Easter as an ultimate answer to sin and violence feels far away this week. The lectionary is ruthless–zeroing in on hurtling rocks striking Stephen upside the head. The violence is in response to Stephen’s scathing sermon delivered to members of the ‘synagogue of the Freedmen.’ The fiery message was replete with accusations, calling its hearers: stiff necked people, uncircumcised (in the heart and ears), opponents of the Holy Spirit, descendents of prophet persecutors, betrayers and murderers of the Righteous One, and violators of the Law. And the stones flew. Preaching (real preaching) is a dangerous profession.
Stephen is strangely sanguine while facing certain death, “”Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” The frenzied mob refuses to hear Stephen’s words. They cover their ears and shout and rush toward hate. There is no Easter miracle in the works for Stephen. The Holy Spirit that prompted his sermon does not give poor Stephen ‘Samson-like’ strength to fend off his aggressors, and after his brutal death there is no third day resurrection. Stephen died–the first Christian martyr. He remains dead.
A small recompense–the attackers laid their coats (likely to get more force for their throws) at the feet of Saul. Saul approved. The God of deep providence, in the midst of violence, is reverse engineering the one who will take the gospel of peace to the world.
A subtle grace–Stephen invites Jesus to receive his Spirit. One martyr to another.
A strange forgiveness–“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. The final breath of Christian life is undeserved grace. Freely we have received, freely give.
**An excellent and readable commentary on the theme of religious violence found in this text is available here.
Psalm 31 contains one of the ‘seven last sayings’ of the cross–“Into your hand I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:5)–which also is a close parallel to Stephen’s final words. When Jesus utters these words on the cross he utters them to his ‘father.’ When Stephen asks for his spirit to be received he makes the request of Jesus, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
In whole, Psalm 31 is an individual Psalm of lament seeking the help of God in a time of trouble. The scattered verses selected for us from Psalm 31 seem a strange response to Acts 7:55-60. Do not the psalmist’s requests “deliver me” and “save me” go unanswered in the tragic story of Stephen? Yes, they do. Our earthly perspective, however, fails to account for the privileged place given the martyrs of early Christianity (c.f. John 12:25, Acts 22:20 [NIV], Revelation 6:9-11). Stephen died, but he was heard by the Lord, and his faith was considered exemplary.
Never-the-less, it is a tricky business soft peddling martyrdom, or suggesting that it is a worthy path to glory. Glory and violence were not meant to be bed fellows. My reading of the biblical text does not assert martyrdom as a path to glory, but it does assert hope in a God who provides a final justice even beyond the grave. Easter is the first fruits of justice. We eagerly wait in hope for the full harvest. It is this hope that allows us to say with the psalmist, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”
“Grow into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2b). It is an imperative the disciples addressed in 1 Peter are helpless to achieve on their own. Indeed, these disciples are like ‘newborn infants’ groping around for pure spiritual milk. They are guided by reflex to the divine bosom, and there they receive life from the self-giving God. They are nothing, and they are being made into something.
Switching metaphors the author of 1 Peter equates the disciples of the diaspora (c.f. 1:1) with ‘living stones’ used to construct a house. Again these disciples–this pile of rubble–can do nothing on their own: “Let yourselves be built…”. God places the living stones, one on top of another, firmly, and squarely on a solid cornerstone–Jesus Christ. This cornerstone provides support for all the other stones. Those who are not part of the house are amazed by this, for this cornerstone was thought to be no good, and was discarded by seasoned and reputable builders. Now these same builders look at this new house and they stumble in disbelief. A pile of useless rock (nothing) is now a house (something).
“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (2:10). The exiled disciples stood amazed at what God had done. They were the church of the misfits, the fellowship of rejects, a kingdom of fools. They were scattered disciples living in the dispersion. And now they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9). And because they were nothing and now they are something, they live to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9).
“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (14:14). The promise comes on the heels of heavy dialog between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is leaving. The disciples are confused. “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (14:1). Jesus assures them that he is going to prepare a place for the disciples in his father’s house (where there are many rooms). Jesus tell them “you know the way to the place where I am going” (14:4). Thomas (always Thomas) objects: “Lord…how can we know the way?” (14:5). Jesus responds, “I am the way…” (14:6).
Jesus tells them more, “If you know me, you will know my Father also” (14:7). Philip wants more, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8) Jesus gives more, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9).
Twice Jesus makes assertions: You know the way, you know my Father. Twice the disciples counter: How can we know the way, show us the Father. Twice Jesus responds: I am the way, whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
The veracity of Jesus’ claims and assertions is in the signs [the works of God]. “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves” (14:11).
A final assertion–this one the hardest to believe: “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, in fact, will do greater works than these” (14:12). Gasp. Astonishment. Confusion. Disbelief. Objection.
He gives them no time to counter. He gives us no time to counter. When it comes to the works of God done in the name of Christ (mercy, peace, & compassion), the gospel miracles are only the beginning: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (14:14). Do you believe Jesus is the way? Do you believe in seeing Jesus you see the father? Do you believe in the works of God? Then do greater works then those, I dare you. Ask him for anything. Ask ‘the way’. Ask the Father’s reflection.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the ongoing work of Christ in the life of the church. Super human deeds accomplished daily by devout disciples are possible through Christ’s powerful presence in the church. There is no work too great for the Spirit led church. We were nothing, and now we are something. When we follow Christ in death (in martyrdom for the kingdom) we have hope in Easter justice. The God who did works so long ago, will do even greater works now. God has nursed us. God has built us up. Into his hands we commit our spirits. Now ask, ask anything at all.