This blog post is featured in a chronological series “The Dog Days of Summer – Biblical Figures Feel the Heat.” Blogs are intended to offer an outlet for reflection beyond Sunday morning.
July 12, 2015
Delivered by Rev. Rachel Landers Vaagenes
Texts: 1 John 4:11-21; Acts 6:1-8; 7:54-60 [av_hr class='default' height='50' shadow='no-shadow' position='center' custom_border='av-border-thin' custom_width='50px' custom_border_color='' custom_margin_top='30px' custom_margin_bottom='30px' icon_select='yes' custom_icon_color='' icon='ue808' font='entypo-fontello' av_uid='av-ww5eeo'] Stephen became a member of the community of the faithful during those first heady days of the church. The Holy Spirit had come in tongues of fire to land on the apostles, and they were filled with power and told many about Jesus. Though Stephen’s life spans only 2 chapters in the Book of Acts, he is distinguished for two reasons: Firstly, he is traditionally known as the first deacon. The term deacon in the Greek refers to a “servant, a minister, or an administrator; one who executes the demands of another.”  His duties soon went beyond waiting on tables however, and Stephen is later described as “full of grace and power,” doing “great signs and wonders among the people.” These signs and wonders soon caused him to run afoul of the religious establishment, who arrested him on trumped up charges and brought him before the religious council. After his testimony, the council is unable to refute his words, but they cannot bear them any longer. We read that they “covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.” It is here that he receives his second distinction: the first deacon is also known as the first Christian martyr. The term martyr, though it eventually became synonymous with dying for the faith, is derived from the Greek word to “witness.” Stephen’s witness was not just in his death, but in his life of service and in his testimony to his Lord. Both his words and his actions pointed to the power of God. Killed for his faith, the depiction of the life and death of Stephen parallels Christ’s in many significant ways. Like Jesus, he is brought before the council on trumped up charges; like Jesus he is taunted in order to provoke him to blasphemy. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus declares that “From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” In Acts, Stephen witnesses “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” In Luke, Jesus cries out from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” In Acts, Stephen declares, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Finally, just before Jesus dies he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” So Stephen prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Here we can see a parallel, but also a progression. Jesus calls on God the Father, while Stephen cries out to Jesus himself. Jesus declares that the Son will be seated at the right hand, while Stephen declares that he sees the Son standing at the right hand. Jesus asks the Father to forgive; Stephen asks the Son. These are powerful and deliberate parallels drawn by the author who wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, and a preliminary reading might bring us to the conclusion that we as the community of faithful are simply called to be imitators of Christ, called to copy and continue the work that he did during his time on earth. Such a conclusion would not be incorrect, but it would be incomplete. What does it mean for us to proclaim Jesus? Here is what it is not: Witness is not following Jesus into death to earn God’s love. Witness is not imitating Christ, being a martyr in order that others might be saved. Salvation has happened already and for eternity through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We by our actions cannot make God’s work more or less effective. But that does not mean we have no task. Christian life moves toward a goal: life as citizens in the Kingdom of God. This does not mean that we are waiting to be whisked away out of this life of toil however. Our goal is a goal of vocation rather than vacation. “Christians live by the promise of God and thus in creative hope. There is work to be done, a message to be proclaimed, forgiveness to be offered and practiced, service to be rendered, hostility to be overcome, injustice to be rectified.”  If we believe that God is at work in the world, our task as a church is to make that work known. Witness is the very life of the church. Our task can be summed up in Paul’s words that I like to use as a benediction: “Keep Alert! Be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” This is the work of the community of the faithful. Amen. Daily Reflection exercise: Stephen had a profound sense of the presence of God. He paid attention. This comes with practice: Make an effort to remember the presence of God in your daily life. Brother Lawrence, a 16th century monk, endeavored to devote himself continually to prayer, and when he had to take on any other business (he was the Abbey cook), he prayed: “O my God, Thou art with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me with Thy assistance, receive all my works, and possess all my affections.”  Strong’s Greek Concordance  Migliore, Daniel; Faith Seeking Understanding; p. 247.