May 22, 2011
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
In the early days of the New Testament Church, as recorded in the Book of Acts, the twelve disciples call the whole community together to respond to a growing concern that widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The gathered group selected from among themselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. While the twelve devoted themselves to prayer and serving the word, the seven were commissioned to take responsibility for the care of those in need. Stephen, one of the seven, is described by Luke as “full of grace and power” and he “did great wonders and signs among the peoples.” Apparently Stephen’s wondrous acts of compassion did not go over well with everyone in the wider community. Some members of the local synagogue tried to argue with Stephen but they couldn’t get passed his wisdom and his spirit. So they decided to secretly stir things up; get others involved, recruit some elders and scribes, and even convince some others to lie about Stephen. When they hauled him in front of the council the whole crowd was just staring at him. Scripture says that “they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
There before the council Stephen rises to speak and gives one of the longest speeches recorded in the New Testament. Stephen pretty much covers the history from Abraham to Moses, hardly new material for his listeners. It wasn’t until he got to Solomon that he crossed the line, telling the crowd that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands.” Stephen told them they were opposing the Holy Spirit, compared their behavior to their ancestors who killed the prophets, and accused them of not keeping the law. And continuing now from the text of Acts 7:54….
The similarities between the death of Stephen and the death of Jesus can’t be a coincidence. Accusations of blasphemy, manipulations of the truth, a stirred up crowd, harsh violence just outside the city, witnesses, a prayer to “receive my spirit”, a plea for God’s forgiveness; the reader of scripture is expected to connect the dots. A playbill reminder on the character of Saul is in order. The young man Saul offering coat check services during the stoning; Saul who approved of the killing of Stephen; Saul described in the next verses of Acts as “ravaging the church”, that Saul, that Saul, is soon to be known as the Apostle Paul. Nothing in the story of Paul’s conversion, as recorded in scripture, was intended to be subtle.
Stephen, Saul, and that crowd. When considering the context of the longer narrative that leads up to the brief death scene, it is clear that the perpetrators of the violence were upset with Stephen long before his sermon. First described as some who belonged to the synagogue and other of those from Cilicia and Asia, the apparently ordinary folks first took offense at Stephen’s wondrous, spirit-filled acts of mercy and compassion. Those who stood up and argued with Stephen, who secretly instigated, who stirred up the people, who brought in the elders and scribes, who recruited false witnesses, who ground their teeth at him, who covered their ears, who dragged him and stoned him, that crowd comes with a striking namelessness and a haunting predictability and jarring timelessness. With no Pilate or Herod to take on history’s glare, the crowd just sort of morphs into humanity’s ever-present and never-ending sinful thirst for hatred and violence. That crowd and those rocks. When it comes to the story of Stephen, the crowd just never goes away. That crowd. Those rocks.
Fifty years ago this month, May of 1961, the Freedom Rides were taking place in the southern States. At a church member’s recommendation, I saw the new documentary that is currently running on public television. It tells the incredible story of young black and white college students who rode Greyhound and Trailways buses into cities in the deep south; challenging segregation, Jim Crow, and public officials at every level of government. The courage and commitment to non-violence among the young students was more than what the Kennedy administration and some in the Civil Rights Movement themselves could tolerate. At one point, an advisor to the President tries in a phone conversation to warn a young female black leader of the students that someone was going to get killed. Her response was to let him know that they had all completed their wills prior to getting on the bus. An older white woman describes in tears how as a little girl she ran to give water to injured students after one the buses was burned and the crowd tried to lock them all inside the bus.
The documentary interviews many of those Freedom Riders alive today. Other members of the Civil Rights Movement are interviewed as well. The former governor of Alabama, John Patterson, speaks throughout the documentary. Just this last Friday he met with some of the Freedom Riders (including Congressman John Lewis) at the opening of a new museum at the former bus station in Montgomery. Not surprisingly, no members of the crowd, no perpetrators of the violence, no pipe wielding men, no police who looked the other way, none of them were interviewed. Just doing the math, there were a lot more people in the crowd than there were on the buses. There have to be plenty in that crowd still alive. They were, they are a nameless, faceless crowd. That crowd and their pipes, their rocks. The crowd just never goes away. That crowd. Those rocks.
