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Acts 7:55-60, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
“Making people uncomfortable can now get you killed.” This was the headline of a New York Times editorial earlier this week. As evidence of this harsh reality, the columnist listed several of the recent neighborhood shootings in which someone accidentally ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, triggering some major stranger danger with people who used their guns to defend themselves. The columnist, Roxane Gay, says, “The list of things that can get you killed in public is expanding every single day.”
There’s a line in the song “Fix You” by Coldplay that says we’re “stuck in reverse.” Maybe we are. Regressing. More and more our everyday tragedies look like stories of the old wild west gunfights or the early days of Christianity when people were killed for saying something that challenged the norm.
That’s what happens to Stephen in our scripture reading today. He makes some people uncomfortable and gets killed for it.
We first meet Stephen in chapter six when he is appointed to lead the food distribution program, making him the first ever deacon. He’s described as being “full of faith and the Holy Spirit…a man full of God’s grace and power, [who] performed amazing miracles and signs among the people.” (6:8) You’d think everyone would love Stephen, but…
“… one day some men from the Synagogue of Freed Slaves…started to debate with him. ….None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.
“So they persuaded some men to lie about Stephen, saying, ‘We heard him blaspheme Moses, and even God.’ This stirred up the people, the elders, and the teachers of religious law. So they arrested Stephen and brought him before the high council.” (Acts 6:9-12)
In response to the charges being made against him, Stephen gives the longest sermon in the book of Acts [50 verses long], recounting the stories of Abraham and Moses, David and Solomon, and ending with this:
51 “You stubborn people! You are heathenat heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! 52 Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. 53 You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)
No wonder they’re angry. Stephen has been accused of disobeying God’s law, but Stephen turns the accusation back on them, accusing the council of disobeying God’s law by killing the Messiah.
Stephen might be overstating things a bit. These men on the council didn’t kill Jesus themselves. Roman officials did. But the Jewish leaders at the time had handed Jesus over to the Romans because he was a threat to their power. He made them uncomfortable.
Stephen then has a vision of Jesus standing next to God in heaven and describes it. This becomes the tipping point. They think this is surely blasphemy, so they put their hands over their ears so they can’t hear it, and they take Stephen outside and throw stones at him until he dies.
Making people uncomfortable could get you killed back then, just as it can today.
How is it that people are capable of doing such horrible things to one another?
Fear and anger are powerful emotions. As Christians, we might think we’re immune because we’re under the control of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is remarkably easy to ignore. And in some ways, Christians can be even more susceptible to temptation, especially if we think we’re above it all.
There’s an episode of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries in which a man is found dead in the church yard, having been hit over the head with a hammer. The episode, fittingly, is called “The Hammer of God.” The man who’s been murdered is not well liked. He doesn’t even get along with his brother, the local priest. So there are plenty of suspects, but it turns out [spoiler alert] it was the priest. Looking down from the clock tower he saw his brother doing something that made him uncomfortable, and the priest mistook his anger and judgment for righteousness from God, and threw a hammer down at his brother. Even though it was thrown at a distance, it struck the brother square on his head, and the added weight of gravity made it a lethal blow. It was such a perfect blow that the priest thought God must have meant for his brother to die. The priest was literally and metaphorically looking down on people, thinking himself better and entitled to judge others.
Have any of us ever thought someone deserved their misfortune because they were doing or representing something that made us uncomfortable?
In the early days of Christianity, Jesus’ ways made many people uncomfortable and his followers were often persecuted. Peter, in his letters, writes to new churches encouraging them amid their suffering to keep their eyes on Jesus and to keep growing despite their challenges.
“Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” (1 Peter 2:2)
“Pure spiritual milk” is God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ and in God’s word. Instead of looking down on people or focusing on our difficult circumstances, Peter tells us to keep our eyes on Jesus, like Stephen did as he was being stoned. Peter continues his encouragement by telling us what happens as we keep walking with Jesus:
“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” (2 Peter 2:3)
A living stone is a curious metaphor after hearing the story of Stephen being killed by stones. It reminds me of the words of the prophet Ezekiel who said that the Holy Spirit would take our hearts of stone and turn them into hearts of flesh. Hard hearts might kill people with stones. Soft hearts that follow the leading of the Holy Spirit become living stones, full of love, and flexible and able to adjust to the inevitable challenges life brings, and able to grow.
Brian McLaren, in his book Faith After Doubt, says that doubts and struggles with new ideas that make us uncomfortable are how we grow from one stage of faith to another. Without doubts, we stay where we’re comfortable. If we’re willing to consider things that are outside our comfort zone, willing to move from certainty to uncertainty, we can trust Jesus to walk with us as we ask questions and learn and move forward.
What are humans capable of? Horrible things as well as wonderful things.
We have an amazing ability to grow and learn and help one another.
Think about how much the world has changed since the first century. Think about how much the world has changed even in the last few decades. In 1985, the National Institutes of Health began the massive project of mapping the human genome. In the 1990’s when I worked at a medical laboratory, that DNA mapping project was already providing the medical community with information, and the laboratory I worked for was one of several that were developing the first diagnostic tests that used DNA. This was also the era of HIV and AIDS, a disease that was almost certain death for those who got it in those days. But as the use of DNA testing grew, it became a way to more specifically target antiviral drugs to combat the rapidly mutating HIV/AIDS virus. I remember having special processing protocols for HIV/AIDS testing because results that took longer than 24 hours were likely to be worthless because the virus would already have changed too much.
DNA testing is now a routine tool for medicine and law enforcement, as well as the research many of us now do on our own to learn about our family history. But when DNA testing first came out, every patient being tested had to sign a multi-page legal document that waived the laboratory’s legal liability for the use of that DNA information. Back then there was a great deal of fear of ways that DNA testing might be used for exploitation and discrimination, and many patients refused DNA testing because of that fear, even though the results could help their doctors treat them more effectively. Knowledge is power and with power comes the potential for abuse.
Fear of new things or fear of the unknown can keep us from moving forward, fixed like stone. We want certainty and safety. But we cannot grow that way, and there is the danger of making idols of certainty and safety instead of trusting God to carry us through the uncertainty that comes with growing.
What are humans capable of? Horrible things, wonderful things, greater things than even Jesus did.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, he told his disciples:
I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. (John 14:12)
Jesus knew what he was going to do, opening the way for us to have a better relationship with God, and to have the Holy Spirit guiding and inspiring us. At the time Jesus said this, Christianity had barely begun. Now it is well known around the globe, and the love of God and neighbor that Jesus taught has inspired Christians to accomplish amazing feats of art and science, to make education accessible for nearly all people, to build hospitals and universities, and countless acts of great love.
What makes you uncomfortable these days?
How might that be the Holy Spirit helping you to learn and grow?
The way forward is to keep looking to Jesus, who told the disciples:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. (John 14:1)
Trust in God and trust in Jesus. Everything else may fall apart, but God will carry us through, and the Holy Spirit will help us to accomplish whatever God has planned for us.
 Roxane Gay https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/04/opinion/jordan-neely-killed.html?auth=login-google
 Photo by Mark Ingraham: https://www.pexels.com/photo/abandoned-truck-near-an-old-house-12549225/
 By Carlo Crivelli – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Wlkernan. description page is/was here. Taken on 14 May 2005, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1987898
 Photo by Pille Kirsi: https://www.pexels.com/photo/macro-photo-of-a-rock-1093207/
 Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash
 Photo by Naveen Jack on Unsplash
 Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash
 Photo by Sangharsh Lohakare on Unsplash