Stephen Steps Off the Loving Way and Back On
A sermon based on Acts 7:55-60
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 14, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A new pastor was appointed by a bishop to his first church. As often seems to be the case, several of the older saints of that church had waited for their new pastor to arrive before passing away. Consequently in his first four weeks the new pastor performed eight funerals. He found he didn’t have time to write a regular Sunday Sermons. So he used the sermon he first preached three more times. The church council met with the bishop to complain about hearing the same sermon four times in a row. The bishop leaned back in his chair and asked what the sermon was about. No one on the council could recall, they scratched their heads and hemmed and hawed – but they couldn’t remember. The bishop sighed and said, “Let him preach it one more time.”
It’s not in the Lectionary text we just heard Dick read, but, the vision we heard Stephen describe comes hard on the heels of a scathing sermon Stephen gave pointing out God’s message and messengers are repeatedly rejected. As one commentary puts it, “Through a recollection of Israel’s history, Stephen has unfolded a drama of a people’s infidelity to the purposes of God.” 1 Indeed in the Acts 7: 51- 53, four verses before our lesson, we are told Stephen ended that sermon with these rather tough and bitter and hateful words directed at those caught up in the forces of evil:
‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’
And the verse immediately after this sermon ending, and before the lesson (verse 54), points out that “ When [the gathered] heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” Stephen’s first sermon was not well received . . . to say the least.
I am giving this background, because the Lectionary cutting makes it appear that Stephen’s vision of “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” are what set the mob off, when really it’s Stephen’s sermon that initially stirs up the swirling storm of hate that leads to the awful violence of his stoning and death.
Since I have been preaching for a good number of years, and am standing up here this morning, it should be apparent that my first sermon was better received than Stephen’s– as were my other sermons since. (Hopefully this one as well!) But I have to be honest, sometimes I have experienced pretty negative responses to my preaching and my ministry. I’m not talking about disagreements, but hateful responses. Obviously I believe my preaching and ministry are solidly centered on Jesus’ teachings and the Gospels– which boiled down are about love. Love of God, self and others is paramount Jesus tells us. I can also frankly say that I long ago came to terms that preaching and teaching love could literally get me killed especially when it’s about love of those who are oppressed by the culture like our sisters and brothers who are LGBTQ, of other faiths, or people of color. Despite the fact that God and Jesus and the Bible unequivocally call us to love everyone there are those who become “enraged and ground their teeth” when it is preached, or taught, or a part of a ministry. They don’t like Jesus’ “love everyone” message in action and so they lash out messengers.
A few weeks back I preached about God’s grace being unconditional. Someone gently asked afterwards if I get negative responses to a theology that construes God’s love so broadly. And, of course, I had to admit I do. Indeed, ironically most preachers who preach about love, get some hateful responses. I’ve known pastors who have had visitors stand up in the middle of a sermon and start yelling at them from the pews against God’s love for God’s goodly made LGBTQ. In Mount Vernon we’ve even had local protesters picket this church against that love during Advent– of all times.
No one has thrown a rock at me yet, here or in Florida, but, over the years I’ve had people so upset with the message of love and grace for all, that they have defaced my car with scriptural quotes, called and harassed me, sent me hateful e-mails, trolled me on social media, written negatively about me in newspapers, preached against me in pulpits, banned me from a pulpit (in Maryland, where I’ve never been), accused me of being in cahoots with terrorists and scariest of all a rope was left ominously hanging from a tree above where a love-centered banner had been stolen a few days earlier.
I list all these all these hateful reactions knowing that in my sermons as a rule I try not to direct bitter words at individuals caught in the forces of evil . . . like Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 does. My sermons by and large stay away from attacking individuals. I will sometimes point out faulty and sinful theologies and actions, even now and then name famous preachers who pitch it, but I try as a spiritual practice, a non-violent approach to focus on defeating evil not people. It’s the evil actions, not individuals, I want to address in public.
Not attacking people is one of the principles of non-violence Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized. As his family’s website puts it “ Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.” 2.
Most sermons on today’s Lectionary text will no doubt focus on the goodness of Stephen, his wrongful death and/or his Christ-like responses to his stoning. Those are valid and just points. He was a good man, wrongly killed and very Christ-like in his loving last prayers, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” This is a very tragic story of a heroic man who did nothing to deserve violence, let alone murder. But it’s a story that teaches us something I am not sure many will reflect on in churches today.
