“And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he said this, he died.” [Acts 7:59-60]
Flesh and blood is weak and frail, wrote T.S.Eliot in his poem “The Hippopotamus”. But the “true church” — built upon the rock — can never fail.
We don’t know for sure whether Stephen, the martyr, was murdered by mob violence or was executed with government sanction. We do know that he didn’t lose his life; it was taken. Yet he did not let the terror of “nervous shock” strip him of his faith or his humanity. Like Jesus, Stephen did the unthinkable as he died. “He knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them” [Acts 7:60].
The back story for Stephen’s death is a squabble between Greek-speaking Jewish Christians and Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians about the fair distribution of the early church’s common wealth. To resolve the matter, the Apostles invited the people to choose seven men to be a kind of leadership council that would see to the needs of the community’s members. They chose Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte from Antioch… And when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.”
Not long after that, false charges were made against Stephen from a few disgruntled factions. Stephen, though flesh and blood and, like all flesh and blood, susceptible to nervous shock, was not deterred. He responded by reciting Israel’s history, but in doing so also pointed to their collective and habitual disobedience, particularly in the form of idolatry. He went so far as to call them “stiff-necked,” meaning hardheaded or stubborn. Not a good way to make friends or to influence your accusers.
Stephen was a bold witness who lost his life for the Lord’s sake only to find it. He paid the ultimate price and his testimony lives on even today, as in persecution the Church has spread across the world. There are others, too, however, who have testimonies in this story. The hands of those who participated in the murder and who stood by doing nothing are left with the crimson stain of innocent people. It is the German liberation theologian Dorothee Sölle who wrote in her book Suffering, “In the face of suffering you are either with the victim or the executioner–there is no other option.” Whether for good or evil, love or hate, health or dysfunction, protection or exploitation, we all have a testimony.
One of the lasting testimonies comes from a man named ‘Saul’, whom the Church remembers as ‘Paul’, who was there at the stoning of Stephen.
While Scripture doesn’t say that Paul hurled any stones, if you peek over to chapter eight, you will discover that Saul approved of Stephen’s murder. The fraudulent witnesses took off their coats and “laid them down at Saul’s feet”, improving the range of motion of their throwing arms like pitchers warming up in the bullpen. This same Saul was on a crusade to crush the Jesus movement until the heavens opened, struck him blind with overwhelming light, and spoke his name: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
It’s easy to judge those who laid down their coats at Saul’s feet, and to judge the young persecutor who was there at the stoning of Stephen. But we, too, throw our stones from a distance – not only the distance of time but at a fearful distance from the shock of our own flesh and blood reality and the shock of who we are.
Rembrandt’s first painting was of the Stoning of Stephen. A close look at the faces of the crowd reveals at least three self-portraits of Rembrandt peering out from the crowd, just behind a prominent executioner with a large rock ready to pummel the praying Stephen’s head. Rembrandt saw himself there, close up and aghast, among the stoners but sympathizing, it seems, with the one being executed.
You and I are also there in the story. Check the echoes of the “stoning of Stephen” in your own life. Perhaps you have participated in your own stoning through some debilitating sense of perfectionism and self-hate. In the courtroom of your own deepest self, you have testified on behalf of the prosecuting attorney who calls you loathesome. Perhaps you have borne witness against yourself, not only unable to forgive the sins of others but standing as your harshest, most unforgiving, critic – serving as prosecutor, judge, and jury against yourself.
“And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he said this, he died.”
Like the Amish who tipped their hats as they passed by the home and the family of the man who had murdered their children in the West Nickel Mines Amish school house shooting 10 years ago, Stephen could only do this with divine help infusing his weak and frail flesh and blood susceptible to nervous shock.
What informed Stephen and what can direct us is Stephen’s vision of the crucified Jesus as the one who sits at the right hand of God. For the right hand of God is the hand of God’s power. But, according to Stephen’s testimony, God’s power is not like human power. God’s power is not the power of might or revenge. It is exercised in weakness. God’s power is exercised is long-suffering patience with the creatures God hands have formed.
Stephen accused his accusers of being “stiff-necked people” who broker no criticism, perhaps because they had mistaken the Holy One as the sternest of judges. With stones in hands, executing Stephen, or peering out as silent observers, like Rembrandt, they were stoning themselves.
The stoning scene in The Book of the Acts of the Apostles reads:
“[W]hen they heard (Stephen’s words), they were enraged and ground their teeth against him.”
“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
While his accusers and executioners picked up their stones, Stephen stood upon the Rock of his salvation: the faith that his future and the future of his killers lay in the hands of the One who sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, the Crucified Human One, our judge and our redeemer. It was this crucified Jesus, now seated at God’s right hand, who on the cross had become humanity’s defense attorney – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – whose cry inspired Stephen to breath his last in peace rather than in spite.
While we never hear again of Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas or Nicolas – the fellow first deacons chosen with Stephen – Saul, the participant in Stephen’s stoning, bore the fruit from which the gospel was carried into the world. Over time, Stephen’s vision and prayer to the right hand of God ate away at the heart and mind of the young man Saul who’d been entrusted with the coats of Stephen’s killers, and he, Saul, became Paul who, by grace, became the supreme witness to the defense, and opponent of all heartless prosecution.
The Church was built upon this rock amidst the mud of the hippopotamus and human flesh and blood. We proclaim with Stephen and with Paul that it is the crucified-risen Christ who sits at the right hand of God, and that because he does, there is hope for us and for the world.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN.