Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sermon on Stephen?

I like the story of St. Stephen, and I think it's a shame that we only get a glimpse of it in our reading this Sunday. Well, I'm thankful that we don't get his entire speech. (Go back and read Acts 7. There are 53 long verses of his speech against his opponents. It's great reading but not from the lectern in church.) But I wish we had more of the story.

Here's the synopsis:

  • Some of the widows were being neglected, and the apostles didn't have time to make sure they got their bread, so seven deacons were appointed to help out. Stephen was one.
  • Stephen is never recorded as doing deaconal work. Instead, he goes straight into testifying about Jesus in the synagogues.
  • He is arrested and brought before the religious authorities, where he launches into a speech decrying his opponents as "stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, [who] always resist the Holy Spirit."
  • Enraged, they mob him, rush him out of the city, and stone him to death, where Saul looks on approvingly.
Our lesson from Acts on Sunday only gives us 6 verses of the story. As a result, we're left with several things going on at once, none of which receives full treatment.

First, it's a transition in the life of Saul. This is the zealous, anti-Christian foundation that precedes his conversion, which is skipped over in next week's lesson from Acts (Paul preaching at the Areopagus). But there's not much to it. We don't get to see the conversion, and the preacher might end up preaching on something that isn't there.

Second, it's a statement about what Stephen sees--the Son of Man at the right hand of the father. That's a statement about Jesus' exaltation, which we won't really deal with until Ascension Day--two weeks from now. It's a remarkable piece of theology, but this doesn't seem like the time to say it.

Third, it's a passage about forgiveness. His last words are, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them," which is a powerful statement about seeing the good and hope even in those who are killing you. Maybe there's enough there to preach on, but I have a feeling that Acts is going to be read and largely ignored in a lot of churches this Sunday.

Maybe there's a thread of rejection in all of the lessons this week. The mob "cover their ears," refusing to hear the testimony that Stephen gives. Peter writes about those who reject the stone (Jesus), which has become the chief cornerstone. Jesus addresses Philip, explaining that whoever has seen him has seen the father--a stretch to equate that with a theme of rejection, but it's possible.

Still not sure what will come this week. I've written a funeral sermon on John 14. I've also written a sermon on 1 Peter 2 in my mind that relates to the Rite 13 Celebration we have this Sunday. I've also imagined a sermon on Stephen that hasn't quite taken shape. It makes me nervous that it's Thursday and the "right" answer hasn't shown up yet. We'll see what comes out by Sunday.

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