When I was in seminary, I took a class on preaching Paul. And one of the assignments we had to do was preach from a text which was typically ignored in the Pauline canon; the texts like telling wives to submit to their husbands, slaves to their masters, Paul’s anti-LGBT texts, etc. And the text I was assigned was the one in Ephesians 5 which told wives to submit to their husbands. Now, I studied this stuff when I was an undergrad at university; I had spent a lot of time in this particular text for years prior, studying the underlying cultural and historical milieu, examining the original Greek, and so when time came to submit my research paper, I didn’t pull any punches. I talked about how I think this text has often been misunderstood, and that bible scholars have botched the translation of this text and should be held responsible, at least in part, for the oppression women have experienced as a result of this text.
And when I got my paper back, she had written in the margins of this section, “I envy you. I wish I had your confidence, that with 2/3 of a master’s degree you know better than the best scholars in the world.” Now, when I began to read that comment, and I saw “I envy you. I wish I had your confidence,” my initial, most fundamental, impulse was a reaction of gratitude and recognition and acknowledgement that a professor I admired appreciated something about my work. But then, as I read on, I realized it wasn’t so much an acknowledgement of something she appreciated about my work as much as it was a critical evaluation of how I approached and surveyed the authoritative voices on the subject in question.
This comment is what I call: a chocolate covered turd. At first glance, it appears attractive and maybe even pleasing to the palate. And then you take a bite of the chewy center. Now, I have no doubt that the motivation behind the comment was love and grace and just wanting me to be the best preacher and pastor I could be. But that didn’t change the fact that the thing I actually extracted from the encounter was pain and anger at the perception of having been belittled by one of my teachers. Now, I tell you this today, as we talk about what it means to be “stewards of witness”, because the intention behind sharing our faith may be honest and true and kind and loving; we may be just trying to let someone know we’re on their team. But the thing someone might walk away with from the encounter, the kernel they extract from the experience may be one of pain and anger. And that often isn’t their fault for perceiving it that way; it’s often our fault for not being clear and effective in our communication.
Now, as we can see in this text, the communication of our faith, the witness we’re charged to carry out in the world, is one that can be painful and costly; both to us as individuals and to us as a community. Because every personal communication we have with someone about our faith reflects back on the church as a whole, for good or for ill, and the same is true for Stephen in this passage.
Now, we need a little background before we go forward and see what Stephen is actually saying here. If we go back toward the beginning of chapter 6, right after we ended last week, this is what we see taking place: “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue…stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council.”
In other words, Stephen was framed and taken to court to testify against the allegations of blasphemy. And what follows is the longest speech given by any individual in the New Testament. What Stephen does, leading up to our passage today, is he walks through the Torah, pointing out all the times the Jews were unfaithful to God and untrustworthy of God’s anointed. He talks about Joseph and how he was sold into slavery by his own family. He talks about Moses and how the community never failed to turn their back on him. He goes through Joshua and David and Solomon until it all comes to a head with our text this morning. “You stiff-necked people…”
Now, up to this point, Stephen has only been talking about the past, but at this point, he turns his attention to those present. “Your ancestors never failed to turn their backs on the prophets who foretold the coming of the messiah, and when this long-awaited messiah finally showed up, you betrayed him and murdered him. I’m not the guilty one here: youare.” But this statement was not well received by the council, as could probably be anticipated. And as Stephen is having a vision of the opened heavens where he sees Jesus and the Father, they attack him and drag him out of the city and begin to stone him.
Now, keep in mind, all this started because “Stephen…did great wonders and signs among the people.” Now, we can argue about what exactly that means, but I think we can all agree it means that, in one way or another, Stephen was openly living out his faith in word and deed and he was condemned for it.
Now, we live in a very different time and place in the world where Christianity is, for all intents-and-purposes, the norm and we Christians don’t really see this kind of persecution in 21st century America. But there is something to be said for the fact that we’re not great at talking about our faith in the first place, and I think it’s because we’re afraid of what we perceive as persecution, and we actually have the numbers back this up. The UMC did a study on evangelism a while back which yielded several statistics, but one of the ones which really stuck out to me is this: the average United Methodist invites one person to church every 38 years. Let me say that again: the average United Methodist invites one person to church every 38 years. Now, this tells me one of two things: 1) either the church doesn’t have anything to offer people in the modern day, or 2) church people don’t want to talk about their faith because they’re afraid of pain and cost. And I think it’s #2.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not great at this either, due in large part to the fact that I don’t want to be perceived as someone who’s only interested in “saving someone’s soul.” First of all, that’s not how my theology of salvation works, but second of all, that’s largely the perception of Christianity in this time and place. That’s the fine line we walk when talking about our faith: we border between being loving and caring and just wanting people to know about Jesus, and being judgmental and condemning and making people feel like there’s something wrong with them. But imagine if we did start banding together and getting people on board, not with the ethic of fear behind trying to “save souls” (whatever that may mean), but getting people on board with Jesus’ ethic of love and grace and mercy. How different would our world look if we could steward our witness toward that? How different would the church be perceived if that the was the face the community and the world saw when they looked at us? Not the church that wants to manipulate people or change people into something they’re not, but the church that wants to love them and meet them where they’re at.
Stephen models this radical ethic of love toward the end of our passage: “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.” Stephen’s dying words, his final breath, was used to ask for God’s mercy on these people who were killing him. If that doesn’t communicate something about Stephen’s faith, and what the faith of the church should look like as a whole, then I don’t know what does. In a very real way, what we do as people outside these walls communicate a whole lot more about who we are and what our faith is than anything that happens inside of them. In a very real way, Stephen’s crying out for forgiveness for his murderers says a whole lot more about him and his faith than anything else he might have done in the church.
And here’s the thing about this story that never ceases to amaze me. Remember that it said the people laid their clothes down at the feet of a young man named Saul, who approved of Stephen’s killing? It’s amazing to think about this because I imagine this group of people having just stoned Stephen to death, walking away from his body, sweaty and out of breath, thinking “it’s done. This guy, he was the most radical of the group. No one else even compares to this guy. The church is finally done, once and for all.” And as they’re saying these things, and thinking these things, they walk past Paul, completely unaware of what’s still ahead.
As Christians, we tend to idolize those who have been martyred for sharing their faith. We often sanitize and sugarcoat the costly, painful sacrifice many have made in order to share their faith. And it’s tempting to glorify such a death, and even desiresuch a death. I mean, what better way to leave this world than doing it while trying to tell people about Jesus? And it’s not to say that there’s not something extremely reverent and respectful about those who have been martyred. But I don’t think that’s the answer, in the end. I don’t think it’s the answer to the question of what we should do, if we can help it, to share our faith.
So, what is the answer? Is it to die for Jesus? No, it’s to live for Jesus. It’s to live a life worthy of the gospel in word and deed. It’s to share love and grace and mercy so generously and so liberally that people can’t help but see the divine in our lives. That’swhat it means to be good stewards of witness; to have such an all-encompassing, comprehensive notion of the gospel that it throws light into all of our darkest corners and not a single stone or word or action in our lives is left unturned by it. It means we forgive those who don’t deserve it. It means we continue to try and love that coworker who drives you crazy or that family member who badgered you over thanksgiving dinner. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Stephen to ask for forgiveness on behalf of his murderers. But the gospel that’s been entrusted to us requires us to witness to it, even when it’s hard, with our words, our lives, and when the time comes, with our deaths. Let’s pray together that we might be good stewards of this gospel that’s been entrusted to us.