Over My Dead Body
[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/05-22-11.mp3] Make no assumptions: faith is a risky thing.
The lesson from the book of Acts is the story of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Stephen had been appointed as one of the first deacons in the early church, those tasked with the responsibility to care for widows and orphans, the most vulnerable members of the new Christian community. And very soon it becomes clear that Stephen is also a very gifted teacher. Christianity was not yet a separate religion. These early followers of Jesus are still meeting in the synagogues; it seemed a small matter to them that they considered the recently risen Jesus as Messiah, but clearly that was a bit much for some of his contemporaries, who began to conspire against him. Charges of blasphemy were leveled, not only against God, but against the great hero Moses. All of that led to a hasty trial before the high priest.
The word martyr is actually a Greek word in origin. What it means, simply, is “witness”. There’s no conception of “death” attached to it. But for the early Christians, the two words quickly became inseparable.
Stephen is asked to defend himself. At that point, beginning with Abraham and following the lessons of the Hebrew Bible up through the Exodus and into the building of the Temple in Jerusalem by King Solomon, Stephen offers his interpretation as to how all of these things point to Jesus. He has several key points:
- An important ingredient in Israelite history is that of being outsiders
- The true leaders of Israel are the ones that the people reject
- God exists in heaven, not in buildings made of stone
All of this is extremely threatening to his accusers and to the powers that be. First of all, Israelite identity, especially in the face of Roman occupation, has come to focus on being inside the tribe and being connected to the land. Looking down on outsiders gives them some semblance of power in a powerless situation. Secondly, there is strong belief that God confers leadership by virtue of bloodline, not by some intangible sense of the Holy Spirit. The high priests and the so-called “kings” have their own fiefdoms that they stand to lose if true leaders like Jesus are taken seriously. And finally, if God doesn’t inhabit places made of stone, but in some amorphous reality of a heavenly dwelling, what does that say about the Temple in Jerusalem, the very seat of power for those who have it?
But the crowning moment of Stephen’s witness, his martyrdom, comes right before the text we read this morning, where he lays it all out as bluntly as possible: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears (circumcision is national identity – he’s making the tribe bigger), you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit (that is, not bloodline, but something harder to pin down), just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One (that is, Jesus), and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
Stephen’s speech can make for one heck of a sermon; that is, only when we’re eavesdropping. If it’s directed at us, we’re likely to join the lynch mob. As the phrase goes, he left preaching and went to meddling. And all of it, we learn, is being overseen by Saul – that is, Paul, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus and his own ministry which takes up the mantle of Stephen, where he opens up the community of faith to include – gasp – Gentiles! But that’s a story for another day.
What are we to make of this?
I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t address what I like to call yesterday’s Apoca-fail. Harold Camping, the man behind Family Radio, gained international fame by prophesying with absolute certainty that the world was going to end on May 21 at 6 pm as a rolling earthquake made its way across the globe. As of this morning, their website was still proclaiming yesterday Doomsday.
What do we make of all this as people of faith? One extreme would be to admit that there was a nugget of faith in all that talk about Armageddon, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. The other would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater and proclaim that all religion is really just mass delusion and that stories like the story of Stephen feed into these outbreaks of marginalized paranoia by wrapping it with the cloak of martyrdom.
Surely there’s another way?
Here’s my issue with Camping: he failed to check his own assumptions. History is littered with those who have predicted the end of the world. 500, 1000, 1666, 1844, 1999, 2011, and – wait for it – 2012 have all been times that people are convinced that all we know was coming to an end. And yet, the world keeps plugging along.
Despite the weight of history against him, Camping proclaimed that “the Bible guarantees” the end of the world, and bilked people out of their life savings to spread this message. He even explained away the straightforward statement in Scripture that “no one knows the day nor the hour” by saying that Jesus was only referring to those in the audience. He was so convinced of his DaVinci Code approach to the Bible that not even Jesus could dissuade him!
But here’s my reality check: I bring my own assumptions to faith, too. In fact, we all do.
That’s what’s so tough about what Stephen does in his final sermon. He not only takes the people of his day to task for their own cultural and national and emotional and religious assumptions about their own history, he puts us on notice for doing the very same things.
Take any issue we are facing: immigration; debt; sexuality; war…and as another presidential election looms, we know that these will be divisive issues that will be used to pit us against each other. But as people of faith, do we see these issues as ones to which our faith can speak? Is immigration an issue of law, or hospitality? Is debt an issue of trust, or entitlement? Is sexuality an issue of purity, or inclusion? Is war an issue of fear, or protection?
Don’t get me wrong – like you, I have my own opinions about many of these issues. And I have no desire to make Oglethorpe Presbyterian a community where membership is based on political affiliation or opinion. One of the things that makes our fellowship so rich is that we have such diversity, that we are willing to talk about it with one another, and are willing to live one another in spite of our differences. In a culture where disagreement automatically leads to disgust, we have our own witness to the possibilities of reconciliation in Christ. And no matter who we are or what we believe, we tend to allow our assumptions to govern us more than we’d like to admit.
If we’re really honest, we know that we are just as prone to blind, visceral outrage as those who stoned Stephen to death. We are just as tribal, just as earthly, just as tradition-bound, just as blinded by our own assumptions as they. We tend to believe only what we see with our own eyes. We are prone to draw our borders as tightly as possible. We end up following what is popular rather than what is true. We are more likely to be Saul, giving tacit support to ungodly ways, than Stephen, risking life and limb and even – gasp – reputation for the sake of God’s desires.
Where is it that God is asking us to step out? Where have our assumptions kept us from following God into risky, faithful places? Friends, Christ has gone before us, and invites us to follow. Are we willing to do so?