A Dangerous Witness - A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5A
Acts 7:55-60 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 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. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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.
Stephen was one of the seven disciples selected by the Jerusalem church to relieve the Apostles of their work serving tables. Ordained along with six others by the Apostles, he seemed to have a mundane job (Acts 6:1-7). In my tradition, we call them deacons, and they are supposed to help the Elders in their duties, by serving the communion elements. But, it seems clear from Luke’s account that the job of the seven would grow beyond serving tables, as important as that job was in a community where everyone shared everything in common. They were chosen for this job because some in the community were being neglected (the Hellenistic Jews). As for Stephen, he quickly moved beyond waiting tables to preaching. Apparently, he went to the synagogue of the Freedmen, where diaspora Jews gathered, and began preaching about Jesus. That led to his arrest on charges of blasphemy. In chapter seven Stephen makes his defense of the gospel before the Sanhedrin, facing trumped up charges of disparaging the Law and the Temple. To his accusers, these are the foundations of the Jewish faith. Standing there, listening to the charges being laid out against him, his countenance changes, and we’re told that his face began to shine, as if he were an angel (Acts 6:8-15).
In chapter seven, Luke gives an account of Stephen’s defense of the Gospel. This extended apologetic is the longest discourse in Acts, and it focuses on the history of Israel, including the resistance of the people to God and his messengers. In this apology, Stephen seems less concerned with acquittal and more with defending Christianity as God’s chosen way. According to Luke, the response of the people to Jesus and to Stephen differed little from the response accorded earlier prophets, whom God had sent (Acts 7:52). Stephen says:
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. (Acts 7:52-53).
It’s at this point, that our lectionary text comes into play. Stephen has concluded his defense of the Gospel by insulting everyone in the room. Not surprisingly, those gathered for the trial responded rather angrily. The Greek here is literally: "They were ripped through their hearts." Indeed, Luke writes that they ground their teeth as a sign of their hostility to Stephen and his message. Unlike earlier episodes, there is no softening of the blow with inquiries from the crowd or a wise word from a rabbi or priest who’d been converted. Everyone turned against him, which in Luke’s mind, made Stephen a prophet like the prophets of old who had been rejected by the people to whom they were sent.
Having enraged the crowd, Stephen faces certain death. Seeming to know what is coming next, he focuses his attention on God. Then, filled with the Spirit, he shares his vision of heaven. Luke writes that Stephen: "gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." (v. 55). Then, turning to the crowd, Stephen speaks once again: “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (v. 56). Whatever is about to happen, for Stephen God is present, and nothing will separate him from God. Willie Jennings writes that “No matter how hard they are thrown, the stones cannot separate Stephen from God. Nor can any stone, no matter its velocity, it’s surprising angel, or its accuracy in hitting our vulnerable places, ever separate those who know the savior from God” [Jennings, Acts: Belief, p. 73].
Having linked himself with God, the crowd, feeling that their faith has been attacked, lose whatever inhibitions had held them back. The crowd can stand no more of Stephen’s blasphemy. What happens next will happen time and again down through the ages, only it will be Christians casting the stones. Having heard enough, the crowd covers their ears and rush at him, drag him outside the walls of the city, and begin to stone him. (v. 57). His blasphemies could not stand unanswered.
The key to this passage is the presence of one who will play the leading role in much of what takes place in the rest of the Book of Acts. The witnesses to Stephen’s speech, lay their clothing at the feet of a young man named Saul, before stoning Stephen. Apparently, Paul is the leader of the mob that drags Stephen out to the place where they stone him. He is the one who is in charge of making sure that the blasphemies are appropriately answered. According to the Mishnah (Mishnah. Sanhedrin 6:4; Lev. 24:14), it was the witnesses who were to cast the first stones. [Johnson, Acts, 140].
It’s likely that this execution was unauthorized and illegal. From what we understand of the era, the Jewish leaders needed Pilate's consent to execute someone. That’s why, according to the Gospels, Jesus was taken first to Herod and then to Pilate. This wasn’t however an official government act, this was a mob act that apparently Pilate turned a blind eye toward. Letting this go, might serve to ingratiate him with religious leaders like Caiaphas. Stoning, of course was the traditional response to blasphemy, which is what the crowd saw Stephen doing in his final witness to Jesus.
The appearance of Saul of Tarsus at this point in the story is intriguing. Apparently, he is there acting some kind of official capacity. Considering the use of the phrase "at his feet," which is used elsewhere in Acts to speak of a recognition of authority, then, it makes sense to think here of Saul being the leader of the opposition to Stephen. One would assume that Saul believed that what he was doing was righteous. He was zealous for his faith—whether it was rooted in the old order or the new. Soon his own orientation will change. He will move from persecutor to persecuted. He will remain zealous for God, but the way in which he does this will change.
In death, Stephen responds much like Jesus. Luke’s account of Stephen's last moments of life are described as follows: “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.” Note the parallel with Jesus' final statements while on the cross: “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last” (Lk. 23:46).
Stephen’s story always seems to amaze, because it is a reminder that office doesn’t restrict God’s use. Stephen didn’t have the same rank as the Apostles, or so it seems, but that didn’t keep him from becoming an evangelist and a martyr. In fact, he’s the first martyr.
But, there’s more to this story than the first martyrdom. The reading ends with verse 60 of chapter seven. But what comes next is important. Moving in to chapter 8, we’re told that “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” (Acts 8:1b). If we go back to Acts 1:8, we will realize that the next stage in Jesus’ commission is now underway. They believers were commissioned to preach the gospel, beginning in Jerusalem, but then continuing into Judea and Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. Here we have a sign that stage two of the plan is being implemented. The presence of Saul here is a reminder of what will follow the ministry in Judea and Samaria. He will be the one, through whom the Spirit will push the message toward the ends of the earth (marked here by the move to Rome).
The book of Acts is a missional story. The church first receives power from the Holy Spirit, and then with pushes from the Spirit, moves out further into the world. But as we see from the Book of Acts the witness to the Gospel is powerful, but it’s also dangerous. Sometimes, martyrdom is the result. It's not courted, but happens.
Picture attribution:Unknown. Stoning of Saint Stephen from Sant Joan de Boí, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55858 [retrieved May 8, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stoning_of_Saint_Stephen_from_Sant_Joan_de_Bo%C3%AD_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.