Acts 6:7-12, 7:1-2, 51-58
As we continue our way through Acts, we’re starting to understand the story of the early Christians better. News of Jesus’ death and resurrection was spreading. But, the good news wasn’t good news for all. It was bad news for anyone in power, for anyone who abuses the weak and it was bad news for anyone who still believed that salvation was obtained by keeping the law. Jesus message was threat poised to deconstruct the entire Jewish religious system.
The Disciples were feeling the weight of a growing ministry were being stretched far to thin. And as Peter spoke about last week, the disciples recognized these shortcomings and appointed 7 men, who were faithful and wise, to distribute food, and aid them in ministry. One of the seven was Stephen, who is described as being full of God’s grace and power.
But, Stephen’s actions were upsetting and disrupting the status quo. If the message he was living and speaking were true, those who held religious authority and power were being rendered obsolete. The gospel was for everyone, and you didn’t need to do anything to get it. These new Christians were stirring up trouble everywhere they went. And because of his actions, Stephen is dragged before the religious authorities and put on trial. These are the same people Jesus would have had run-ins with. They were trying to control the unrest sowed by Christ’s death and resurrection and Stephen wasn’t making it easy for them.
So place yourself in Stephen’s shoes, standing in front of the court being asked to give account for your actions, how would you respond? Knowing that the wrong answer would surely result in death.
Though we skipped a large portion of it in our readings, just because it’s really long, Stephen’s answer is not what you would expect. Instead just admitting fault or denying the charges all together, he goes on a storytelling rampage, which ends with the brilliant line from our second reading:
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”
They had physically made a covenant with God, but, not spiritually. The rules that governed their relationship with God, had become more important than the relationship itself.
So let’s back-track a bit to see what led to such a spirited ending. Keep in mind that Stephen was speaking to Jews who would have known the Torah inside and out. But they had never heard their history retold like this. Stephen retells the story of the people of God from a new perspective, God fulfills His promise and His people reject His messengers. He’s exposing what they have tried to so hard to hide; the people of God have a habit of refusing to listen to the prophets of God.
I think this a problem that we all struggle with. We tend to avoid perspectives that challenge our worldview. We tend to look at stories and history from perspectives that benefit us. And because of this, opposing worldviews will often shock us into a state of ignorant disbelief. We place our hands over our ears, and stomp our feet until it goes away. But, how many revolutionary ideas have resulted because someone brought a new perspective to the table? Think about people like, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, William Wilberforce, and Martin Luther King, all revolutionaries who exposed the systems they opposed as corrupt and unjust.
Stephen faced right into a story that people were comfortable with and disrupted it. He reveals a truth that many simply ignored. Time after time, God sent a message through the prophets and no one listened. And nothing has changed. They still aren’t listening and they’re still missing out on what God has for them. They’ve got it all wrong and this absolutely infuriates them. They are pissed! So angry in fact, that the passage says they were gnashing their teeth. That’s the same language the bible uses for what Hell is going to be like! Imagine it, the top lawmakers and judges with their hands over their ears, yelling at the top of their lungs. It’s pretty childish.
Q: When have you put up walls or covered your ears to avoid hearing something from a different perspective? Why?
If there is one thing we can learn from this story, it is that we need to learn to embrace and listen to other people’s perspectives, even if challenges everything we believe. God speaks through difference. Just look at the offensive stories Jesus tells: whores and thieves, Samaritans and party boys. They are all key figures in the Kingdom of God. The hard parables and messages of the Bible are not easy. They challenge us. That’s why we continue to wrestle with them. This is an important part of our identity as Christians. We continually seek renewal and enlightenment from the stories many of us have read hundreds of times.
Part of being a community is talking about the hard stuff. It’s about questioning what we believe and why we believe it. It’s why we are urged by the apostle Paul to “Be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” It’s not just a one time thing. Renewal is a process, it doesn’t just happen, it happens. If we are just sweeping things under a rug and pretending they don’t exist, we run the risk of becoming a community defined by what we aren’t and what we don’t do, instead of a community that is defined by who we are and what we do. We listen, we talk, we learn, we educate each other. It’s all part of how people grow and how God’s Kingdom grows.