Last Sunday was Good Shepherd Sunday, and if you tuned in for the sermon last week, you may recall that I ended in on a bit of an unusual note. Our text last week was not calling us to any particular action, or to change our lives in any particular way, but to seek the voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who loves us, and who calls us home. There are times in our lives when we are called simply to contemplate God’s love for us; to spend time in prayer, silence, and holy reading. We know that Jesus began his ministry by journeying into the wilderness to engage in a personal spiritual quest, and to do inner battle with Satan. But prayer alone, without any engagement with the world can become navel gazing, or ritualism. Prayer and contemplation alone, without engagement with the world God created and loves, prayer without any attempt to love one’s neighbor more fully, prayer untethered to community would be prayer to some God other than the Holy Trinity. Last week our lectionary allowed us to take time, that time that is so necessary for each of us, to reflect and draw close to the Heart of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, not for any other purpose, but as an end in itself. This week we have the follow up, the “so what,” the life example of a life changed on account of becoming a disciple of Jesus. So today we’re going to take a look at St. Stephen, an example of someone who’s heart was on fire with the love of God – but first, a little background and context.
In our text from the book of Acts today, we heard about St. Stephen, one of the original seven deacons ordained by the apostles, and the first Christian martyr. We don’t know much of the details of his life prior to becoming a deacon. We only know that the apostles deemed him “a man of good standing, full of the spirit of wisdom.” Now the reason the apostles commissioned deacons was because there was a dispute in the Christian community. The early Christians shared possessions and took care of each other. Widows were especially vulnerable and without much societal protection in those days, and so if you were a widow in the Church, the other members of the faithful would make sure you had food and what you needed to get by. But the Greek Christians, the Hellenists, complained that their widows were being neglected, and that all the best food was going to the widows of the Jewish Christians. (Remember that this was at a time when Christians still worshipped in the synagogues). The apostles needed to dedicate themselves to prayer, preaching, teaching, and spreading the Good News of the Gospel. And that is why deacons, including Stephen, were commissioned!
All Christians are called to participate in the mission of the Church; which is to reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ. But different people have are called to different roles. The apostles cared very much about the food disputes, and they wanted to make sure all the widows and everyone who was in need in their community had their needs met. But they knew that they had a more particular vocation, one given to them by the risen Christ and by the Holy Spirit. They understood that God had given them the sacred duty of preaching the Gospel, teaching, leading the newly formed Christian community, and interceding on their behalf in prayer. They found other people, people with particular gifts, to carry out the task of helping to distribute alms, and making sure that needs of the poorest were met. There is no opposition between them; they are two sides of the same coin. Prayer, teaching, and preaching on the one hand, service, justice, and fellowship on the other. Each of us will have a time when we are called to participate in both of these aspects of Christian discipleship. But, as we see in this reading from Acts, there are people who, from the earliest days of the church, have been called by God, and affirmed by the people in their call to a particular vocation within the church. Stephen, as a deacon, was raised up for the role of service. If all Christians are the servants of God, then deacons are the servants of the servants of God!
Now I have spoken before about the “both/and” nature of our Christian scriptures. That, in many cases, they are both, A, grounded in a historical reality, and B, they have symbolic meanings. This applies here in this case too. I believe that Jesus really lived and walked the earth, and they his apostles were real people, and that they did, really and truly lay their hands on the seven deacons and commission them to serve the needs of those most in need in their communities. At the same time, the story of St. Stephen is written in a way that we could put ourselves in his shoes. By leaving the details about his life blank, and only telling us that he was of good repute and full of the spirit of wisdom, Luke is encouraging us to see our own potential when we read this story of Stephen.
We are all called to imitate Christ, but that is admittedly a rather tall order. In order to help each of us, and to inspire each of us, the Church has raised up for us in every age saints, those people whose life and witness are especially Christlike. And Luke, who is the author of the book of acts, writes the story of Stephen in a way to make the parallels to Christ readily apparent. Jesus did performed miracles and signs. St. Stephen also did great signs and wonders among the people. Jesus was falsely accused by the religious authorities and put in trial, and so was St. Stephen. Jesus was condemned to death, and so was St. Stephen. Jesus asked his Father to forgive those who crucified him, and likewise St. Stephen asked that God not hold their sin against them.
Of the few details that we do know about Stephen, he is Christlike in every way. Stephen is perhaps the first one to fulfill the line that Jesus spoke in today’s Gospel text, that His followers will do even greater works than He will, because he is going to His Father. I remember as a younger person always thinking that was such an odd passage. Jesus is truly God and truly human. How could something that a regular person does be greater than something that Jesus does? Now of course it’s important to keep in mind that Jesus was saying this before his death and resurrection, so he was not saying that his followers will do something greater than this central act in the drama of salvation history. But in regard to healings or other deeds of power that his disciples had witnessed at the time, Jesus was saying that even his followers will do more than that.
So there are definitely times when the lectionary’s choices of readings don’t make the most sense, or other passages might fit better for the theme they are trying to lay out. But putting this passage of the stoning of Stephen, deacon and first martyr, directly after Good Shepherd Sunday make so much sense to me. After a week of contemplating God’s love without any call to action, we are given a lesson of a deacon, the one who’s role it is to dismiss the faithful from the liturgy, to return to the world and to serve the world in God’s name. Last week’s sermon was missing deliberately missing a “so what.” Last week was about leaning into do God’s tender love and mercy. We sought to hear the voice of or Shepherd. But just as Jesus could not stay in the wilderness forever, neither can we be drawn to the heart of God in prayer and not be moved to love and service for one another. Stephen is the “so what.” Stephen is someone who knew God’s love for him, and had a pure love for God. That is why he served. He served the least of these as Christ commanded, and he spoke of God’s revelation and intervention in the events of the world, even when his recounting of God’s action would be met with derision.
We are all blessed to live in a time when we can share our faith without fear of being tortured or put to death. But even though our context is radically different, I believe Stephen is still an example for all Christians today. Stephen shows us that regular, ordinary human people can do the deeds of Christ. Stephen shows us that a heart on fire for God is fertile ground for a life of service that inspires others to the same. Stephen shows us that devout prayer and selfless service in the world are two sides of the same coin. And finally, Stephen shows us that no matter what is happening in our lives, or who may have turned against us in this momentary blip of time that is our human lifespan, there is nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.