written and preached by Rev. Natalie Shiras
May 22, 2011
Acts 7:55-60 1 Peter 2:2-10
Where do we belong? Well, we belong to Church on the Hill. Most of us have a sense of belonging with our families and our friends. The scripture from the epistle by Peter encourages us to recognize that we belong to the human race, that we are God’s own people. That is the rock on which we stand. That is where we belong, as God’s own people.
We pass through many stages in our lives. Peter’s letter suggests that we are “living stones” and that we are building our lives, stone by stone. We cannot do it alone. That is why God calls us to be a people, welcoming all God’s people to be a “spiritual house”.
Stones or rocks can build up but they can also break down and destroy. If we even had the most fleeting sense that discipleship would be easy, we only need to read this passage today from Acts. Stephen, who belonged to the early church and whose ministry was to care for the widows, was the first Christian witness to die—by being stoned to death. I find it difficult to preach this. It can be scary to be a Christian. I’d rather distance myself as the crowd did when they covered their ears against Stephen’s witness. But this is not just a distant story about other people in another time. It’s a messy reality of someone beaten to death by stones.
In the commission of inhumane acts, one must forcibly shut out the humanity of the person in order to carry out the act. The crowd’s violence against Stephen began when they covered their ears and shouted over his voice. Rushing toward him, they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death, representing a rising tension and intolerance toward this early Christian community.
This past week I viewed a documentary on TV called “The Freedom Fighters”. It was about the student movement for civil rights in the early 1960’s. Buses filled with Black and white college students came from all over the United States into the deep south to integrate lunch counters and bus station waiting rooms. The white mobs were incensed, filled with hate and violence. When 300 students were arrested in one day for sitting in at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Nashville, Tennessee, this seemed to strengthen the students’ resolve, and fresh troops of students arrived on more buses. They were a highly disciplined group who received training in nonviolence to remain calm when they were yelled at with ethnic slurs, punched and beaten by the mob. There was footage of some of the beatings, and you could see a deep calm and discipline among the students.
In one of the most poignant scenes, a bus carrying these students was shot upon by the mob so that all the tires blew out. A bomb was thrown at the bus so that the bus exploded in fire and forced everyone out. Then the white mob set upon the students, beating and stoning them. A white woman who was in a nearby shop could not stand the moans and cries for water. Taking her own life in her hands she brought one of the burned and beaten students water, and then went back for more water for another student, and another. She said that when she saw the suffering, she felt their humanity.
These are stories of conviction. Stephen was convinced because he was filled with the Holy Spirit. He saw the glory of God and he saw Jesus. The mob was incensed at his testimony. But Stephen was not looking at his detractors. He was not judging them or blaming them. He was looking at Jesus. Though he was being stoned, Stephen prayed to Jesus to receive him. He was looking forward.
The freedom fighters also were convinced. They were so convinced about what they were doing, that they were not even distracted by the mob. They focused on what they needed to do. One student interviewed later said that they gained strength from one another. They looked forward. When the American people saw on TV these mobs attacking disciplined and nonviolent students, they were shocked. Everyone was impacted by these events.
We all have a desire to get back a sense of justice. When we are sufficiently angry, it seems like violence is the answer. How do we respond? Do we cover our eyes, let other people fight it, or harden our hearts? Stephen’s confidence and conviction and the conviction of the young freedom fighters reinforce the presence of some greater Spirit here. Stephen cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”.
“Do not hold this sin against them.” In essence, Stephen was forgiving the mob. He was not holding anything against them. Vengeance is not good for the soul. In his Book of Daily Readings Emmett Fox notes that vengeance binds you mentally to the person you are angry with. And if that bind continues, then you will be obsessed with that person. Emmett Fox points out that “no one can afford such a thing so you must loose the tie and let him go. By forgiveness you set yourself free; you save your soul. And because the law of love works alike for one and all, you help to save his soul too.”
The forgiveness of sins out of love is Jesus’ central message. We have heard the proclamation, “God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it!” God’s love cannot be destroyed. God’s love is relentless.
We are called to be a community. We are called because we belong to one another. We care about one another. We are called to build up this community, to forgive one another and practice love. As Christians this is what we are convinced about. This is what we stand for. In all you do, are you building up the community? Or are you breaking it down? This is the rock on which we stand—the community of God’s people, convinced that God loves us. Amen.