Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Acts 7:51—8:la
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
—Acts 7:59
7:51 "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it."
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56"Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.
8:1 And Saul approved of their killing him.
The stories of the Gospels and of Acts are written so that we can see the mountains, plains, wilderness, and Samaritans by the side of the road in the text. In this passage, we not only see people murder Stephen; we see the looks on their faces and feel their burning resentment of Stephen. One would think that we would stay away from this passage. But as the death of Jesus is echoed here in Stephen's death, we witness something beautiful, true, and good.
Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and thus enabled to see divine things. While those around him "became enraged and ground their teeth," he saw not the end of his life but the ground of all life: "he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (v. 55). He saw Jesus resurrected, Lord over all, in unity with God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This passage is often referred to as the martyrdom of Stephen. The word martyr is one we should use carefully, because it is a serious word. To be a martyr is to be a witness. Stephen is a martyr because he was killed for bearing witness to his faith in Jesus Christ. This has been happening to Christians over the centuries. When we remember the stories of martyrs, we rejoice in their faith and courage. In fact, it is their absolute conviction of the joy of the gospel that fills their hearts with courage to proclaim that gospel regardless of the enemies who are present.
Unfortunately, the word martyr is used casually even by Christians. Some, thinking that Christians no longer dominate United States culture, have used the word martyr to describe themselves, even when there isn't a hint of physical danger. Complaining about the way things are is very different from being killed for proclaiming the gospel.
On the other hand, there are Christians who have done brave things and died for them but who are not Christian martyrs. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is often called a martyr because after doing what he understood he needed to do as a disciple of Jesus Christ, he was arrested and put in various Nazi prison camps where he was hanged one week before the Allies liberated the camps.
Bonhoeffer was not arrested for being a Christian. He was arrested because he participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. However, Bonhoeffer's courage points us back to Stephen's, and we can start to see how devotion to Jesus Christ reorganizes our priorities. Bonhoeffer understood that he had a unique place in society—he was well-educated, unmarried, and connected to the underground intelligence movement—and thus a unique responsibility. He knew that murder was wrong. He did what he thought he was called to do and left the justification of his act up to God.
"Telling the truth" is one of the best excuses we Christians use to be unkind, since we think of telling the truth as morally right no matter what truth we're telling. But claiming that we are speaking the truth when we are being mean and arrogant turns the gospel of Jesus Christ into a joke. Why should anyone believe that "God is love" when we show disdain for their thoughts or opinions? In Eph. 4, we are exhorted to "speak the truth in love."
This shows us that hypocrisy can go in at least two directions. Stephen shows us both by holding fast to the truth of Christ. First, he does speak the truth, even though he would have gotten along a lot better with people if he had soft-pedaled his message. To be faithful to the truth of Christ means speaking when necessary. Stephen did this in order to refute lies and hypocrisy of the council who claimed to be people of faith but who had turned against God.
Second, Stephen speaks the truth in love, bearing witness to Jesus who had been sent into the world God loves so much not to condemn it, but to save it (John 3:16-17). We know he speaks in love because his last words are selfless words of forgiveness.
Consider how Stephen's witness has been passed to us today. The word tradition means "to hand over." When we teach others about our faith, we hand it over to them and help them to hold it in their own hands. The words and deeds of our faith need to bear witness to the truth in love; otherwise we are handing over a hollow gospel that does not share the good news of our salvation through the love of God.
Stephen allowed himself to be formed into the truth of Christ by his faith tradition and by the Spirit. When we allow ourselves to be formed into truth as Stephen was, we speak the truth in love, no matter the opposition. This means that we, like Stephen, are to be loving and daring in our witness to Christ. We forgive even those who oppose us, and we hand over a tradition of gospel joy.
Boldness requires risk. We take risks when we declare our faith one way or another without considering the cost. Small acts can be bold. We can also be bold in a louder volume, but our boldness will always be unique to who we are as Christ's particular disciples. The Samaritan woman at the well boldly spoke to Jesus, a man and a Jew. Moses boldly argued with God and talked God into a change of mind. We all know people that have been bold when they were heckled on the street or brave as they continued daily life after a cancer diagnosis.
Being bold, as Stephen shows us, is being a Christian no matter what. This doesn't mean we're always perfect Christians. Any situation in which we find ourselves is a situation in which we are called to be Christian no matter what happens. We are bold simply because we speak the truth in love as Stephen did.
You have particular circumstances in your life. How do your situations require Christian boldness?
What does it mean to you to "speak the truth" and to do so "in love"? What particular events would you refer to in order to describe how you were a bold witness to the gospel of Christ, in word or deed?
In what ways do you seek to be formed by the Holy Spirit into the joyful daring that was active in Stephen?
Mighty God, we are bold to approach you for forgiveness, and we are bold to go forth as your servants. Form us into truth and love that we might pass on the gospel of Christ in the way we speak and act. Amen.

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From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

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