Acts 7:44-8:1, Luke 22:52-62
The stoning of Stephen and the denial by Peter. “And Saul approved of their killing him.” “Woman, I do not know him.” If it can happen to Paul and Peter, it can happen to us. And yet, these two more than any other built the foundation of the church. Forgiven. Filled with the Spirit. Ultimately dying at the hands of others for the faith. And what of Stephen? “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Direct, but lacks the poetry. Not exactly, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” But wait, stoning is not poetic. It is right up there with crucifixion as a horrible, slow, painful way to die. How many generations of nice Christian people read this and got all teary eyed at the gentle Stephen commending his soul to Jesus. Well, now thanks to CNN we have seen stonings. And beheadings. And all sorts of things we thought were left in that unpleasant past. That is what happened to Stephen. His crime? Evangelizing the Gospel of that now dead but still dangerous preacher whose followers believed he was the Messiah and, worse, Son of God. A long history lesson. Well, maybe a little pointed about being uncircumcised in their hearts. Why not just shrug it off? Just another crazy from that sect claiming their messianic hope, one of so many, didn’t die. Nut case. But they didn’t. They had already been whipped up by false witnesses, men who lied, called him a blasphemer (Lk 6:11-14). Now his history lesson was too offensive. And the cry, “Stone him.” Perhaps by a temple spy? Perhaps by Saul? And they stoned Stephen.
Stephen never wavered. But Stephen was already in a community that believed in the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ and his promises of redemption and eternal life. One can hardly blame Peter for his moment of weakness. He knew what could happen to him, and what was inexorably happening to Jesus step by step on the way to the Cross.
Peter knew and loved Jesus, but Jesus hadn’t died on the Cross yet, and hadn’t appeared in his ascended body. Peter’s faith was grounded in pure love and loyalty, without anything but Jesus’ obscure and troubling words, which were probably exaggerations. He couldn’t really mean them, could he? So, yes, Peter was dying inside watching his beloved Teacher, Master, friend, allowing himself to be used by the powers that be, and would probably get himself killed. And he was terrified for Jesus, but also for himself. And the other disciples. And maybe his wife and children. We know he had a mother-in-law whom Jesus healed. So he folded. But when Jesus turned and looked at him, Peter turned in his heart, a moment of metanoia, knowing that Truth is Truth and we can’t ever pretend, lie, dissemble before God and say it is just okay, sensible, practical. Accused, repentant, absolved, forgiven in the love mixed with the disappointment in his Master’ face, a lesson taught even then and there in that hard place. And Peter wept bitterly.
It took a celestial event and blindness to take Saul’s passion for his God as a devout servant of the Temple and transform it into a passion for his God as a devout disciple of Jesus. Jesus takes us where we are, and uses our talents. And every talent has a dark side. Passion can be pure, loving, given freely, or it can be obsessive, possessive. Pride can be for the Glory of the High One, offered in humility, or it can be, well, we know what pride can be and usually is. All through that list of talents, Paul had them all. Stubbornness, unflagging devotion, fierce courage, not so much in the patience department, but nobody is perfect. And all those things through which he served the Temple in his devotion to the Holy One of Israel he turned to the new Jerusalem, the infant church struggling to understand itself. And he was the one who welcomed in the Gentiles, broke the dietary laws, and stood up against the very Apostles to spread the Gospel where it needed to go, to the whole world. The same man who held coats for those stoning a passionate youth preaching his heart out. And maybe, just maybe, one of the first to cry, “Stone him.”
What does that tell us? Teach us? I have a fondness for Stephen. And he was part of the story of Saul/Paul which the Holy Spirit had to tell. Stephen teaches us to forgive in the most terrible times. He teaches us about a good death, even bleeding from a hundred wounds. Yes, stoning isn’t clean. And I love him for it. That being said, did he have to die? God’s mind is greater than yours and mine, and maybe it had to play out, and maybe Saul holding coats was part of what was needed right then and there, and I can’t do anything but bow my head and thank God for Stephen’s sacrifice. True martyrdom is a gift of God, not a way to become famous. Peter had to wait for his martyrdom. And I pray he didn’t just seek it for the residual shame of the night by the bonfire outside the High Priest’s house. Still, Jesus made him his shepherd to feed his sheep out of love. Three times he was made to confess that love. And for all of Rome’s many sins, the Western Church exists, both Catholic and Protestant, because of its firm start in the Empire’s capital and Peter’s martyrdom there.
So that brings us to us. Every time any of us picks up a sign and faces neo-Nazis or the equally violent antifascist Black Bloc we are potentially facing martyrdom. On the other hand, every time we refuse to take a stand, are we saying, “I never knew him”? Or maybe, “I prayed and this is not my call today”? We have to discern how we are called to take those radical actions. But we also face those challenges in our daily, sometimes pretty boring, everyday life. Proclaiming the Gospel by word or deed is a pretty dicey proposition these days, at least on the liberal coasts. I imagine in those more conservative places it is just as dangerous to proclaim or support a position that Jesus loves (choose one: gay, trans, black, Hispanic, Muslim) people. Maybe just remembering that we are constantly walking on the Way with Stephen’s passion and courage and Peter’s fear and ever so frequent stumbles is enough to keep up open to the Spirit’s promptings. And it is never too late to choose to be Paul and not Saul. We don’t have to follow the lead of the Temple elite or corrupt government rulers and bow to Caesar, not God. Sometimes we have to make terrible personal choices. And it is for each of us, with our community, our leaders, our mentors, but mostly with our God, to let the Spirit lead us to what we must do day by day, and when we fall to lift us gently to repentance. And to accept forgiveness. So we can continue to harangue the Body to be faithful, as did Paul. And to walk with Peter in love and feed his sheep. God spare us from Stephen’s fate, but if we are called, so we can pray for his faith and courage.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.