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5 This proposal pleased the entire community. They selected Stephen, a man endowed by the Holy Spirit with exceptional faith, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
8 Stephen, who stood out among the believers for the way God’s grace was at work in his life and for his exceptional endowment with divine power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose from some who belonged to the so-called Synagogue of Former Slaves. Members from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia entered into debate with Stephen. 10 However, they couldn’t resist the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. 11 Then they secretly enticed some people to claim, “We heard him insult Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people, the elders, and the legal experts. They caught Stephen, dragged him away, and brought him before the Jerusalem Council.
54 Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. 55 But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. 56 He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One [or Son of Man] standing at God’s right side!” 57 At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, 58 threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. 59 As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” 60 Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died.
In Acts 6, the earliest church identified seven people to care more effectively for widows who felt passed over. Luke identified one of them, Stephen, as standing out because of the remarkable ways the Holy Spirit was at work in his life. But that exceptional faith and boldness had a cost. Stephen’s Spirit-empowered words (cf. Acts 7:48-53) so enraged many of the same religious leaders who had demanded Jesus’ death that they didn’t even seek Roman approval, but stoned Stephen to death.
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Lord Jesus, Resurrection is big and respected. But through this church, the Spirit calls me to live above and beyond my culture’s values and wishes. Give me the daring to keep letting the Spirit guide my life. Amen.
Today’s Scripture describes the martyrdom of Stephen. As I understand it, essentially God was doing some pretty amazing work through Stephen. It was good, perhaps even a little TOO good, as it caught the attention of members of the synagogue during a debate. Feeling threatened, they enticed people to accuse Stephen of blasphemy. Once the Jerusalem Council caught word of the blasphemy, they threw Stephen outside of the city and stoned him to death. In his dying breath, Stephen asked God to forgive them.
Reading it 2,000 years after the fact, it’s easy for us to see the outrageous injustice happening against Stephen. Being wrongly convicted is one of my greatest fears, so this story terrifies me. Certainly, the members of the synagogue knew what would happen to Stephen once those accusations got out. This causes me to wonder-–why did they do it? Why did they falsely accuse him? It didn’t appear that Stephen was harming anyone. They didn’t have to deceive the Council, knowing they’d kill him. But somehow these synagogue members got together and decided that doing so was their best plan of action. There is a chance that their reasoning was simply a matter of pride, as I imagine Stephen was winning the debate. But I have to wonder if the members felt justified in their actions because Stephen was disrupting their belief system. He was challenging everything they had known and held to be true. To them, Stephen was clearly in the wrong. He wasn’t just challenging them, he was challenging their understanding of God.
It makes me reflect on my own thoughts and actions when I hear other Christians speak on behalf of God in a way that goes against my understanding. The good news is that I’ve yet to have someone stoned, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m entirely innocent. I’ve easily dismissed and insulted those with whom I disagree. Obviously, they don’t know God like I do. But then I have to ask–what are the odds that I have God completely figured out; that my way is the right way? As much as I hate to admit it, the odds don’t look great. This leaves me with an unsettling amount of uncertainty. Of all the things I want to be right about, my faith is up at the top. But I think history has taught us that we likely don’t have God all figured out. We do our best with the information we’re given, but that isn’t an accurate picture. I suppose the good news is that I don’t think any of us have an accurate picture. When we’re able to admit that we could be wrong, I think it leaves us more open to allowing God to reveal himself so that while our picture may not be 100% accurate, it gets us closer to the truth.
* William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Revised Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, p. 77.