If Stephen was going to be stoned to death today, it would not be by Jewish authorities (see Acts 7:55-60). It would be by the Christians who would rather cover their ears than encounter the transformative message of unconditional love. Two thousand years later, he would be killed for the same reasons, but the ones throwing the stones would be us--the institutional church who have gone deaf to the confrontational, earth-shattering, foundation-shifting message of the gospel.
We'd kill Jesus all over again, too, but that's not Sunday's lesson. This Sunday, we hear of the first martyr, whose powerful, convicting testimony to the religious leaders of his day got him killed. If you go back and read the story of Acts 7, with only a few little changes, you could restate Stephen's criticism of his executioners as a criticism of contemporary institutional Christianity:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the [gospel] as delivered by [God's son] and did not keep it. (Acts 7:51-53)
Who killed William Tyndale? Who killed Thomas Cranmer? Who killed Thomas More? Who killed Margaret Pole? Who killed Franz Jägerstätter? Who killed Oscar Romero? Who killed Martin Luther King, Jr.? It may not have been you or me who lit the fire or tied the noose or pulled the trigger, but each of them was killed because they opposed institutions and individuals that were ostensibly Christian. We may argue rightly that the people and institutions who killed those Christian martyrs were not genuinely Christian. (Who would argue that the Third Reich was a Christian institution?) But each of them was Christian at least in name, and the same danger--though hopefully without consequences as violent or tragic as these--can creep into our own version of religion without us realizing it.
Grace is hard to hear. For those of us with any power or privilege, grace is deconstructing. It always says that our accomplishments, achievements, and accolades are inhibitions for the work of the gospel. As Paul wrote, "I count all of that as loss." It means nothing. The gospel has undone all of it. That's bad news for those of us for whom religion has become a ladder for our advancement. Whether it's clergy like me who get paid very well to do this work or corporate executives who have used church and the relationships it offers for advancement or anyone for whom their allegiance to Christ has become a merit badge of social acceptability, those of us who profit off the back of Jesus are only steps away from stoning Stephen. When tomorrow's prophet points out our hypocrisy, we place him in the crosshairs.
Without repentance, we let our own stones fly. Those stones are the labels we give to those who threaten our positions--radicals, socialists, hippies, false prophets, wolves in sheep's clothing, liberals, and revisionists. We must repent. We must accept the ways in which we have become deaf to the deconstructing work of the gospel in our own lives. We must hear the prophet's call and, as we've heard in the last few weeks' readings from Acts, repent and start again. If we are not willing to hear that criticism, then we cover our ears and rush against the gospel in rage. Without self-examination and repentance, we are the ones who stone Stephen.