Commentary on Acts 7:55-60
This is a disturbing story. Stephen speaks truth to power and is stoned to death. The post-Easter world is not warm and fuzzy. Our Easter trumpets are jarringly silenced by shocking human brutality.
It’s a tough passage to preach. Check out all the great commentaries from past years on this site. For this commentary, I’ll focus on one theme: the gaze (atenzio), but with a twist. Invite your congregation to explore the connection between prophetic speaking and a gaze fixed beyond the noise, a gaze fixed on Jesus.
Stephen “gazed to heaven” (verse 55) and invited others to gaze with him, using the imperative “Look” (verse 56). This gaze (atenizo) is more than mere physical sight. It implies a deeper perception, an intentional focus of awareness on Jesus—“he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (verse 55). While everyone around him is upset, caught up in the drama, outraged, Stephen maintained a steady focus beyond the fray, beyond the noise, his eyes fixed on Jesus. Stephen gazes, not to some escapist other-world, but to the reality of Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Stephen’s gaze here recalls Jesus’ gospel refrain about having “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” In the gospels, Jesus invites listeners to intentional awareness that God is up to something in the midst of everyday life, even right here! This way of seeing continually expands one’s frame of reference, freeing one from the bondage of reactivity to the latest drama or from defensive postures. In one sense, it is as much a way of being as a way of seeing.
Stephen’s gaze is a prophetic and defiant act. This kind of gaze refuses to hand over one’s consciousness to the loudest voice or the most frightening bully. His gaze is a prophetic stance that proclaims the reign of God, the kin-dom, right here and right now, even in the face of an angry mob who wants to dominate his gaze and colonize his consciousness. Eyes fixed on Jesus liberate our attention from those who wish to dominate it.
The prophetic gaze
What is the connection between speaking truth to power and this gaze upon the glory of God? Perhaps this story of Stephen shows us the prophetic gaze. Stephen has just spoken hard truths to his leaders, some of whom are surely his friends. His account spares no feelings as he details the people’s disobedience in resisting the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:2-53).
The prophetic gaze does not shy away from injustice, or gloss over transgression. The prophetic gaze does not avoid the painful truth. However, its eye is NOT focused on the transgressors. This may be counterintuitive for many contemporary Christians.
Whereas so much of our own prophetic speech today is focused on “them,” whoever the political or theological opponents are, Stephen’s prophetic gaze is not on the transgressors. Rather, Stephen’s prophetic eye is on “the heavens” or, we might say, “the kin-dom” or “the reign of God” or “God’s life here and now.” Stephen refuses to give the angry mob the power of center stage and reframes his own experience within the redemptive work of God. The transforming turn in verse 55 is toward the wider, more true reality. This changes everything!
Stephen’s gaze allows him to see “the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (verse 55). If he focused solely on the Sanhedrin, indeed he might be paralyzed with terror or outrage or sorrow. But because he continues to focus on God-with-us even in this horror, he is steady, he is clear, he continues to bear witness to the love of Jesus. Even as he is being stoned, his words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (verse 60) reveal he is rooted in love. This is what radical, prophetic defiance looks like. Focused on Jesus, we are freed from blaming, defending, explaining or winning.
Of course, we can decline the invitation to see. The Sanhedrin refused to see what Stephen was talking about and “covered their ears against him” (verse 57). Their anger, some translations say “seething,” tells us that he hit a nerve.
How might we hear an invitation to this sort of gaze? How might we orient ourselves toward this kind of seeing? The kind that says, “Look! See the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God!”
We are trapped in cycles of reactivity, eager to focus on our opponents, to prove we are right. Our gaze too often is fixed on those wrong-doers, or people who vote wrongly or misinterpret the Bible or bully others. We give them our power by focusing our energies on them, allowing them to completely occupy and preoccupy our gaze.
Stephen shows us another way. If, instead, we got curious about what God is up to in all of this, what might we see? If we turned our gaze to Jesus, what might we learn? What larger, more expansive vision of God’s redemptive life might we gain?
The prophetic gaze requires imagination. We must cultivate our capacity to imagine God’s kin-dom, as Jesus did again and again. He gives us many images and stories to help us expand our prophetic gaze, to see the kin-dom at hand, among us now.
Invite your congregation to imagine with you how to wrest their attention away from those they deem wicked and instead fix their gaze on Jesus. Offer a story, image or example of “seeing the glory of God’ in the midst of this very place.
May 7, 2023