Acts 7:55-60 – The stoning of Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 – In you Lord, I seek refuge. Do not ever let me be put to shame.
1 Peter 2:2-10 – Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
John 14:1-14 – In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you. I am the way the truth the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.
Preaching Deacons: How to Not Get Stoned to Death
Peter preached, and 3,000 got baptized.
Stephen preached, and he got stoned to death.
You never know.
Crucifixion was a Roman method of torture and execution. Rome controlled capital punishment. But if the people wanted to put someone to death on their own, they had a way that was effective, painful, and inexpensive: stoning. If the Jewish religious leaders had wanted to execute Jesus without the Roman’s consent, they would have stoned him or thrown him off a cliff. In fact, they almost did (Luke 4:29).
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it!
Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34
Prophets, people who speak the hard word that people don’t want to hear, tend to get stoned. Even Peter finally got his. So what’s going on?
Luke in Acts tells us that Stephen was a man of faith, filled with the Holy Spirit. This is Acts 6, a passage that never appears in our three-year lectionary. In the Roman lectionary, Acts 6 is read as the first lesson on Easter 5, in place of our text for this coming Sunday: Acts 7:55-60.
It’s a shame Acts 6 never gets read in our lectionary. It forms the early church’s understanding of the diaconate, something that has been a bit muddled in our ecclesiology. Here is the text of Acts 6:1-9:
Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch. They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith. Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen.
This sets the stage. The disciples are growing in number, Luke tells us. Things are going well. As often happens in any human community, a conflict arises. “Their widows are getting more food than our widows,” or something to that effect. The widows of the dominant Hebrew-speaking culture in power are receiving privileges the Greek-speaking widows are not. There is an injustice taking place. This is brought to the attention of the Hebrew-speaking disciples.
Notice this is not a religious problem. It is a racial problem, which the religious leaders are asked to address. So they select seven people “well attested, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” to be in charge of the daily food distribution. Notice their names. They are Greek names. The Hebrew-speaking disciples address the racial problem by putting Greek-speaking leaders in charge.
It is good to note this: Daily food distribution to the needy was a central part of the church’s work.
There is also a clear division of leader responsibilities: the twelve attend to the ministry (diakonia /διακονίᾳ) of prayer and word (Word and Sacrament) and the seven attend to ministry (diakonia/διακονίᾳ) of tables (trapezais/ τραπέζαις).
Finally, notice both are serving, just in different ways.
Based on my reading of the early church, I imagine them spending time in the Temple, then breaking bread together in small groups in homes, as Luke tells us in Acts 2:46, and taking the leftover food to those in need, primarily orphans and widows, but also prisoners, the sick, and wanderers (immigrants). Matthew 25:35-36 reflects these priorities.
In the ELCA, besides pastors we have deacons. Ordination means one is chosen and called, not simply self-appointed. It also means one is inaugurated with prayer and laying on of hands.
The interesting thing about this passage is we have all these elements present. The seven were chosen (verse 3). The apostles prayed and laid hands on them (verse 6). Is this not an ordination? Did the apostles not ordain deacons to a ministry of Word and Service?
One of these deacons is a man named Stephen. We learn that Stephen did great signs and wonders. It’s exciting when things go so well that amazing things start happening.
We also learn that Stephen preached, which eventually got him crossways with some folks, who accused him of blasphemy and threatening the Temple or perhaps the Synagogue. Sound familiar? This Acts 6 text sets the stage for our text in Acts 7.
In Acts 7, Stephen is taken to the High Priest who asks him if the accusations are true. Stephen uses this to launch into a sermon. Clearly, deacons in the early church preached. Stephen’s sermon is controversial. It hits a nerve. He begins with Abraham and circumcision, walking them through his Heilsgeschichte (salvation history). Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Sinai, Joshua, David, Solomon. He points out the people worshipping idols, insinuating that animal sacrifice was borrowed perhaps from Molech. Then he thumps them over the head:
You stiff necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become!
The echo of Luke 13:34 cannot be missed. Stephen is on the same trajectory of Jesus, being accused of blasphemy and sedition (destruction of the Temple). Perhaps rule #1 for not getting stoned is do not start your sermon with “You stiff necked people…”
By just about any standards, this is not a very good sermon. It rehearses the Hebrew Bible stories after the flood and then ends with a few graceless sentences of rebuke. The listeners’ response is predictable.
“When they heard these things, they ground their teeth at him.” (Acts 7:54) Across many centuries, many cultures and a language barrier, still, this image is pretty universal. All this has been prolegomena to our text, Acts 7:55-60:
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then 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. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then 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.
This is the only passage in Acts 6 or 7 that finds its way into our lectionary, so we have to make the most of it.
I don’t think God wants us to throw ourselves over a cliff or intentionally catch passing dogs by the ear. On the other hand, sometimes we are called to speak the truth to power. Even if we do so in love, someone’s probably not going to like it. If they are in power, you will be in trouble. The example of Jesus, the apostles, and the many martyrs of the early church is not to shy away from our moment of trial. This itself is a hard word for those us of who live in comfort and the lap of luxury.
In fact the word martyr, comes from the Greek word martyria, which is translated “witness.”
Stephen, with the face of an angel and filled with the Holy Spirit looks into heaven and sees visions. Covering their ears, they don’t want to hear it. Because stoning is an exhausting business, they take off their outer garments and set them at the feet of the one in charge: Saul of Tarsus. This is the first mention of Saul/Paul in Luke’s narrative.
Notice how Stephen’s last words echo Jesus’ last words:
“Receive my spirit” sounds a lot like, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”
“Do not hold their sins against them” sounds like “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
What might the preacher do with this text?
Perhaps this is a time to talk about giving your life to something. For what are you willing to die? For what are you willing to go to the mat? What matters?
How about non-violent resistance? Stephen doesn’t take up arms. He doesn’t join the sicarii (knife men, terrorist assassins of his day). He uses his words, maybe not as effectively as possible, but words have power, when we have the courage to use them. This is an old story: people threatened by non-violent preachers. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi are in this succession. Before what injustices have you remained silent? Where is God calling you to speak up, even if the risk is high?
This could be a great opportunity to talk about the ministry of the laity – the ministry of the whole church. How do we identify and live our calling? Are we clear that the pastor is not the church, but the shepherd, called to equip the saints for the work of ministry?
We would do well to remember that God works through the ordinary, hidden, and often unexpected.
We do well to remember, the first martyr of the post-resurrection church was a deacon, a table-server, not a pastor, a bishop, or an apostle.
We would do well to remember that the first martyr was not from the dominant culture, but one of the foreigners appointed by the disciples, a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian.