Returning Evil With GoodMay 22, 2011, 9:00 am & 11:15 am & 7:30 pm
Fifth Sunday in Easter
Parish Associate for Global Ministry
Order of Worship | Download
Have you ever thought God called you to one thing, only to find out later that God really had led you to something entirely different? The story of Stephen actually begins a few chapters before our text this morning, in Acts chapter 6, when Stephen, a man of good standing and full of the Spirit and wisdom, is chosen by the 12 disciples to help in overseeing the equal daily distribution of food, an important function of the early church.1 Luke doesn’t tell us much about Stephen’s waiting of tables; rather, Luke immediately goes on to say that Stephen, complete with grace and power, is performing great wonders and signs among the people.2 Stephen finds himself witnessing to the resurrected Lord not through his waiter skills, but through his spoken words and Spirit-inspired works. Stephen’s success catches the attention of Israel’s leaders who are unimpressed, and subsequently try to squelch his ministry with a false charge of blasphemy. Seized by the temple authorities, Stephen is brought before the ruling council and responds to his accusers not with a plea for innocence, but instead with a recounting of Israel’s history. It is this speech that enrages Israel’s leaders, causing them to grind their teeth with anger, for in it, Stephen tells of an unrepentant Israel, highlighting God’s faithfulness despite their unfaithfulness. Stephen declares that God is not confined to the Jerusalem temple, but that God is active outside of Israel; God is a God for all people, no matter from where they come. These are fighting words, spoken to a community for which religious life is centered around the temple. Continuing his speech, Stephen does not blaspheme God, but perhaps even more significant, he serves his accusers with the charge of being a stiff-necked people and behaving just as did their ancestors: unfaithful and opposing God.3 Stephen does not repent, but boldly and courageously calls for his accuser’s repentance, which is likely what these men neither expected nor wanted to hear, for it’s difficult to accept harsh and honest words that force us to confess that it is our own behavior that is contrary to God. It’s much easier to point a blaming finger.4 It’s understandable why these men are so angry, for Stephen’s speech cuts to the very core of their people, their faith and their identity.
With anger and grinding teeth, these men have heard enough from Stephen, but Stephen’s words in our text this morning are what seal his doom, for it is here that Stephen does commit blasphemy–when he declares that he sees the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. In these very words, Stephen affirms that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord, that God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived among us, died for us, was raised and now reigns in glory at the right of the God of Israel. Jesus Christ is the long-awaited Messiah, the Savior of Israel, and must be acknowledged as such. To not do so is to reject Christ and be in danger of rejecting God.5 Stephen’s accusers again stand accused, and this time they cover their ears so as not to hear it. Engulfed in anger, with a loud shout they charge en masse against Stephen and stone him.
How do we respond to our enemies? What do we do when our enemies hurl the stones of cutting insults or cruel rumors, or rob us of our possessions or money, or intently seek our injury or the injury of those whom we love? Do we get out of the stones’ way? Do we pick the stones up and throw them back as hard as we can? Do we stand still, victimized, resigned to their painful reality? Of course these aren’t real stones, but in our lives there are people who hurt our persons, our identities, our confidence, our families and our futures. As real stones are hurled at Stephen, stinging and biting his skin and bone, he responds to his enemies with prayer and with forgiveness. As Christ prayed to God from the cross, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” Stephen also commits his Spirit, giving his whole self–his hurting, bloody, wounded self–up to God, faithfully entrusting that God will sustain him in the face of his enemies and of death. Embodying God’s immeasurable love and grace, Stephen, from his knees, asks God for the forgiveness of the very ones who hurl the stones that will kill him. Again, the words of Christ from the cross, “Forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing,” echo in our ears.
A model of Christian discipleship, Stephen’s life–all the way up through his death–is a testimony to the very message and life of Christ, legitimizing the truth of Stephen’s own message.6 Instead of responding out of hatred, Stephen responds with forgiveness, and instead of responding out of fear, Stephen courageously loves those of whom he is afraid. Stephen returns evil with good.
If you’re anything like me, you have difficulty trusting that God will deliver you from the grip of your enemies. We may trust that God will deliver us beyond the grave, but on this side, we find it hard to believe that God is sufficient and all that we need.7 Rather than responding out of love to the insults of a co-worker, to the family member who seeks to sabotage us, or to the person who condemns us for our faith, we respond, instead, out of fear, taking matters into our own hands, and for our own self-preservation we seek to damage the person who wronged us. We pick up the stones thrown at us and throw them back with full force. Rather than praying from our knees, we confront our enemies from our feet, fists in the air. This is returning evil with evil, and giving in to the very thing for which we suffer.