The church today can look to Stephen and that comparison to Jesus, giving voice to all who have lived and died for the faith. Yes, a word for those who proclaim the gospel at great risk amid the kingdoms of this world. A word for those who live the gospel with wondrous, counter-cultural acts of mercy and compassion. A word for those who have experienced the indescribable presence of God; feasting on God’s glory even in death’s deepest valley. A word for all who have experienced the liberating, abundant life-giving gift of forgiving someone. Of course the church points to Stephen as we seek to proclaim and live the gospel.
The church today looks to Saul and his redemptive story of conversion, giving voice to the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to transform lives and renew hearts. A witness for passionate souls whose own stories of salvation made a difference in the world. A witness for lives rescued, relationships healed, souls made whole by nothing other than the grace and the power of God. Yes the church points to the Apostle formerly known as Saul as we yearn to proclaim and live the gospel; servants of the kingdom of God.
And the church today looks to the crowd and all those rocks, rising to give voice to the victory of resurrection power over the forces of death and violence and destruction. A word that says no to the sinful, hurtful, evil side of our humanity while saying yes to what Paul called the more excellent way, saying yes to what the prophet described as doing justice, and loving kindness and walking humbly with your God, saying yes to what Jesus taught as doing unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, and forgiving seventy times seven, embracing the one who was lost but now is found, and being a neighbor. The church and its witness to the life-giving, darkness conquering Spirit of the Living God offering words of peace and understanding in the face of hatred and bitterness, standing for non-violence even when aggression and bullying and terror seem to carry the day, boldly asking for plowshares instead of weapons and expecting leaders to build up rather than tear down and pleading for war to be no more because in the promise and power of the resurrection we dare hope and live for the peaceable kingdom of God. Yes the church stares down that crowd that stands there amid all those rocks as we know ourselves to be called to proclaim and live the gospel; disciples of Jesus Christ.
We were at birthday barbeque last night with four families celebrating the birthday of one of the boys my son’s age. Guess what we talked about most over dinner? Cathy and I found ourselves defining the word “rapture” at an interfaith table. Yes, the conversation was lighthearted but folks did want to understand where this all fit in to the Christian message. This is what makes the evening news? Goes viral on the internet? Has serious people talking, reporting, writing? Really? This is the Christian voice in the public square, at the table? I have decide it is much less a credit to Harold Camping and the Family Radio marketing machine and much more an indictment of the rest of us. A lament of the church’s feeble effort to proclaim and live the gospel, to give voice about really important things.
The voice of the church, the Christian message; it’s about more than one sermon or another, more than this denomination pronouncement or that denomination vote. It’s about those dinner parties, and those office conversations, and when families gather at the table, and when you and I find ourselves talking with others about important things. Instead of being asked about the rapture, what if the church’s voice was so crystal clear on serving the poor and feeding the hungry, that that’s what people asked us about? What if someone asked you at work about your Christian faith and the death of Osama Bin Laden and all that celebrating? What if the Christian Church’s collective voice was so unanimous against torture that someone would say to you, “well, you’re a Christian what do you believe about “enhance interrogation techniques?” Maybe this all too dicey and controversial and people will disagree and think its too political, but I for one, am tired answering for a Christian voice out there in the community that I don’t even recognize. Or to put it another way, can our faith help us to talk about important things, really important things?
Or about this? Can the church, can the Christian faith, can you and I, can we together look to that crowd and all their rocks because you they will always be there. And we proclaim that our hope in the resurrection, our identity as an Easter people, our life in the Risen Christ demands that we stare you down and say no to hatred and violence and all your rocks.
© 2011, Property of Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.