SUNDAY SERMON: The Stoning of Stephen

Rev. Stephen Baldwin 

NT: Acts 6.1-8.1

The Stoning of Stephen

Something I really enjoy is visiting churches. All different kinds of churches. Small churches, big churches, churches with gospel choirs, churches with praise bands, all kinds of churches! 

One time I was visiting a church where I stuck out like a sore thumb. Only one who couldn’t clap on beat to the gospel choir! Only male who wasn’t in a three-piece suit! Only white dude in the building! And the pastor was curious as to why I was present. During the sermon, he pointed me out. He asked me my name. 

I told him my name was Stephen. 

He said, “You know that name carries with it a responsibility. Do you know the significance of that name?”

I said the first thing that came to my mind. “Yes, sir, Acts chapter seven!” 

He raised his eyebrows and looked at the woman who seemed to be the church mother. Their Betty Ralston, in other words. She said, “Aha! Yes, Lord! He got you, preacher!” The pianist hammered a chord! The church shouted hallelujah. And the preacher didn’t say another word to me. 

He was a very good preacher who died back a few years ago. Rev. Staples from Beckley. I respected him greatly, and I’ve thought a lot about the question he asked over the years. “Do you know the significance of Stephen?”

As the early church grew in Acts 6, a problem developed. There weren’t enough people to do all the work. You had disciples waiting tables feeding the poor, and the widows felt their needs were being neglected. So the disciples decided to bring on some help to feed the hungry. 

Stephen was their first recruit. He was beloved. According to scripture, he was full of grace and power and did signs and wonders among the people. He was so beloved…that other church leaders became jealous. They started a whisper campaign against Stephen, quietly telling people, “He blasphemes God and Moses.” 

Word spread, and his reputation was damaged. People got in such a frenzy that they called Stephen before a council of Jewish church leaders. They planted witnesses to say he said awful things he never said. They accused him of wanting to destroy the church. 

The high priest questioned him about all the charges and said, “Is this true?”

Stephen responded with a history lesson of monumental proportions. It is the longest speech in the entire Bible. He told the whole story of the Jewish people–from Abraham to Jacob to Moses. From the parting of the Red Sea to the exodus in the wilderness to the promised land. He told the story of God’s faithfulness to stubborn people who kept getting in their own way. 

And then he said, “You stiff-necked people. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, 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.”

They were enraged. Immediately, they grabbed him and drug him outside the city. They hurled stones at him one by one until he was nearly dead. He asked God to receive his spirit and to forgive the people for their sins. After he said this, he died.

Stephen was the first martyr in the early Christian church. He died speaking a truth people didn’t want to hear, from a beloved man they didn’t want to be told by. 

I read this story a thousand times over the years. Growing up in the church, whenever I’d get bored in church, I’d read the story of Stephen. 

What captivates me most about his rapid rise, and even more rapid fall, is his decision. When the synagogue leaders confront Stephen with the rumors being spread about him, they ask him if it’s true? He could’ve said no. He could’ve explained who was out to get him and why. He could’ve laughed it off and said he had to get back to real work. 

Which was all true. And that could have been the end of it. But Stephen did not stop there. He chose the hard road. He told the hard truth. He told the very people charged with keeping God’s law that they were violating it. He called them on the carpet! He spoke truth to power and paid the price for it. Death by stoning must have been excruciating. 

Yet, before he dies, he once again chooses the hard road. He told the hard truth. By asking God to forgive those who killed him. It is hard to fathom that level of forgiveness, isn’t it? It’s one thing to read this story about something that happened 2,000 years ago, pat Stephen on the back, and tell him he did the right thing. But can you imagine being in his shoes and forgiving? 

Has anyone ever spread rumors about you? Tried to sully your reputation? Attempted to undermine your trust, or take your job, or turn someone against you? 

I know what that feels like, when all you see is red. It is a consuming kind of anger. It is so….very…tempting…when we find ourselves in Stephen’s shoes. But his story teaches us that God holds us to a higher standard. 

What standard? The standard of forgiveness. The standard of grace. The standard of doing the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing. 

There’s a TV show called 1923, which stars Harrison Ford and follows the Dutton family building a farming empire in Montana. 

One night at the dinner table, a younger member of the family is questioning his uncle about right and wrong? The uncle responds, “No such thing. Can’t think that way. You can only think about what’s good for this ranch. What’s good for your family. That’s it.”

One hundred years later in 2023, and most folks think like that. It’s understandable, but it’s not what Stephen did. It’s not what the scripture teaches. It’s not what our faith requires. We are held to a higher standard. The standard of grace. The standard of forgiveness. The standard of doing the right thing, even if it’s the hard thing. 

I’ll never know exactly what Rev. Staples meant that day when he asked me if I knew the significance of Stephen. But the more years go by, the more I understand how challenging Stephen’s story is. And more importantly, how important it is to strive for the standard he set of showing grace, forgiving those who do us wrong, and doing the right thing especially when it’s the hard thing.

For if he had not, Saul would not have become Paul. Paul wouldn’t have grown the church among the Gentiles. We might not be here sitting here today in a Christian church 2,000 years later. Amen.

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