Jesus’ words, to love our enemies, may rattle in our ears, but we dismiss them as an impossible and unrealistic ethic, only achievable by Christ himself. Surely, Jesus did not mean to love our enemies in a time of crisis, danger or fear. Luke, however, in his story of Stephen, does not let us off the hook, for Stephen shows us that the impossibility of loving one’s enemy is indeed possible, though costly.8 I want to make clear that this, of course, does not mean that we should resign ourselves to abuse, but that is the topic of another sermon. As people of Christian faith, we are called to live lives that are counter-cultural, and if we are truly living out our faith–if we are truly feeding the hungry, caring for the widow and orphan, giving welcome to the stranger–if we are truly living with integrity and humility and in obedience to God, then there will be times when this world will cast stones of contempt and mockery, to which we are called to respond with love and forgiveness. We are called to a life that does not hide behind the stones of retaliation, but, instead, clings to the Living Stone–Jesus Christ–who gives us the strength and courage to cast no stone.
This way of living will not only transform your enemies, it will also transform you. No longer will you be held hostage to anger, to fear or to evil. You will be set free to live as a new creation in Christ, returning evil with good. This way of living also has the potential to transform the Church, our communities and the world, which is exactly what Stephen’s faithfulness did, for it was Stephen’s death that was the impetus that moved the Church beyond the confines of Jerusalem. After the men finish stoning Stephen, they lay their coats at the feet of a man named Saul, who not only approves of Stephen’s stoning, but instigates a severe persecution of the Church in Jerusalem, subsequently scattering Christians throughout Judea and Samaria. In an ironic twist, Stephen’s death, which was partly brought on because he declared that God’s presence and activity resided beyond Israel, is now the force propelling the Church outside of Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth. Fulfilling the command spoken by Christ, the transformative message of the resurrected Lord is taken to all people, no matter their home, their country, their race or their language. Using the evil of Stephen’s death and the evil of Saul’s persecution, God proves to be a God who is for all people–a radical and inclusive message!
This Saul, by the way, will go on to be the apostle Paul, the man who, transformed by the love and grace of Christ, continues to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, the very man who suffers on numerous accounts for the very faith he once persecuted, Paul, a pillar of the Christian faith. Again, in the face of evil, God brings forth good.
When Stephen started his ministry serving food and drink, he likely had no idea that God would use his life and death as such a powerful witness to a God that loves and forgives in the face of evil. We, like Stephen, also have no idea how God might use us when we respond to our enemies’ evil with good. Remember, God often does the unexpected, calling us and using us in ways we never dreamed possible.
Tertullian, a church father, said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The church often flourished after times of persecution, for its observers were not only moved by the way in which Christians lived, but also by the way in which they died. The same is true of us today, not because we must die or shed blood for our faith, but because, when we return evil with good, God uses our faithfulness to invite others into God’s transforming love, grace and forgiveness.
In his article “Sticks and Stones” Scott Bader-Saye remembers T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral; a retelling of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket’s martyrdom. Nearing the end of the story, three priests pull Thomas into the Cathedral to save him from the King’s forces, barring the door. However, Thomas, embodying the peaceful faith of Stephen, demands:
Unbar the doors! Throw open the doors!
I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ,
The sanctuary, turned into a fortress.
The church shall be open, even to our enemies.
We are not here to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistance,
Not to fight with beast as men. We have fought the beast
And have conquered. We have only to conquer
Now, by suffering. This is this easier victory.
Now is the triumph of the Cross, now
Open the door! I command it. Open the door!
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
- Acts 6:1-5
- Acts 6:8-9
- Keck, Leander et al. New Interpreters Bible Commentary: Volume X. Nashville: Abingdon, 2002, p129
- Keck, p133
- Willimon, William. Interpretation: Acts. Atlanta: John Knox, 1988. p64
- Kick, p130
- Bader-Saye, Scott. The Christian Century, April 10-17, 2002, p16
- Bader-Saye, p16
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- Returning Evil With Good - May 22, 2011
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- Whose Gospel Is This? - April 24, 2005
- No Power Shortage Here - April 28, 2002
- Why the Church - Who Needs It? - May 2, 1999
- Presbyterian Priests? - May 5, 1996
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