Acts 7:55 – 8:1a
55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he (Stephen) 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.1And Saul approved of their killing him.
Let us begin with prayer: Lord of creation, we come to you with open hearts and eager ears. Increase our understanding of your Word and gift us with faith to courageously live into your claim on our lives. In Christ, we pray. Amen.
I have always thought the most horrifying text in all of scripture is Genesis 22, the story of Abraham and Isaac, a story in which God seems to allow a devoted father to believe for three horrible days that his beloved son must die. And worst of all, Abraham will be the one to kill his son.
My question for the longest time was this – what kind of God would do that?
Eventually I realized that the story of Abraham and Isaac is not a story about a cruelty of God or even the faithfulness of Abraham.
I think the story says quite the opposite. I think it says violence is not inevitable, and certainly not God’s will.
Violence and vengeance are terrible choices human beings make on our own.
Violence and vengeance break God’s heart.
So much so, that God will provide us a way out, even it comes in the form of a ram in a thicket as it did for Abraham.
God always provides a peaceable solution if we have imagination and courage enough to see it. And believe in the power of love to cast out our fears.
Imagination and courage have often been in short supply over the course of human history. Too often, humans choose violence.
And when our imagination fails us, and our courage is nowhere to be found, God does what God always does – God redeems our unholy and bloody messes.
We see that truth most clearly on the cross when resurrection ultimately transforms the worst of what humans are capable of. When we are at our worst, God is at God’s best.
And today we see God’s redemptive work in another pretty horrible story, this time in the Book of Acts and the story of Stephen’s stoning.
At first glance, there’s absolutely nothing good to say about this text. Stoning is a barbaric and horrible act. If we were present that day while Stephen was being stoned to death, we’d have to avert our eyes.
So there isn’t much to celebrate in this story.
Stephen was a devoted apostle, whose primary responsibility in the early church was to care for vulnerable people who could not care for themselves, like widows and orphans.
All of this good work got Stephen into a boatload of trouble with the religious authorities. Stephen’s speech during his trial is what sealed the deal. It’s a long speech that you can read for yourself in Acts 7, but the long and the short of what Stephen said to the religious leaders is that God’s chosen people were rebellious from the start and were still behaving badly. Stephen recounted Israel’s long history of being stiff-necked and mean. Stephen said they had never met a prophet that didn’t want to push off a cliff or run out of town or crucify.
In other words, Stephen spoke the honest truth, just like Jesus, and experienced a similar result.
Stephen was only the first of many early Jesus followers who met violent ends. In fact, after Stephen was executed, many of the new Christian/Jews converts fled from Jerusalem and scattered like so many fertile seeds across the landscape of the Roman Empire.
Over time, Christians were no longer the persecuted ones, but became the ones doing the persecuting. And as history has taught us, horrific violence against individuals, communities, tribes and whole countries has been committed in the name of one god or another has been raging ever since. Atrocities have been inflicted by people of faith, as well as on them. The bloody result of religious zealotry looks pretty much the same regardless of which god is being vindicated.
I hate this story about Stephen’s death, but I also think there may be a sliver of light here that looks an awful lot like grace here if you look closely.
He’s standing on the sideline, with his eyes wide open, watching every moment of Stephen’s agony. Did you notice that guy named Saul?
Saul is there on the scene, helpfully holding the coats of the guys stoning Stephen. Because, you know, stoning a young healthy man like Stephen takes a while. Better to strip down, because stoning is hard, sweaty work even with a cooperative victim like Stephen.
And of course, Saul heartily approves of this execution. He loves it. It could be that Saul even had something to do with making sure this execution would happen. Saul not only approves of the killing of this one particular troublemaker, but he will go on to ravage followers of Jesus by entering house after house to drag off men and women, committing them to prison or worse.
Saul is every inch the true believer, a real zealot in maintaining the purity of the Jewish faith. Saul is the most persistent of persecutors and continues to be so until Acts chapter 9 when he will have his life turned upside down by the murdered Christ himself.
After that, Saul is no longer who he was; he becomes the apostle who will no longer measure truth by how closely it’s protected and guarded by religious insiders. In fact, Paul breaks open the message of Jesus to everyone he can get to listen to him – Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.
Despite all the violence he committed against Stephen and others in his past, Paul is finally able to see God’s better way. Paul finally saw the way out of a pattern of violence. God had been waiting for him discover the peaceful love of Jesus Christ.
