May 7, 2023. Texts: Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14.
Stephen wasn’t in the front line. He wasn’t one of the Twelve who first followed Jesus. He wasn’t named in any of the gospels. He wasn’t among the suggested candidates to replace Judas.
Stephen was, if anything, one of the many figures who stood in the crowd to hear Rabbi Jesus teach and preach. If he touched the cloak of Jesus, no one recorded it. If he asked a thoughtful question, no one later spoke of it.
But in the days following the death and resurrection of Jesus, Stephen had come to be known as a godly man; trustworthy, wise, and spirit filled. These things commended him to the Twelve who lacked the skill or patience to handle the growing administrative tasks of the community.
Gifts came into Jesus community in Jerusalem from churches as far abroad as Asia Minor. From there they were shared out to all who were in need. Among the recipients were widows of Jewish believers in Christ. But the distribution was perceived to be unequal, with Hebrew-speaking widows being favored over Greek-speaking widows. And there was an outcry.
So Stephen and five others were chosen to take over. The Twelve prayed and laid their hands upon the six to commission them (and maybe to protect them!) They were entrusted with the work of fair and just administration. Stephen, in so many words, was a respected bean counter.
Yet something about that prayer and commissioning rested on Stephen in a deeply profound way. Next thing people knew, Stephen was doing exciting things, wonderful things. God’s grace and power were flowing out of the man. His witness to God was pure and clear. Perhaps he’d always had this potential, and now he had the permission. People were drawn to Stephen.
But not all of them for good reasons. The pure witness of God’s grace, beautiful though it is, has a tendency to reveal those destructive opposing forces that inhabit human minds and hearts. For bearing God’s grace Jesus was killed. And so should we be surprised to hear that certain people began to whisper against Stephen and to build momentum toward silencing him permanently?
The priestly council issued serious charges. Blasphemy against Moses and God. Witnesses falsely accused Stephen of saying that Jesus of Nazareth would return to destroy the Temple and change the customs that Moses had given them. Was nothing sacred anymore! It was an obvious attempt to build a case on the basis of fear and righteous anger. It always works so well.
Stephen replied respectfully. He recounted the history of God and Israel: chosen, honored, loved, wandering, exiled, redeemed, stumbling and forgiven always because of God’s covenant of love. Stephen ended by saying that God sent the Righteous One who was betrayed and killed.
Stephen as much as said that all who oppose God’s Word of grace are murderers. His speech was costly. Stephen was subjected to a mockery of a trial. And swiftly met his end so much like his Lord Jesus. No doubt Stephen thought it an honor to die as Jesus had.
The witness of Stephen was beautiful and gracious to the end. He saw a vision of God and Jesus in glory. He prayed for Jesus to welcome and receive his spirit. He forgave his tormenters. And then Stephen died.
Why retell this story of Stephen in so much detail? Not only because it is a stirring story of faithfulness. But so that we will pay attention to something important. That Stephen was not doing theology that particular day in the courtroom of conspiracy. He was witnessing to God.
Stephen’s witness to God was about how we know God. The argument went something like this: Brothers, honored fathers, God has known us, just as we are, and loved us since we can remember. And we have known God through mighty acts of love and mercy ever since God first called our ancestor Abraham. This is who God is, and this is who we are.
Stephen said, we know God because God has known and shown up for us. And yet, in this most recent time, God has appeared in Jesus and some of us have not seen and loved God in him. Failing to love Jesus means failing to love all that God is. And failing what God means us to be.
In 1 Peter, you know, the core of the letter is not a bottom-line statement of theology to which people must subscribe. It is a reminder of the beautiful relationship that God has made with us through Jesus Christ. It is an invitation to embrace again that relationship.
And the shape of the relationship is this: you are chosen offspring, priests in God’s reign, a holy people too, claimed by God. Whose purpose in all this, is to enlarge our knowledge of God’s glorious presence among humankind. To bring all the purity of divine light to shadowy places where fear cowers and multiplies. Is this the same identity and purpose Israel was given over and over again? Pretty much sounds like it!
So. “Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know the Father also.” This is not a theological bottom line to which all good Christians must subscribe. It is a witness to relationship.
Thomas and Peter had asked Jesus about his departure from them. They said, “Where are you going?” But their question was really about relationship. They were asking, if we no longer are with you, how can we follow you?
Oh, silly you, said Jesus. You know me and follow me as God’s way. You know me and follow me as God’s truth. You know me and follow me as God’s life. Nothing about this needs to change. You know everything you need to know. You even know the Father by knowing me.
Jesus didn’t ask us to know God theologically. Jesus came so that we can better know God relationally as Father; parent. Jesus is the path into the heart of God. He is the way of things grounded in love; it is all truth grounded in love; it is the whole of life grounded in love.
All are welcome to know God this way. Anything asked through God’s love, will be done.
There’s nothing exclusive about this at all. After all Jesus did say, “In my Father’s house there are many places to be…” God’s glorious house is expansive, gracious, and full of love.” Amen.