I don’t think I can ignore the martyrdom of St. Stephen. We’re commissioning Terry Paarlberg as a Stephen Leader this morning. That rite does not include a stoning, don’t get nervous. But the Acts reading does. I can’t leave a murder unmentioned. Stephen is a Deacon, one of seven appointed to serve within the newborn church to lead in the care of the vulnerable so that the twelve apostles could focus on worship and preaching. Stephen’s loving service really annoys some people who get in an argument with him and won’t leave him alone. He won’t stop caring for the vulnerable. So these people find some false witnesses, who accuse Stephen of threatening to burn the books of Moses, undo all Hebrew customs, and destroy the Temple.
If Stephen’s goal in his trial is to get the charges dropped, he goes about it all wrong. He starts by saying God never promised Stephen’s own Hebrew people national independence. People living under Roman occupation don’t want to hear that. Then, Stephen points out famous instances of the leaders and the masses refusing to listen to God’s prophets. He ends his speech with, “You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” It’s a gutsy move. He uses his public platform to speak a prophetic word that corresponds to his work as a deacon. The Sanhedrin does not want to hear its official narrative of Hebrew Greatness debunked by some guy who does First Century Meals on Wheels. So, they stone Stephen. The protocol for a stoning was to strip the convict, throw him down from about ten feet into a designated pit or depression, and then have the trial witnesses, in order of appearance, hurl boulders on the convict until death.
The formal procedure heightens the resonance with Luke’s version of Christ’s passion. We may have detected similarities already. Stephen says he sees the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Jesus told the Sanhedrin, “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” Stephen prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” a paraphrase of Psalm 31, like Jesus’ own paraphrase from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” As Stephen dies, he says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” just as Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Stephen prays to Jesus the way Jesus prays to the Father, and Stephen dies as Jesus dies.
Though not just as. Jesus dies on a cross, where Stephen dies by stoning, and with Jesus the Sanhedrin gets Pilate and Rome to kill him, whereas with Stephen, the Sanhedrin itself carries out the murder. With Jesus, they could say, “Well, legally speaking, Pilate ordered the crucifixion.” With Stephen, the guilt rests squarely on the Sanhedrin. They have become Rome, the evil empire that occupies them. Stephen’s death exposes how the Sanhedrin presents itself as the anti-Rome, but in so doing is Rome. Stephen’s death exposes the Sanhedrin’s “self-fashioning.”
The term “self-fashioning” comes from Stephen Greenblatt, a Harvard humanities professor and Shakespeare scholar. He uses it to describe how in the English renaissance people tried to construct their identities. He observes that for all our prizing of the individual, we define ourselves in relation to others. He’s hardly the first to say this, but it’s an important starting point. Greenblatt argues that self-fashioning involves submission to an authority defined as good, and yet self-fashioning is achieved in relation to an “alien” or “threatening Other,” which “must be discovered or invented in order to be destroyed.” Greenblatt argues that in our defense of the good authority we find that we carry the evil alien as part of our identity, and we become that alien, the enemy.
I think we see that happen in the stoning of Stephen. The Sanhedrin is trying to defend Moses, the Covenant, and Tradition. That’s their “authority.” Their “alien” or “threatening Other” is Rome. Hebrews had special rights in Rome, but Roman society frequently harassed the Hebrews. In Judea, you couldn’t miss that you were in occupied territory. At Passover, Pontius Pilate was in scuzzy Jerusalem rather than fabulous Caesarea by the Sea, because at Passover the Roman army moved into Jerusalem to keep the Hebrews from getting any ideas about turning their liberation festival into a revolution. The Hebrew leaders hate Rome, but they need Rome, because Rome is who they are not. The Hebrews defend Moses, the Covenant, and Tradition against these guys. Only today, facing a deacon with a van full of food for widows, the leaders wind up losing something of themselves and become the thing they hate the most. They become Rome.
We, too, seek and invent enemies in our quest to define ourselves. When I was a child, the alien was Communism. Who are we? We are not the Soviet Union. But, they went out of business. Who is the enemy now? Maybe the most ubiquitous alien is the Other Political Party. Even if you don’t identify with one I bet you identify over against one. Who are you? Well, I’m not a member of that party, I can tell you that. And then we defend our authorities by becoming our enemies. Look at the chief news story last week. (This’ll be my only comment on it.) When James Comey is going after the other side, it’s okay; when he comes after your side, it’s not okay. Each side naturally embraces all the things that they accuse the other side of doing. We do to our enemies the things we accuse them of doing to us. Stephen’s death reveals our self-fashioning by showing how we become our “threatening others.” Stephen’s death also reveals our self-fashioning by conforming to Christ. That is, Stephen refuses to take part in the process, and instead lets Christ define everything.
At Adult Forum last week, George Heider talked about how each gospel has its own primary understanding of the atonement, and how Luke’s Jesus with his profound concern for others on the way to the cross and even on the cross is an image of learning to die. We learn how to let go of ourselves in caring for others. Well, Luke writes Acts, and in Acts 7 Stephen follows Christ in dying. He has learned how to die to this world. When he sees the Son of Man at God’s right hand, he has learned trust: God indeed sees what is happening. When he commends his spirit to Jesus, he trusts that God has the Beyond well in hand. When he asks that his killers be forgiven, he expresses ultimate forgiveness, the kind of forgiving God does. Even before Stephen dies, he’s already “died” to this world. Even before Stephen dies, he is “with Jesus.”
Jesus is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. In Jesus we break free of the need for self-fashioning. We’re always constituted by an other. That’s part of being human. Jesus eliminates our need for an enemy by forgiving his enemies. Stephen, in his martyrdom, embraces this. But in the Gospel of John, Jesus does one better: he eliminates the need for the authority, the thing we say we’re defending when we attack our enemies. When the Sanhedrin says they’re defending Moses, God, and the Temple, those things really have become idols to them. Jesus eliminates them, or our contemporary versions of them, and defines us entirely on his own.
Jesus defines us by being everything. In John 14 he does this with the triple metaphor: I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. As the Way, Truth, and Life, Jesus is our access to God, the revealer of God, and the reality of God. He is the way to the goal and the goal itself. The Sanhedrin turns the Temple, Tradition, and even God into idols by removing them to a safe distance. We do that with our idols. We remove them to a safe distance so we can describe them and they aren’t able to comment. In Jesus the Word of God is always right next to us and on top of us. We never reach him without following, and we never follow without reaching. And he’s God: he doesn’t need us to tell him what to do or protect him from others. We can let him define us, and not worry about inventing an enemy.
So today we remember Stephen. It’s not his Feast Day. That’s December 26. If you’re ever feeling too jolly on the day after Christmas you can read this story and become suitably grinchy again. But on this Day of Resurrection in the season of Easter, we remember Stephen who understood how to die to this world and live in Christ. His witness is a necessary reminder. In trying to define ourselves we become what we hate defending what we call good. Jesus erases this. He forgives his enemies, and he nullifies our attempts to defend him by taking care of himself, and calling us to follow him. To let go. To let God be in charge. Christ has got this.