Inexperienced, naive, Stephen himself committed verbal violence at the end of his sermon with words not focused solely on defeating evil. He hurled venomous words at others calling them “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears . . . ever opposing the Holy Spirit . . . ” Those angry words were aimed at people and meant to defeat those people. And what happened? Well, none of us should be surprised, because we know from experience that violence begets violence. I do not say this to diminish Stephen’s stature in the church as a saint, I say it as a lesson. And I certainly do not say it to justify the awful violent and evil response of the crowd. It is hard enough to preach Jesus’ Way without incurring negative responses. Jesus taught us to love every one including enemies, he did not teach us to ridicule and belittle others in public discourse. That’s not loving.
You may recall that Jesus’ first sermon in the Luke-Acts narrative causes the crowd to try and kill him too when he preached the same type of message as Stephen– that God’s prophets have a long history of not being believed by God’s people. But Jesus did not aim venom and violent speech at individuals in his sermon. He did not verbally assault the gathered personally as Stephen did.
As I said, I try as a spiritual practice, to have a non-violent approach, to public discourse focusing on defeating evil, not people. I have to work at it. It’s one of the principles of non-violence Martin Luther King Jr. taught and practiced. Addressing five facts about non-violence Dr. King wrote, non-violence resistence is:
nothing more than and less than Christianity in action. . . the Christian way of life is solving problems of human relations. . . Several basic things can be said about non-violence . . . First, this is not a method of cowardice or stagnant passivity; it does resist. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to evil against which he is protesting as the person who used violence . . . This method is passive physically but it is strongly active spiritually.
A second basic fact about this method is it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. . . [N]on cooperation and boycotts are not ends within themselves ; they are means to awaken a sense of moral shame within the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation.
The aftermath of non-violence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.
A third fact is that . . .nonviolence . . . is directed to forces of evil, rather than persons caught in the forces. It is the evil that we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized with evil. . . The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.
The fourth point . . . is that [nonviolence] not only avoids external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. . . [we] must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in our world . . .Violence begets violence, hate begets hate, and toughness begets a greater toughness. It is all a descending spiral, and the end is destruction– for everybody. Along the way of life, someone must have enough sense and morality to cut off the chain of hate by projecting the ethics of love into the center of our lives.
A fifth basic fact about . . . [nonviolence] is that it is based on a conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. 3
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
In our text you may not have noticed but in Stephen’s vision Jesus is not sitting at the right hand of God, he is standing. This is unusual. Commentators have a multitude of theories about that. Here’s my take: Jesus is standing because Stephen has made a terrible mistake. He’s used Jesus’ Way to humiliate and speak hate and bitterness at people. Stephen slips and uses internal violence of the spirit in his sermon. He slips and is not kind, but rather rough and very tough and bitter. Jesus, of course, knows “Violence begets violence, hate begets hate, and toughness begets a greater toughness.” See the ultimate Truth is as Dr. King put it that non-violence is “nothing more than and less than Christianity in action . . . the Christian way of life is solving problems of human relations. . .”
Stephen, rest his soul, understandably slipped and lashed out and paid dearly for it with his life as his violence beget further and more awful violence in a descending spiral of destruction. But as his life is ending he slips back to Jesus’ Way of love and prays for non-violence and forgiveness for those who are killing him. He cries out “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Stephen’s return to the loving path touches me to my very soul. I have no doubt the standing Jesus greeted Stephen with a warm embrace. Stephen’s earthly tragic ending has this intense beauty in it because of the way Stephen acted at the ver end. In the end he exudes the love and non-violence we are all called to exude in every moment of our lives. It’s never too late. Never.
And we are to exude that love and non-violence even when we face any sort of people we may consider “stiff-necked . . . uncircumcised in heart and ears, [who] are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit . . .” When they do violence to prophets and become “betrayers and murderers.” When they know Jesus and God’s Way, “yet . . . have not kept it.”
Jesus and God’s Way is a nonviolent way, “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.” 4 May we be nonviolent in our resistence and efforts to defeat evil. May we seek to defeat evil, not the evil doer. May we seek to love evildoers, even if they hate us. In the face of evil let us not be bitter or hateful especially in our public responses. Rather let non-violence and love be our response. It’s Jesus and God’s way, may it be our way. AMEN
1. Willimon, William, Interpretation:A Bible Commentary on Acts p. 64.
3. Washington, James, Ed, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., p 86-88)
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