The Rest of the Story
A sermon on Acts 7:55-60 and John 14:1-14
(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here; photo credit: Patrick Hendry on Unsplash)
When I was a child, my parents used to listen to Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story.” The premise of the broadcast segments – which proposed to reveal the hidden, or unknown back-story of familiar people, incidents, or phenomena – was alluring even to an 8-year-old. There was more to know than first appeared! It was a formula designed to draw people in, and Paul Harvey – with his smooth voice and artful story-telling – was a master of taking what seemed like a simple story and weaving much more complexity into it.
Well, today’s first reading hardly needs Paul Harvey to convince us that there must be more to this story. The lectionary drops us into the scene at the very moment of the climax, with Stephen spiritually transfixed by a vision of Jesus at the right hand of God, while the enraged crowd grabs stones to kill him.
Umm, excuse me… but could we get a little context here? Like, what happened to make these people so mad? And who is Stephen by the way? And, why in the world are we reading about his violent murder during the Easter season?
The irony of these questions is that the church’s traditional treatment of Stephen has not generally given us much more than today’s lectionary reading does. I imagine that’s because the alluring part of Stephen’s story is his martyrdom. In the moment of confrontation, when Stephen’s judges are poised to pronounce judgement, he disregards them, turning his eyes to heaven to see a vision of the Risen Christ. And then, as he is battered him to death with rocks, he prays for his own murderers.
It’s stunning. It’s holy.
It’s also utterly unrelatable.
Which of us could even imagine responding to ANY violent murder in this way, much less our own? It’s impossible. It’s unreasonable (unless we blind ourselves to the humanity of the victim, or expect the forgiveness from someone else, not ourselves). Stephen demonstrates a forgiveness that is beyond human capacity.
We are drawn to the story of Stephen’s death as a jaw-dropping source of awe … but not as a model for our own lives. There doesn’t seem to be any lesson here for us. We know that we can’t be blissfully transformed to forgive those who threaten, injure, and lie about us, so Stephen becomes a saint whom we admire by cannot emulate.
That’s why we need… the rest of the story.
One important part of that story is why Stephen was attacked in the first place. There were many leaders of the early church at the time, and Stephen wasn’t even one of the Twelve. He was hardly the only one teaching about the Way of Jesus that threatened the religious establishment. So why did Stephen become the first Christian martyr?
Acts chapter 6 tells us that Stephen “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” (Acts 6:8, CEB). Perhaps that already makes him seem a little out of our league, but at least we can recognize the pattern.
People with something to lose found him threatening. At first, they tried to argue with him, but they quickly learned they couldn’t win that way. God and truth were on his side. So instead of recognizing his wisdom, and God’s Spirit in him, they resorted to violence and lies. They dragged him before the Council of religious leaders, and they called him a threat to law and order. In other words, they levied the same accusations against Stephen that had been levied against Jesus.
But – unlike Jesus – Stephen didn’t hold his silence before his accusers. The peace and prayer that we witness at the end of his story don't mean he is passive when he is unjustly attacked. Quite the opposite! Stephen’s response to his accusers is a prophetic polemic that far exceeds the length of any recorded sermon of either Peter or Paul.
And he doesn’t pull any punches. He re-tells the story of God’s chosen people with a very pointed message: The carriers of God’s promise have always been resisted. The people who set themselves up as the protectors of law and traditions are actually the ones opposing the work of God’s Spirit.
He concludes his speech by exclaiming “You stubborn people! In your thoughts and hearing, you are like those how have had no part of God’s covenant! You continuously set yourself against the Holy Spirit, just like your ancestors did. Was there a single prophet your ancestors didn’t harass? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous one, and you’ve betrayed and murdered him! You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it” (Acts 7:51-53, CEB)
Not quite the image of saintly forbearance that we get when we only hear his final prayer for his murderers, is it? Stephen is no passive victim. He’s a prophet. The same divine Spirit that empowers him to pray for his enemies also empowers him to speak truth to power.
That’s one part of the complexity behind this apparently simple story of the church’s idealized first martyr. The truth that the Spirit of forgiveness doesn’t demand weakness. The Spirit of God that was so clear in Stephen doesn’t lead him to a meek acceptance of injustice, especially when that injustice twists religious authority to selfish and self-protective ends. His prayer for the forgiveness of his killers still names their sin as sin. Stephen’s example should never be held up as a call to passivity in the face of injustice.
But the Spirit that was so strong with Stephen did allow him to see both sides of his enemies at the same time – the side of how wrong they were, and ALSO the side of their need for grace and forgiveness.
And that’s where we connect to the other part of Stephen’s back-story. You see, Stephen doesn’t enter the story of the early church as a preacher. He enters the story as a mediator.
The early church faced a problem as it rapidly grew and attracted many who were in need. The community were all in agreement that they should feed the hungry among them, but there were disputes about equity. The converts were ethnically diverse, and some from the minority group were getting overlooked. So, Stephen, along with six other leaders, were selected, commissioned, and took responsibility for ensuring that all in the community were treated fairly and had their needs met.
We don’t get any more details about this work, but I can’t imagine it was easy. People don’t always behave well when they feel they are being treated unfairly, or when they are asked to take less so that others can have enough. And when you add in differences of ethnicity, language, tradition… human beings all-too-easily fall into us/them camps of contention… even in the church. We all need grace.
And Stephen’s ministry was to practice that grace. To see the humanity of people who were feeling scared, and defensive, and anxious about whether their own and their loved ones’ needs were going to be met. His ministry was to enter a context of conflict and competition and to offer compassion to everyone involved. To see the human need in everyone.
This was the work to which Stephen was called. He was called to not just preach the way of Jesus, but to help the early church to actually LIVE IT. And I think that’s why Stephen was able to die the martyr’s death that we heard described in today’s reading. Because he lived the way of Jesus.
In today’s gospel we heard Jesus’s teaching that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” He said this in response to Thomas’s lament that the disciples didn’t know how to go where Jesus was going. Jesus’s response was to offer reassurance that - actually, they did!
As the Salt Commentary paraphrases, Jesus told them: “You already know the Way! You know the Way we’ve been travelling, the Truth we’ve been learning, the Life we’ve been living – just keep going, and when you do, I’ll be right there with you, because I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
In Stephen’s death, Jesus was right there with him, as he was in Stephen’s life.
Jesus was with Stephen in the Way of love, through his work of mediation when tempers were high, and in his work of compassion when bellies were empty.
Jesus was with Stephen in the Truth of prophetic fire when people who were threatened by the power of God in Stephen attacked him with lies and leveraged their human power to steal his life.
And Jesus was with Stephen as Life everlasting when Stephen was knocked to the ground as he prayed for forgiveness for his murderers.
What Stephen had – what made him the man who could pray an inconceivable prayer like that – wasn't about Stephen at all. It was about what he had. He had the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He had Jesus.
That is the rest of his story. And it can be the rest of our story too, when we face conflicts, and injustice and fear. We can remember that we too have the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Because we have Jesus.
Thanks be to God.