11 May 2017

Acts 7:55-60

“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” (v. 59)

Psalm: Psalm 2:1-8


I never thought that within my lifetime I would hear of people being stoned to death in the name of religion. What have we come to? And it is so easy to say, "Well, this is the work of misguided fundamentalists of other religions." But fundamentalism of any religion can lead us to use Scripture to justify injustice and brutality. We label others and they can then be treated in ways which would otherwise be anathema. If that labelling and treatment are then backed up by the 'authority' of our particular scriptures then they are difficult, if not impossible, to gainsay. So we can understand how the 'heretic' Stephen ought to be stoned according to the perception of those who killed him. What is needful in interpreting the passage is an admission that it is a warning to be conscious of human brutality that can be fired from age to age.

So that is one side of the story. But there is another. Stephen, like other early Christians, was motivated to share what he believed to be the love of God. Put aside thoughts of the Resurrection for a moment, and focus on the cross. We sometimes cover the death of Jesus with a gloss of theology which seeks to wipe away the enormity of what happened. We want to see this torture and death as part of God's plan. I think that is bordering on the blasphemous. Our difficulty with it is partly why Jurgen Moltmann in his bookThe Crucified Godsees the cross as the test of what it means to be Christian. It is that test because no other faith movement has been initiated in the death of its deity. Christianity appears to be foolish. But this foolishness is rooted and grounded in the life of a man who told truth to power and offered love to the loveless. His action caused the religious and secular authorities to be ranged against him. And in all of this, he never denied love to those who despised, derided and ultimately executed him. Stephen was following in the same footsteps, no more, no less.

To Ponder

  • Are you ever tempted to violence against those who challenge your perspective on faith? And how do you resist it?
  • How far are we willing to go, rather than deny God's love for those who might hurt us?

Bible notes author

The Revd Andrew Pratt

Andrew is a Methodist supernumerary presbyter, Honorary Research Fellow at Luther King House, Manchester, and author. He has written over 1,300 hymns.