more particular and, in a way, more universal. Perhaps most fundamentally, it’s important to understand that everyone in this story is Jewish – they share an identity and a tradition. This is an intra-community disagreement. And the disagreement becomes heated, and then violent – and we see power-over welling up as power-over does – in the particularity of this disagreement.


And that’s where this is also somehow more universal. When Stephen says to his opponents, “Was their ever a prophet you did not persecute?” – he names a truth about how power-over responds to the prophetic word. Power-over doesn’t like the prophetic – never has – because the prophetic word is always insisting that something must change – that power must change. “Has there ever been a prophet you haven’t persecuted?


Power-over always works to silence the prophetic. We know what that looks like in our world. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. And the violent reaction to the Freedom Riders, and to folks who sat at lunch counters. I think of that lone student standing in the path of a tank in Tiananmen Square. And because Janie Spahr is much on my mind these days... I’m thinking of Janie standing up to the Presbyterian Church USA... year after year on behalf of LGBTQIO+ people and our families – and the ways the church struck back, and prosecuted her.


Power-over always tries to silence the prophetic word – that’s the universal dynamic we see embodied in the particularity of the gnashing teeth of this text. This is the world we know. Stephen names truth about how power-over works, and it strikes a chord.

And we come to this morning’s Scripture. This is an unlikely place to go looking for glimpses of life. Standing in the terror of this text, I’m going to suggest that we go looking where Stephen looks. That is, after all, exactly what he is telling us to do: “Look! Look!”


The crowd is enraged – full of fury. They gnash their teeth at Stephen and come for him. And then it’s as if the action stops. Like in a movie, they are coming at him – and it all freezes for a moment – and Stephen gazes into heaven and says “Look! Look!” In this moment, Stephen looks beyond the violence crashing down on him, and sees something more – he gazes into heaven – “Look, I see heaven open up, and the Human One – the Risen Christ – standing at the right hand of God.”


And then the action cranks up again. The crowd can’t bear it. They cover their ears – and with a loud shout – a loud cry – they rush together at him. They drag him outside the city, and they begin to stone him.


And then, it’s as if the action freezes again – or maybe the crowd just blurs into the background, as all that is in clear focus now is Stephen. And while they are stoning him, as he gazes beyond them, into heaven. Stephen prays: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Stephen falls on his knees. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And as he says this, he dies. Or more literally in the Greek, he falls asleep.


This scene of death does feel an unlikely place to go looking for life.


But maybe it’s exactly the place to go looking for the life we are talking about. Because here it all is – death and life – side by side. As one writer says, “this is the story of a death precipitated by a bold proclamation of Resurrection.” And, yet, even as the powers do what powers do, Stephen is able to look beyond that to something more, and to trust, and to forgive, and to invite the crowd rushing toward him to see all that too. “Look! Look!” In this life and death scene, Stephen practices the Resurrection life he has proclaimed.


Notice Stephen’s gaze. Somehow, somehow, as the crowd rushes toward him, Stephen gazes into heaven and sees something more. This “gaze” is the Greek word atenizo; it’s more than physical sight – it’s “a deeper perception, an intentional focus of awareness” – here, on Jesus.[4] Somehow, Stephen, in the midst of this melee is able to look and “maintain a steady focus beyond the fray.” And what he sees is the Risen Christ. Stephen sees a power more powerful than the power coming at him. He gazes into heaven and sees Jesus standing with ultimate authority over everything that is happening here. “Look! Look!”


Amy Oden calls this the “prophetic gaze.”[5] The prophetic gaze names the reality of the harm being perpetrated here – it “doesn’t shy away from it.” That is, after all, what brought Stephen to this moment. He has spoken truth to power about power. The prophetic gaze names all that and then looks beyond it – looks beyond it to a bigger reality at work in the world for good. Stephen looks to the God who has always been in the midst of us – and rests his gaze on the Risen Christ. And in his gaze, Stephen sees, and leans into, and embodies Resurrection life. “Look! Look!”


Notice what Stephen does. Notice the forgiveness. The crowd plugs up their ears – they will hear no more. They let out a shout, and pick up their stones. And Stephen says, “Lord, receive my spirit.” And then, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen forgives them. He prays for them. While they are raining stones down on him, he forgives them. Who does that? How does anyone do that?


Well, most obviously – Jesus does – these things that Stephen says here are what Jesus says at crucifixion – “Receive my spirit... forgive them.” Stephen does here what Jesus does.


But really, in our world, in our lives, how do you name honestly the harm at loose in this world, and even so, set your gaze on and live into a bigger reality?


I think of South Africa – where after years and years of apartheid – through a process of Truth and Reconciliation – they have been able to move into a bigger reality – not uncomplicated, but somehow healing.


I think of Northern Ireland – where after years and years of conflict and troubles – they have just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Accord – 25 years of living in peace – not uncomplicated, but healing.[6]


I think of Congressman John Lewis who said that – in the midst of struggle – it’s important to live “as if.” He said, you’ve got to live “as if” the new reality you long for is already here – even as we live our lives in the hard realities of the world we are changing.


Stephen names the reality of power in his world, and even in the midst of this mob, he gazes to the heavens – and sees – beyond the shouts and the stones – he sees life – and with his last breath – he lives that out: “Forgive them. Don’t hold this sin against them.”


And I wonder what that kind of forgiveness might mean in my life... in yours... in ours. I know moments in my life when I have been able to forgive – and moments when I have not. What would it be like, for those wrongs I hold onto – to still say true things about the harm – but to gaze beyond it – to not be bound by it – or be defined by it – to see life, beyond the fray – and to live life into that.


And, for those places where I am part of the fray, where I’m complicit in the harm, what might it mean to listen to Stephen: “Look! Look!” – to see what he sees – to put down the stone – to live what he lives – to receive that kind of forgiveness, and let it change me.


Now, I wish I could say that, after this morning’s Scripture, the powers put down their stones. But they don’t. Did you notice that mention of who was standing there watching all this? This young guy named Saul – whom we know now as the Apostle Paul – the guy who wrote a big chunk of the New Testament. Saul is standing there, Scripture says in the next verse, approving what they did. And after this, he will begin a broader persecution of those who think like Stephen.


But we also know that, on down the road, he too will encounter the Risen Christ and be transformed. At some point, years later, Paul –proclaiming with every bit of life what Stephen proclaims here -- will look back on this moment and say: I know who I was then, and I know who I am now – and I know that I am who I am – that I only got from there to here by the grace of God – by the liberating power of Resurrection.


The Resurrection life that Stephen lives out here, will reverberate, and radiate out – through Paul, through all the lives that will follow, down through the generation – all the way into this present moment, into us – Stephen’s gaze fixed on the life we find in the Risen Christ – healing, and justice, and mercy – stronger than and beyond any power that can do us harm.


At first glance, this morning’s Scripture may indeed seem like an unlikely place to go looking for life. But in this moment, with Stephen, maybe we find life... where it matters most.



© 2023 Scott Clark


[1] See https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/share-everything-acts-2-42-47-4th-sunday-of-easter [2] For general background on the text, see Justo L. González, Acts (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001); Amy G. Oden, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter/commentary-on-acts-755-60-6 ; Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. x (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002); David J. Schafler, Commentary in Connections, Year A, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), pp.255-57. [3] This reading of the Stephen’s defense is influenced by González, supra. [4] See Amy G. Oden, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter/commentary-on-acts-755-60-6 [5] Id. [6] See https://apnews.com/article/northern-ireland-good-friday-agreement-explained-8165d2fb0d7537401047d5ff9ba1a39e


Photo credit: Pawel Czerwinski, used with permission via Unsplash

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