The sermon from Sunday, May 14, 2017 on Acts 7: 54-60
Let us back up a bit because this story appears to come out of nowhere.
As we discussed last week in a reading from chapter 2, early Christians were building community with one another and extending grace into the world.
We continue in the chapters that follow to hear about how the apostles fed and healed and confronted corrupt power.
The more the movement spread and the more that it became evident that the crucifixion of Jesus didn’t kill the Jesus movement, the bigger the challenge to the status quo and the more suppression of these voices became the norm.
As happens, as communities grew and new people came into the fold, we get new problems. We first encounter Stephen in chapter 6, where we get conflict because some widows are being treated better than others.
So the leadership comes up with a division of labor and Stephen – who is described as being a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit – is selected to keep doing the work of God in the community.
We hear that he is full of grace and power and doing good work. Then he is arrested – because he is challenging the powers that be – and they charge Stephen with blasphemy. People testify falsely against him. It’s hardly a fair proceeding.
Then Stephen responds – and his response takes up the whole of chapter 7 up until the passage we’ve just read. He speaks of the patriarchs of the faith – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon.
He comes to the end of this retracing of history and says Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands. He lays into them – You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?
All this leads up to their outrage in the passage we read tonight. Stephen has a vision of God and of Jesus. Such things are mighty rare. We see the introduction of Saul, whom we will come to know as Paul in Christian history – but not yet.
This incident marks the beginning of a whole new level of persecution of the Christians – and at the same time a whole new spread of people out to preach the Gospel, the defiant, spirit-filled, hope-filled Gospel. It’s the turning point that sends the apostles into new territories – beyond Judea and into more of the lands of the Gentiles. This is a shift in the book of Acts and a turning point in the early church.
Stephen is known as the first of the followers of Jesus to die for his faith and his actions in following Jesus.
Stephen had a faith he believed was worth dying for.
He is surely not the last. Christians were regularly persecuted and put to death for another 150 years until Christianity became the religion of the empire rather than its target.
Through the centuries, dissenters and prophets – those willing to confront power in its many guises – have been silenced and killed.
There is no shortage in our time.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a faith he believed was worth dying for. Though he was living safely in the United States as the Nazis gained power, he returned to his native Germany to confront Nazi tyranny as a pastor within the Lutheran church. He was executed in 1945 at Flossenburg concentration camp for his efforts to bring down Hitler.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a faith he believed was worth dying for. He was killed in the midst of a campaign to bring about economic justice for poor people and peace for black and brown people around the globe.
Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador had a faith he believed was worth dying for. He was killed in 1980 by the Salvadoran military – by people trained in the United States – as he celebrated mass, as he yet again spoke out about the needs of the poor in his country and against their oppression by the rich.
Sister Dorothy Stang had a faith she believed worth dying for. An American nun living in Brazil, she fought to save the land and the rights of poor people in Amazon. For that work she was gunned down in 2005 by people making a killing off illegal timber harvest.
Faith for justice is not limited to Christians – Malcolm X, Mohandas Gandhi, and literally countless men and women across the centuries, some well-known and some whose names died with them – they all had a faith they believed worth dying for.
This sounds bleak. We could stand here in this moment and hear only the grief in this. Be not mistaken that there is plenty of grief in this, in the sacrifice of these precious lives.
We honor loss, however, by moving on with the work. We honor the legacy by going forward. There’s not a one of us in here who is looking die for our faith, I would imagine. But every one of us in here can be moved by that same commitment, that same kind of faith – the kind of faith that moves mountains if you start only with with a mustard seed.
Every one of us can live according to a faith that is worth dying for. The faith of Stephen and King and Bonhoeffer and Stang represents a whole-hearted commitment to life – to all life.
It’s an honor of the living in the face of death, a warmth of the spirit in the face of the commercialization of every aspect of daily existence, an embrace of healing love in the face of heartbreaking loss.
It’s courage even when we are afraid. It’s sustained commitment even when we are tired. It is hope even when the world seems hopeless. It’s a reminder to forgive, a reminder to speak truth, a reminder to turn to the face of God.
Stephen teaches us that we are to follow in the ways of Jesus, to walk in that courage and that hope and that joy, even up to the point where it costs us our lives.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his most famous work speaks of the cost of discipleship. We see in these lives we’re talking about today what that cost may be.
I suggest to you however that there can be an even greater cost – and that is to live a life untouched by the call for God’s justice and mercy. When we look at who is lost in this world today it is people for whom the whole notion of spirit is something that can be purchased, but not embodied.
Our culture teaches the Gospel of the dollar, the Gospel of the Gross National Product, the Gospel of billions funnelled to defense contractors and thousands of lives sacrificed on battlefields in senseless wars, the Gospel of imprisonment and disenfranchisement, the Gospel of made up beauty and slick technological toys, the Gospel of glass tower temples where we worship material acquisition.
It’s one thing to lose your life. It’s a whole other thing to lose your soul.
We today as a city and as a state and as a nation and as a global community have indeed lost our soul. Or at least that’s what’s being pitched to us – a life of seductive prosperity stirred with all-consuming fear, the kind of fear that keeps us separate from the terrifying so-called Other.
Fear that comes bearing flaming torches in the night to protect Confederate monuments or the obscene application of political power to strengthen the system of mass incarceration while gutting the accountability of the powerful. We have reason to be afraid.
But we have a choice.
There is a commitment to the spirit of life and joy and compassion and decency and love, a commitment to wholeness and integrity and respect, a commitment to the radical witness embodied by Jesus – and by Stephen in his following of Jesus up unto death, with his last words – like Jesus – those of forgiveness.
It is not only a faith worth dying for. It is a faith worth living for – and living in and living through.
We have to pray ourselves up. We have to breathe through our anger and our sorrow. We have to summon up this spirit of witness so that we can bear witness ourselves to how we all might live. We have to love one another – and we find that love here in this place, in this church. We practice that love here, here in this place of radical difference. But it doesn’t stay here. We don’t keep it here for us.
That kind of faith – the kind of faith that’s worth living and dying for – is so filled with love that we don’t keep it within ourselves. That’s where the love of the neighbor and even of the enemy comes from. That kind of love, that kind of joy fills us up and overflows from us. It’s God’s love working through us.
And we don’t always come by it easily. There are days when it definitely does not come easily.
But it’s the continual call, the constant invitation, the enduring hope, the possibility of real, diverse, inclusive community, the genuine alignment of our hearts with the spirit of justice and mercy in the world.
That is a faith worth dying for. It’s the faith that’s taught us by the incarnational example of Jesus Christ. It’s a faith worth reaching for and resting in, a faith worth embracing and living.
May we each find that and feel that in our own lives.