Wednesday, December 26, 2012

For Saint Stephen's Day

In this early Rembrandt painting, the artist's head appears directly behind Stephen's.

Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was one of seven leaders chosen by the early church to help minister to the needs of his fellow Greek-speaking believers, according to Acts 6 and 7.

Not a controversial assignment, so why does this young deacon provoke such outrage on the part of Jerusalem’s religious establishment? And why is his public defense, so laced with familiar stories from their Bible, so controversial?

Blasphemy is the original charge brought against him. Stephen was accused of disrespecting two sacred Jewish symbols, the temple and the Torah (Law). To even question the need for a temple, for example, seemed unthinkable to those who had only recently acquired their new house of worship (courtesy of King Herod) and who controlled the finances and clergy required to operate it.

Under Roman rule, established religion at this time was flourishing, at least from the perspective of the local clerics and court lawyers. Their one remaining dream was to have Messiah come to bring a full restoration of their national sovereignty. But Stephen claimed that God needed neither of these, and chose the following examples from history to make his point:

1. God favors the landless and dispossessed

Stephen reminded his listeners that Abraham and Sarah, the ancestral heroes of their faith, were landless immigrants. While God called them to a new land, they “never owned even a foot of it,”  he said. Stephen didn’t mention the one field Abraham did purchase--a burial site--his point being that God sides with sojourners moving about with tents rather than with people settled in fortified palaces. 

This is good news to newly baptized followers of the Way, largely members of Jerusalem’s landless underclass.

2. God works through ostracized and unconventional leaders

Stephen’s next point is that the leaders God calls are seldom people who would win a popular election, citing Joseph as a prime example. His brothers hated him and sold him to Egyptian slave traders, but God chose this rejected son of Israel as their deliverer.

The same was true of Moses. In Stephen’s time, he was the most revered of all Jewish leaders, but he too was originally a mistrusted member of the oppressor Pharoah’s administration.

God’s choice of outsiders represented good news to a maverick community of believers led by twelve unschooled apostles and their seven immigrant helpers. It was just like God, Stephen insisted, to raise up prophets and servant-leaders rejected by their peers but confirmed by God and by later history. Jesus himself, he says, the keystone that the “builders” of his time rejected, became the chief cornerstone in God’s new architecture, and “You cruelly persecuted and killed him, just as you did all the other prophets of God.”

3. God prefers buildings not made by human hands

Stephen's stoning took place near the site of Herod’s Temple, the sacred center of Jewish worship that Jesus once predicted would be demolished. To question God’s link to this symbol of their faith was shocking. But Stephan pointed out that God lived without such a shrine for most of history. The only house of worship God designed, he reminded them, was a mobile tent, the tabernacle God’s people carried from place to place during Israel’s wilderness journey and early years in Canaan. Yes, King David later asked God’s permission to build a more permanent house for God, but that permission was granted (reluctantly?) only to his son Solomon.
Stephen then declares, “The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” Then quoting from Isaiah 66, he adds, “‘Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool, so what kind of house will you build for me?’ says the Lord?”
To members of a grassroots house church movement, this too was good news. God’s presence was truly among them as they met in each other's homes to worship and break bread together. The gathered believers themselves made up God’s new temple.

Concluding Questions For St. Stephen’s Day

Is God still inclined to vacate existing religious institutions in favor of leaner movements empowered by fresh winds of the Spirit and led by members of the underclass? 

Does God remain as uninterested in our multi-million dollar budgets for temple and institution building today as was the case 2000 years ago?

Stephen’s message suggests some disturbing--and liberating--answers.
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