55 But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. 56 He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!” 57 At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, 58 threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. 59 As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” 60 Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died.
Thoughts on the passage:
When I started planning the sermons during the Easter season (the time between Easter and Pentecost) I liked the idea of studying the lectionary texts from the book of Acts. Pentecost is the day we celebrate as the birthday of the Church and it seemed fitting to studying the history of the early church in preparation for that day. Looking over the Acts text assigned to each week it seemed like a really good plan until I came to this week. The text for Mother’s Day was the stoning of Stephen. I was having a hard time connecting a text about someone being killed with the day we celebrate our mothers. The more I prayed and thought about what the message was we needed to hear this week, the more I began to see a connection between this two ideas.
To start to understand this passage we first need to understand Stephen. Stephen is referred to as the protomartyr, that is the first martyr to die for the Christian faith. He was one of the Hellenist Jews (Jews from outside of Jerusalem). In the early life of the church, concerns were raised that not enough care was being given to the widows of the Hellenist Jews and so several members of the church were dispatched to care for them. Stephen was one of those sent to provide aid. In addition to his acts of compassion, Stephen was also seen as a great preacher and filled with the Holy Spirit. This is what ultimately got him into trouble. Some of the Jewish authorities did not like his teaching and sought to undermine him. First, they entered into a debate with him but were unable to make a case against him. When that failed, they started a rumor that he was speaking against Moses and God. This worked and soon the crowds gathered and demanded a trial. During the trial, Stephen preached on the stories of the Old Testament and told how over and over again God brought hope to the people and how they ignored it. His message was that the crowds, like their ancestors before them were ignoring God. Not surprisingly it did not go well. They decided to stone him.
What is so powerful and important about Stephen’s story is that first, he preached a message he knew the people needed to hear even though it might cost him his life. Second, he did not try to flee the fate that was before him. Finally, even at the very end he found a way to love the very people who were killing him. Even in death he lived out his faith.
This is where I found the connection to mothers. Most mothers, and fathers I would add, are willing to die for their children. What we often forget is that most mothers also suffer not for their children, but from their children. In this sacrificial love, they are like Stephen.
If we are honest about it we have all fought with our mothers at one point or another. Often, we do so because we think that we are right and they are wrong and sometimes we even say or do hurtful things as a part of this fight. Usually, again if we are honest about it, it is our mothers and not us who are right. They have suffered because they wanted what was best for us and yet we fought them on it.
Here is where it gets even harder (as if being a mother was not hard enough). Just like mothers suffer for the love of their children, we as Christians are meant to be willing to suffer like Stephen does. This does not mean we have to set out to be martyrs or get stoned for our faith. It does mean we have to live out our faith in a way that we are willing to accept the risks that come from that. If that makes you uncomfortable, that is OK, you are not alone.
Like Stephen, we are all called on to share our faith. It does not always have to take the same form as Stephen did. We do not need to all be out preaching on street corners. In fact, I suspect that Stephen was far more effective with his message not by what he said to the crowds, but by the way he died, loving the crowds. There is an old saying, “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary.” We are called to live out our faith in a way that others might see it in our actions.
The message of the gospel is love. It is rooted in John 3:16 “for God so loved the world” and is echoed over and over again throughout scripture. Our words, our actions, and our lives need to be a refrain of that love that God has for us and the love that we need to reflect to others. Stephen lived that love to his very last. Mother’s reflect that love in the care and attention they give to their children. We need to reflect that love as well.
Being like Stephen is not easy. I cannot imagine finding the courage and strength to love as he did. My response when someone starts throwing stones at me is not to love them. It is just not our natural instinct. Yet, the challenge of our faith is to do just that. We need to find the courage to love people even when they don’t want to be loved and even when they are doing the most unloving things. We do it because that is how God loves us and we need to share that love with others.
Questions to Ponder:
What are the ways that your life reflects the Gospel?
Who is someone that you struggle to love?
When is a time when you have loved someone even when they were being unkind to you?
God, you love us all just like a mother loves her children. Even when we stray or turn from you, you still love us. Even when we fight against you, you still love us. Help us to embrace that love you have for us and to share that love with others. Amen