Saturday, April 30, 2016

Words to Live By (Acts 7:55-60)

The story is unsettling. There is no getting around it. It is easy to stay with the euphoria of the book of Acts, as it opens with the resurrected Christ commissioning the faithful to go forth and evangelize just before He ascends in glory, followed by the incredible day of Pentecost, as the early Christians suddenly go from a handful to three thousand. But then come the challenges. The tranquil image of Acts 2 of a community learning, breaking bread, sharing things in common, and praying together seems a far cry from this scene in Acts 7 as Stephen is martyred for speaking boldly and without thought of recanting his faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Son of Man.

Martyrs are persons who die for their faith, or “one who suffers for the sake of principle” The history of religions, not just Christianity, refers to revered figures that bravely faced persecution, harassment, exile, and even death for keeping their faith. It can be a term negatively used, for example, when religious fanatics take twisted versions of faith too far. The 9/11 hijackers described themselves as martyrs. The mass suicides of the followers of Jim Jones in the 1970s also come to mind. “Martyr” is a word not to be blithely used. Indeed, neither a true martyr seeks his death, nor does she use her life in such a cavalier or blunt way that brings great harm to self and others. Martyrs are not fanatics.

Caveats and disclaimers now made, let me note that the Greek word for martyr is martereis, which the two-part story of Luke (aka the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts) use often when describing those who follow Jesus as “witnesses”. Jesus calls his disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, and Stephen’s witness to the faith is one way, albeit extreme and lamentable, that the faith is kept. We should be rightly disturbed by the story’s violence (and again, not for one second, give violence any valorizing), however, Stephen’s resolute and unshakable faith in times of great adversity and challenge should be an instructive word to us about living out faith in a world that turns a deaf ear to the voice of the prophet or the work of the saint or the witness of a believer speaking earnestly and humbly to deeply held convictions.

When Stephen defends his belief in Christ, he is not a great leader of the church in the typical sense of “great”. Instead, Stephen is a “behind-the-scenes” kind of guy. Not a bishop, not even a preacher, Stephen is a server of widows, providing food and care for those who are dispossessed and hungry. As one commentator puts it, “The first Christian martyr comes not from those preaching the word, but from those feeding the hungry.” (Scott Bader-Saye, “Living the Word”, The Christian Century, April 10-17, 2002, p. 16). The term for such people as Stephen is now commonplace: “deacon”.

Stephen was a guy who minded his own business. Stephen seems like a background player when you look at the “larger than life” figures like Peter and Paul. Not the “star” of the show, just a good actor with a few lines and modest billing in the credits. Yet, as his work as a deacon, server of the widows in need, grows, he is known as one “full of grace and of power”, a performer of “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). Stephen serves as a wonderful reminder that the saints of God are not necessarily found among the spectacular types. He becomes a person who fits the wise words of St Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always. Use words when necessary.”

Noted preacher and United Methodist bishop William Wilimon looks at this story of Stephen’s bold testimony and violent demise with a helpful question to ponder: “What is worth living and dying for?” The story of Stephen the server of widows would seem a bit puzzling, if it were not for the earnestness with how he lived and died. “As a Jew, Stephen knew that his life belonged to God, [and] his life was (as his dying prayer indicated) held in the hands of God.” (Willimon, Acts, p. 67).

Stephen finds himself in hot water with the religious authorities because he is feeding and tending people in need. He is the first in a long line of humble servants of Christ who are quiet subversives, who tend the margins, and often befuddle those in power because Stephen and his descendants in the faith are not exercising the same kind of power. The description of Stephen is not “high and mighty”, rather, he is “full of grace and power”, the same sort that Jesus exuded as “servant/King”.

I see Stephen in the modern story of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Day questioned why there were so many hungry and needy persons and why the Church was inattentive and aloof more often than not. I remember a photograph of an elderly Day sitting with her hands folded over her knee looking up at a police officer readying to tell her to move or she would be arrested. The determination on her face was not one of anger but of firm resolve.

When Stephen was hauled before the religious authorities, he launches into a long sermon, accusing the religious authorities of being blinded to the work of God found in Jesus. Their response is one of fury, and they take Stephen away to be stoned. The act of stoning is seen as a righteous and right thing to do. As far as they were concerned, he had spoke blasphemous words against God by declaring the religious leadership as unrighteous and Jesus as “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”.

Another side note I deem necessary to reading this story sensitively: “religious authorities”, not all Jews by proxy, carry out the stoning of Stephen. What I read in this story is the challenge of practicing a healthy and well-grounded faith, not an indictment of Judaism, which has been one historic way of adding fuel to the ire against Jews by Christians throughout the past two millennia. Stephen is made a scapegoat because some cannot handle his faith differing from their own.

The story is paralleled in the lament of Clarence Jordan, a 20th-century Baptist who worked for racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s. Jordan had run-ins with the KKK and local authorities who wanted to perpetuate racial inequality, but his great sadness was the difficulty of being rejected by fellow Baptists and other Christians in southern churches: “I would rather face the frantic, childish mob, even with their shotguns and buggy whips, than the silent, insidious mob of good church people who give their assent to boycott and subtle psychological warfare” (i.e. keeping up Jim Crow laws). Jordan was nearly killed a number of times in his life by people driving by in the middle of the night, shooting at the family home, yet it was the silence of the Church that was worse.

When Jordan translated this very passage from Acts in his “Cotton Patch” translation, he rendered the story this way: “But they yelled bloody murder and put their fingers in their ears”. Religious martyrs are victim to the forces of society and religion alike that want to ignore what they don’t want to believe in. They know that their convictions will be for them “a vocation of agony”, as Martin Luther King once called his prophetic ministry.

As Stephen sees his life about to end, he has a vision of Christ that affirms that he will suffer not in vain. At the same time, as the stones begin to strike him, Stephen gives his final words: an affirmation of the Christ he believes in as well as a plea to God to forgive those who are stoning him. Even as he is dying, Stephen is as he has lived his life: in Christ, trusting in God, and believing that the sort of world that would ignore the hungry widows and kill off those who sought only to serve God and neighbor was not the “final word” on how life really worked. Stephen trusted that what he did in life was not in vain.

This past month, many remembered the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, rightfully remembered as one of the tragic national events of the 1960s. Since that day, over and over friends and coworkers told stories of those fateful last days in Memphis where King was in town to support 1300 sanitation workers on strike. One of the strikers Taylor Rogers was 79 years old when NPR in 2008 asked Rogers to recount his experience in 1968. “You just really can’t describe it,” Rogers said. “He stopped everything, put everything aside to come to Memphis to see about the people on the bottom of the ladder, the sanitation workers.”  (As featured on NPR. Listen via: )

King would give a powerful sermon, concluding with words that would take on another level of
meaning when he was shot the next day:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Taylor Rogers, forty years later, remembers what happened in Memphis right after the assassination.

“After his death, we marched. You couldn’t hear a sound. You couldn’t hear nothin’ but leather against pavement. But we survived and with God’s help, we came through.”

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