Wednesday, December 26, 2012

St. Stephen: Paving the Way for More Love

St. Stephen by Giacomo Cavedone
The story of St. Stephen has a sad and gruesome ending. He was one of the seven selected by the apostles to become one of the first deacons in the church, doing the hands-on work of serving the needs of the widows and orphans while the twelve studied and prayed. In the Book of Acts, he's described as having an angelic face, a regular fresh-scrubbed cherub. And he wasn't shy about speaking out for Jesus Christ. This would eventually be his undoing within the Jewish community. False charges brought against him, which leads to his accusation that the Jewish leaders have consistently killed prophets and rejected the Holy Spirit. You can just imagine how well they received that tongue-lashing from the young deacon:

"When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died."--Acts 7:54-60

Take a moment. Take a deep breath. And now, consider this particular line:

"Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul."

Saul, as we will learn in an upcoming chapter of Acts, is the persecutor of those who follow "The Way" and was en route to Damascus to wage war on the believers in Christ as Messiah when he had an encounter with the resurrected Christ:

"He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."--Acts 9:4-5

Saul is blinded and must now rely on others to lead him into Damascus where a follower of The Way, Ananais, receives the instruction to pray over this man and restore his sight. Despite his misgivings, Ananais follows this order from God, and Saul, now with new eyes to see, becomes St. Paul, the one who would traverse from here to there to establish churches throughout the region and become a major influence on the spread of Christianity.

I have often wondered about the influence it must have had, even if subconsciously, for Saul to witness in approving silence the stoning death of Stephen. We are told that Saul was OK with watching Stephen die. But what was God working in that moment? Could it be that this death would pave the way for more love?

I imagine that this death of Stephen somehow did trouble Saul much in the way I think any person of good conscience gets agitated when they witness injustice, or humans being brutalized. It's the story of those who witness the bullying of their classmates. Perhaps they just stand by and collect the coats of the ones who are throwing the punches. Perhaps they need to do this in order for God to do the work necessary to make them discover empathy for the one who is being beaten up.

It's what happened to me when I witnessed the execution at Florida State Prison in 1996. I was indifferent about the death penalty until I watched the state put a man to death in the electric chair. And my shift in thinking didn't happen right away. It happened over a period of months as the scales fell from my eyes with each report I did for public radio on capital punishment and the justice system. I was no longer on the fence about it when it became clear that it was indefensible.

I imagine, too, this is the process that a former homophobe goes through when they encounter a gay person in a way that blows their prejudices out of the water. It's hard to hold on to beliefs when those beliefs come face-to-face with reality, and the reality isn't as scary or "weird" as one thought.

St. Stephen died with his eyes fixed on the Christ who would not only forgive those who killed the deacon, but would later intervene to take their most ardent enabler and convert him to the purpose of spreading the Good News. More proof that with God, nothing is impossible.

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