Famous Last Words

Recently I traveled to Germany as part of a delegation from the New York Conference of the UCC.  We were there to learn, first hand, what the churches are doing to deal with the refugee crisis.  Since 2015, Germany has received approximately one million refugees, out of a total population of 80 million.  The country was completely unprepared for this massive influx and so the German government called upon the German churches to help fill in the gap.  And they did and they are, in amazing and bold and innovative ways

Now since we were a church group visiting other church groups, we saw lots and lots and lots of churches: big churches and small churches, old churches and new churches.  And I loved every minute of it!  I’m a church geek and visiting churches is one of my favorite things to do.  Just ask poor Marcos… who has been dragged into more dimly lit, incense-filled sanctuaries than you can shake a stick at. 

The first church I visited in Germany was not one of those impressive Gothic structures.  Instead it was mid-century modern, with clean lines and elegant simplicity. One entire wall of the sanctuary was made of stained glass, from floor to ceiling. At first it seemed that I was only looking at a scattering of colors – non-representational splashes of blue and red and purple.  But eventually I made out the image of a fallen figure, arms upstretched.  Odd shaped pieces of stained glass seemed to rain down upon him.  I still didn’t get what I was looking at until one of the members reminded me that this was the Protestant Church of St. Stephen and the window was a representation of the stoning of Stephen.  

Stephen, an early Christian leader, has the unenviable distinction of being the very first martyr of the faith.  There would be many others.  So who was this man and how did he get into so much trouble? 

The early church was growing very fast and the apostles needed help in dealing with the physical needs of the congregation.  And so they appointed seven deacons, one of whom was Stephen, to take care of the money used to help widows, orphans and poor people. That was and is a noble task that the church is still charged with.  So how are we doing? 

Now at the very same time that the church was growing so fast, tensions were building between the Temple establishment and the Jewish followers of Jesus because of that growth.  The Christians were suddenly seen as a threat.  And Stephen, for whatever reasons, was seen as a particular threat.  And so he was arrested on trumped up charges and brought before the religious court, called the Sanhedrin.

Stephen was an eloquent speaker. And he used his rhetorical gifts in that courtroom setting to argue that in Jesus Christ, God was doing a new thing.  Part of this new thing was the proclamation that God’s presence could never be contained in a building - not even the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem.  And that seemingly benign assertion caused all hell to break loose.  It was interpreted to mean that Stephen showed contempt for the God whose home the Temple was. Under Roman law, an affront to the Temple (and thus God) was one crime that the Jewish authorities could settle for themselves.  And it was a capital offense.

A mob mentality erupted, like a sudden and ferocious storm.  The people pushed Stephen to the edge of town, where there was a stoning pit, 12 feet deep so he couldn’t escape. As was the custom, Stephen was pushed from behind by one of his accusers, falling face down.  Sometimes the fall itself killed the person.  But if not, then a second accuser would be lowered into the pit where he would drop a large stone on the heart of the accused.  If that didn’t do the trick, then that second accuser would be lifted out of the pit while the rest of the people began raining down stones on the victim. All of this was dictated by strict protocol, including that there be an official witness to the proceedings.  That witness, holding the coats of the executioners, was a man named Saul, who would later on become the Apostle Paul.

Now I’m pretty sure that if I were in that pit, unjustly accused, I would have gone to my death cursing those who stoned me. But not Stephen.  Instead, incredulously, he cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  And then in an even louder voice he said: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” sounding very much like Jesus who from the cross said: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”  

So how did Stephen get to the place where he could offer forgiveness to those who perpetrated violence against him?  The tendency is to assume that somehow saints are special, not at all like us.  We romanticize the people in the Bible to such an extent that we have nothing in common with them.  We cannot see ourselves in a story like this one.  But we are in a story like this one because Deacon Stephen was like us - far from perfect.  When you read the whole story and not just the ending, you learn his during appearance before the Sanhedrin, Stephen had spoken rather disrespectfully to the elders. He provoked them and insulted their understanding of religious history, until they were at a boiling point. And that actually sounds like something I would do. 

But how did he move so quickly from provocation to reconciliation?  The short answer is that Stephen caught a vision of something far bigger than his present moment.  Acts records that Stephen saw the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.  Stephen saw into eternity.  And in that light, he understood life to be about far more than what is immediate.  Stephen had a vision of Jesus.

If we only define our lives by the present moment; if all we do is wallow in the mire of cable news and Facebook feeds; if our reality is only reactionary; then that will shape our vision of the world and the future.  And it will be dark and apocalyptic.  But Christian faith is not just about today.  It’s always been about what yet might be.  It’s about God’s vision.  And God’s vision for the world gives us a very different perspective about how all things end, including our earthly lives. 

Endings are so important.  In 1991, I was preparing to leave my first church.  The senior minister, George Baily, was leaving at the same time, so that was a real challenge for the congregation. One day, while discussing how to come to a good end at that parish, George said something that I have never forgotten: “James, we have to do our leaving right because how you leave lasts in the minds of the people much longer than anything you ever did.”  How things end matters.  And a broad, inclusive vision helps us to end well.

We need a vision of Jesus to get us through these dark days in our national life.  We need a vision of Jesus to understand our congregation’s mission and future. We need a vision of Jesus to remind us of the beauty and wonder of simply being alive.  We need a vision of Jesus so broad and generous that we come to our last day, no matter how we end, speaking words of blessing, forgiveness and peace.  We need a vision of Jesus.