So there is light in this story after all. We see it in the Christ-like forgiveness demonstrated by Stephen and how his words were absorbed through the eyes and ears of Saul. Perhaps the seeds of Saul’s transformation were sowed right there, in that horrible moment where God took the heartbreak of human violence and transformed it into something life-giving that would open up the gospel beyond what anyone could imagine.
I’ve been looking for that blinding flash of light in South Sudan over the past year. I know it’s there, but man, is it hard to see.
We didn’t know it at the time, but when my colleagues and I went to South Sudan in January of 2015, we were there during a very brief moment in time when the country was not exactly safe, but secure enough for us to be in Juba with our partners in the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, and travel with them to Yei for a retreat at RECONCILE, a ministry and training center for peacemakers.
After we left, things really began to fall apart for our brothers and sisters in South Sudan. All of the hopefulness we experienced while worshipping and praying and singing and making plans for peace ran up against a steadily increasing pattern of violence and starvation that looks an awful lot like deliberate genocide at this moment in time.
Just this week, we received a letter from the general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan:
As each of you is aware of what is going on in South Sudan the
situation is going from bad to worse in South Sudan in general.
Famine is a big threat in the whole Nation even within Juba town the
capital city. Many are dying in their houses.
Insecurity is everywhere and thousands are fleeing to the neighboring countries of Sudan, Ehtiopia, Kenya,Congo, and Uganda.
War is everywhere between ethnic groups, tribes by tribes and within
tribes themselves. Killing, looting, raping, and other human rights abuse is common.
Within Juba, those who were brought from others areas are living under severe conditions because of rains and lack of food.
Shelters and others human needs are needed urgently.
Finally, no good thing can come from South Sudanese themselves — we need
the international intervention like sending more troops for civilians’ protection.
We also received these words from another pastor in South Sudan, Thomas Tut:
What we want to hear – someone praying for us. Not money, food or anything. The Church in South Sudan needs prayers. What we are facing now in our country we have never experienced. The foundations of our nation have shaken and the walls have been broken down. There are no boundaries for the church to protect the believers from hatred, tribalism, rape, killing and many other evil things. I can’t finish the list.
But God is there and we are hoping through your prayers the morning will come very soon but we don’t know when.
The people in South Sudan do not know when morning will come.
You and I, from our privileged Western perspective, have no idea when morning will come either.
In fact, the situation in South Sudan is one of those situations we have to admit we can’t fix. We can pray and we can advocate and we can write letters and we can support our PCUSA mission co-workers if the situation is ever stable enough again for them to go back into the country. But quite simply, the only power that will disrupt the violence in South Sudan is the kind of power that turned Saul into Paul.
But where I see light is in the testimony of my South Sudanese brothers and sisters who continually lift up their strong confidence that God is present with them. If they can trust that the living Christ is with them, perhaps what I need to do is learn to trust in the same way.
Stephen had his head bashed in with rocks thrown at him by his own people. He said, “Lord don’t hold this sin against them!” as he died.
Jesus was crucified, his body ripped apart by his own people. He said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” as he died.
Through this horrible civil war, the Presbyterian church in South Sudan has been a tireless voice for peace among all people. When we were in South Sudan, we spent 5 days at RECONCILE, a ministry of many faith traditions in South Sudan with this purpose – to bring healing to a country filled with people suffering from PTSD after decades of war and to teach the way of peace-making that can help break the cycle of violence. Those seeds of peacemaking that were planted by RECONCILE in South Sudan over the past decades cannot be blown away by the current struggle. Those seeds will take root, down deep, and Saul’s will become Paul’s, and forgiveness will take the place of violence.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, I believe God’s peace will come to South Sudan.
The great preacher, Fred Craddock, once said: “All the way to the cross Jesus will be trying to get those who think ‘where the messiah is, there is no misery,’ to accept a new perspective – ‘where there is misery, there is the messiah.”
That’s the only hope I can offer you. I know it doesn’t sound like much. But it is as close to the truth as I can muster, and it is what I believe:
That God is present in South Sudan, perhaps more present than any of us can imagine. With each unnecessary death in that beautiful and troubled country, God’s heart breaks because we still haven’t seen the ram in the thicket, the blinding light on the Damascus road, the path of peace away from violence. God will keep planting seeds of peace through our prayers and in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in South Sudan. The Holy Spirit is persistent in pursuing even those who seem irredeemable, including even those who are causing the suffering. God does not give up hoping for transformation of even the hardest hearts, even if those hard hearts belong to you and me.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
For more information about South Sudan, see this recent series of reports from PBS: