Acts 6:8-15, 7:1-2a, 51-60
Pentecost Aftermath: Stephen
Some of you know that I have a real interest in psychological personality types, specifically a model of understanding called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators. You might have taken this test yourself at some point, or at least be familiar with part of the system. You receive a four letter type – either an E or I – for extrovert/introvert – this is the part many of you many know about yourself already – then either N or S – are you intuiting or sensing? – T or F – thinking or feeling – and J or P – judging or perceiving. If you want to know more about my psyche, I can tell you that I am an INFJ. I usually have couples who are doing premarital counseling go through this personality typing process, because it helps me get to know them, and helps us have conversations about how they relate to each other, particularly in situations that are less than perfect. Sometimes workplaces have employees and bosses take these tests, so that all can work together to create a better workplace environment. I’ve read a resource that particularly talks about personality types among clergy, and what the strengths and struggles are for pastors of different types.
For all of the types, for example, the Myers-Briggs test will reveal something about how you handle conflict. You might already know this about yourself too. Are you a person who is confrontational? Do you love a good fight or debate? Do you keep quiet in an argument? Do you make sure you are not even around in a conflict? You all might have been amused to see, once upon a time, Pastor Aaron and I on a long road trip with your former associate, Pastor Heather. Aaron loves a good debate, and Heather can’t stay out of a debate if her buttons have been pushed, and I sat quietly in the back seat, occasionally offering up placating words to diffuse conflict! I could have told you before I ever took my own test that I tend to be a conflict-avoider. My official results say this: “INFJs are concerned for people's feelings, and try to be gentle to avoid hurting anyone. They are very sensitive to conflict, and cannot tolerate it very well. Situations which are charged with conflict may drive the normally peaceful INFJ into a state of agitation or charged anger.” Of course, avoiding conflict isn’t really something that is possible if you want to interact with people, is it?! And in particular, avoiding conflict isn’t always helpful in the midst of a congregation of diverse people and opinions, particularly when you are a leader of those people! Over my years of ministry, handling conflict has been something I’ve had to work hard it, and sometimes I have more success than others!
Today we step into a major conflict in the book of Acts, one that ends in death, as we read the story of Stephen. Unlike the disciples like Peter and company, Stephen’s task in the community of Jesus-followers was not primarily as a preacher of the gospel at all – he wasn’t one of the apostles. Stephen was part of a group of servants who had a special task in the early church. People outside of the faith criticized that the fervor of the disciples for preaching the gospel had caused them to neglect other duties like feeding the widowed and the needy. Their criticism was a reason for them to reject the teachings of Jesus – the disciples didn’t really take care of those in need! Why believe their message of good news? But the twelve responded, “‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’” So seven were chosen, one of whom was this man we read about today, Stephen. These seven looked on the needs of the least in their community, making sure that those who were without could receive food and be taken care of. In other words, Stephen wasn’t a preacher or a pastor, or an apostle – that wasn’t his vocation. He was a servant, a helper, a supporter in ministry. If Stephen were a 21st century believer, he might be any one of you – someone who stepped up to help meet the needs of the community.
It turns out though that Stephen, even though he wasn’t one of the apostles, was still a rowdy synagogue member. He wasn’t content to just go with the flow or keep quiet in his own community of faith. So Stephen and some of his fellow synagogue members were constantly debating and arguing about his involvement in this new faith. Eventually, his peers had enough, and began to plot against him. We read of their scheming in Acts: “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which [Stephen] 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. They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ And all who sat in the council looked intently at [Stephen], and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
The authorities ask Stephen to respond to these accusations. And he does, in a big way. Stephen says that through the ages people have rejected the prophets that God sent to reach them, and just so they rejected Jesus, God-come-to-earth to reach them. He doesn’t try to soften his words, and he doesn’t try to make friends. He doesn’t temper what he says, or recant any of his beliefs, even though he is clearly in trouble. Stephen just says what is on his heart. The synagogue leaders respond to Stephen’s testimony: “When they heard these things,” we read, “they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” Instead of being scared by the group, Stephen is fortified by the vision of Jesus he has. He tries to share his vision, but his words fall on unhearing ears. The men drag Stephen into the street, they throw their coats at the feet of a man named Saul, and they stone Stephen to death, literally pelting rocks at him until he dies. Stephen’s last words echo Jesus’ on the cross, as he pleads for forgiveness for those who are putting him to death. Stephen, not one of the twelve, not known for his preaching or leadership, was just someone who was trying to serve others, and he was unwilling to say or do otherwise, even with the cost being his own life.
Yet, Stephen is known as the first Christian, the first Jesus-follower, who sacrifices his life for the movement. He’s the first martyr of this newly-birthed church. That word, martyr, comes from the Greek word marturia, and in Greek, that word means witness. Someone who is willing to martyr themselves is a witness for an issue or topic or person about whom they are passionate. Stephen was a witness for Jesus. But witness is one of those funny words that has a lot of baggage in the Christian church today, baggage that distracts us from understanding what the word means. We sometimes think of a witness as when someone goes door to door, like a Jehovah’s Witness adherent, witnessing, or proclaiming their faith, in an evangelistic sort of way. But I think we better understand witness if we think about a trial, and people who are called as witnesses in a trial. Witnesses in trials are called on to tell the truth about what they have seen and experienced related to a particular event. That’s actually just what Stephen does, isn’t it? He tells the truth about what he knows about Jesus Christ, what he’s experienced. What moves Stephen from being more than a witness, in today’s language, to being a martyr, is that he witnesses to the truth despite his circumstances, which were clearly dangerous to his life. When would you be willing to tell the truth about something, to witness, no matter what the costs were to yourself?
What strikes me as so powerful about Stephen’s witness to us is that he didn’t have to do it. He could have, at some point, stopped debating with synagogue leaders, joined a different community, run away. He could have gone into hiding, left town. He didn’t have to have this fight. He chose to, because he was so committed to speaking the truth he believed about the life he was called to in Christ. What would you give your life for? When would you speak up, and when would you stay silent?
We are the story-tellers, the ones, now, in whose hands and hearts the good news of the gospel resides. At what cost will we stay silent? Stephen wasn’t even silent with threat of death. But I worry that we sometimes can be silent even over our mild discomfort! You have probably heard this famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, written in the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust. First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me. We say actions speak louder than words, and if that is true, then inaction is a deafening silence.
Today is a day when we have honored and remembered loved ones we have lost, and particularly, for many, loved ones who felt so committed to their country and the values of their nation, that they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way in order to uphold these values for the good of the whole. What do you value so much that you will not fail to speak the truth about it, no matter what situation you encounter? I’ve told you how much I dislike conflict, but in my own life, I find I rarely have trouble speaking up if you are harming in word or deed a member of my family, a dear friend, a loved one. Then it is easy to speak. Or if I witness an act of injustice in progress, I find it much easier to speak. I’m guessing many of you feel the same way. But what about when the situation doesn’t involve someone you are close to. Would you still feel compelled to speak the truth? What about when you hear people speaking of others who are not present? Would you still speak up? What about when there would be immediate negative consequences in your life for witnessing to truth? I’ll be honest – I hope I’m never put in a situation where I have to choose whether or not to lay down my life – I’m pretty fond of it! But I don’t think we can read about Stephen without asking ourselves some hard questions. How much is telling the truth worth to us? How much do we value it? Our lives are witness – what we do, how we behave, how we act, when we speak, when we stay silent – they’re always testifying in some way. What is your life saying? Amen.