Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year A)

Sermons on this passage require preachers to inject some storytelling into their messages.

May 22, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 7:55-60

Sermons on this passage require preachers to inject some storytelling into their messages.

It’s one of the lectionary’s more bizarre selections, and that’s no slight honor. The main problem is that the action described in these six verses–the gruesome murder of Stephen at the hands of an angry mob–is entirely dislocated from the situation that triggers it. It’s foolish to expect that everyone will know what you are talking about if you just casually refer to “Stephen’s sermon” or “the story of the church’s first martyr.” For this passage to mean anything at all during a church service, you need to flesh out the wider story, explaining who this Stephen is, who his assailants are, and what he does to offend them so.

The next challenge is to fill in that backstory without embarking into a detailed explanation of Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:2-53), which is long and whose theological rhetoric is meandering at best. The basic point to establish, if you’re trying to be mindful of the lectionary’s overall perspective on the Easter season, is that the biblical traditions about Easter and its proclamation are not all about victory, wonder, and rejoicing. Stephen’s story constructs a grim memorial to remind us that the stakes are high. Jesus may be Lord, but he will still be resisted. His resurrection does not stop the human race–including religious people–from spilling blood and resisting the prophetic remonstrations of God’s spokespeople.

No one pages through the New Testament without repeatedly reading about violent resistance. The story of Stephen gives us much to consider, lest we forget the atrocities that are part of the Christian legacy–those inflicted upon people of faith, as well as those inflicted by them.

The Art of Dying

Another challenge facing preachers, made worse by the stark brevity of these stripped-from-context verses, is navigating the odd contrast between Stephen’s serenity and the unspeakable violence. The temptation is to soft-pedal one in favor of an excessive focus on the other. I’ll say more on this contrast in a moment. First, consider the portrayal of Stephen.

Certainly Acts presents Stephen as the prototypical martyr–not a rogue proclaimer of the gospel but an agent of God, guided by the Holy Spirit. His vision of the resurrected and exalted Christ confirms a key point of his sermon (as well as Paul’s sermon to the Athenians in next week’s reading from Acts 17:22-31)–that God is not confined to a particular place (7:48).1 It also makes certain that Stephen himself will be vindicated, because Jesus is.2 Finally, in an exemplary way Stephen shows forth Christ through the grace he exhibits, both praying for his killers as Jesus did (Luke 23:34) and likewise dying faithfully (Luke 23:46; Psalm 31:5).

A preacher therefore might very well compose a narrative sermon about Stephen, creatively walking a congregation through his story, beginning with his selection as one of the Seven (Acts 6:1-6) and continuing into his public ministry as a man “full of grace and power” who does “great wonders and signs among the people,” according to Acts 6:8. (Wasn’t this guy supposed to be waiting on tables? Look how in Acts God finds unexpected ways for the word to be proclaimed!) According to the account of Stephen’s death, he never stops bearing witness to Jesus; he does so up to his dying breath. And Jesus brings him comfort, even as his life comes to a terrifying end.

But if we dwell too intently on images of a smiley Stephen, all pious and cherub-like, we risk passing over the ugliness of a crowd crushing a man’s skull, one hurled rock at a time.

If we make this passage only about Stephen, we might neglect to notice the stones littering the ground around us, which either implicate us or cause us to cry out for deliverance from cycles of violence.

The Art of Killing

Remember, the people who kill Stephen are neither the local hooligans nor the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to a cross. They are, ostensibly at least, upstanding members of religious communities: regular members of synagogues, elders, religious professionals, priests. They are guardians of vital traditions.3 They are important people who possess a lot of leverage in religious discourse; political discourse, too.

But why do these people go to such an extreme? Are they just terrible people? True, he issues some pointed accusations, and he challenges the theological basis for the centrality of the Jerusalem temple. But where did they ever get the idea that stoning was a justified response to anything?

Oh, yeah.

This is hardly the only stoning that scripture describes, and like the others it issues a stark reminder of the potential for violence in religiously-influenced conflict. It’s the kind of violence that the Bible does not allow us to disown, entirely. The old canards don’t work, either. We cannot make this or other texts say: “Old Testament, temples, law, violence: bad. New Testament, Jesus, grace, gentleness: good.”

And so another homiletical possibility emerges, one that makes us ask hard questions about a church history and a contemporary society replete with oppression and violence. How do these terrible proclivities of human society connect to a story about a cross and empty tomb? Does the Easter message, as we retell and reenact it, merely give us one more example of humanity’s propensity for violence? Does Easter give a warrant to hope for an end to bloodshed, or does it reiterate that faithfulness to the gospel will only provoke more of the same? More disturbing, does our Christian witness imitate what it suffers, by promising violent retribution for those who oppose the gospel?

These questions are not easily answered, especially when we admit that the New Testament belongs to a time period in which publically identifying oneself as a Christian was often far more frightening than most people reading this commentary can imagine. The questions become more difficult to navigate when we acknowledge that comfortable, middle-class Christianity currently exercises an unduly weighty influence on how the faith is articulated, lived, and valued (as well as on how the Bible is interpreted).

Preachers who want to look honestly at the uglier sides of this text have at their fingertips many stories capable of provoking the uncomfortable questions. There are stories around us that demonstrate humanity’s reliance on violence to protect our fears and ignorance (see: Matthew Shepard, plus scads of racially motivated lynchings). There are stories of violence as the hopeless expressions of a shattered soul (see: the most recent shootings in schools and workplaces). There are stories that remind us of some of the deepest challenges facing local and global politics (see: the January shootings in Tucson, Arizona, and the Taliban’s killing of Christian aid workers last August). There are stories that illustrate violence’s effectiveness as ruling powers’ defense against the radical claims of the gospel (see: Jean Donovan and the three other churchwomen brutally killed in El Salvador in 1980).

Then there are the traditions, rights, and prerogatives–religious, political, economic, and social–that we insist on maintaining, even if they require us to eliminate someone in the process.

If the Easter story means anything, it had better mean that God promises an end to this way of doing business. And that God can save us from ourselves.

1 For discussion of the ascended Jesus “at the right hand of God,” see my commentary on Acts 1:6-14, published for the seventh Sunday of Easter.

2Stephen’s story also confirms a number of promises Jesus made about life in the wake of the cross. Jesus (Luke 21:12-15) and the Holy Spirit (Luke 12:11-12) will equip his followers to bear faithful witness before hostile audiences. Some of his followers will be killed for their witness (Luke 21:16).

3 It’s also the case that Acts uses this scene, which serves as the capstone to three Jerusalem trial scenes, to confirm the Jerusalem-based Jewish leadership as theomachoi, people at war against God (Acts 5:39).