Stephen and the Sanhedrin: Speaking when Listening is Hard

Thanks to New Creation Fellowship church for letting me preach this past Sunday. Below is the text of my sermon, which focuses on the stoning of Stephen.~Rebecca

Today’s lectionary text is the story of Stephen, protomartyr, the first person who we know to be killed for following Jesus. It’s a story found only in Acts, but it gives us the template for what we like in a martyr story: a tense interaction with more powerful authorities, a dramatic speech, a violent death, and a bad guy whose about to have a change of heart. In this telling, Saul—soon to be known as Paul—looks like a minor character, but the entire story sets him up to be a dynamic character, the one who undergoes a massive change of heart. Here, we see him nodding with approval at the murder of Stephen—not lifting a hand to throw a rock but encouraging a brainless crowd to do the dirty work of killing Stephen for him.

The story–which begins in Acts 6:8 and takes all of chapter 7–is quite long. And it tells a story that people familiar with the Hebrew scriptures knows. In fact, that’s why Stephen tells it. He is being brought before the Sanhedrin, a court of 71 Jewish rabbis, in Jerusalem. In front of the most important body of Jewish scholars, he launches into a lengthy history of God’s promises to Jews, promises that illustrate both God’s greatness and God’s goodness. And he goes on and on—for 53 verses, in fact. It would be like if you appeared before the Supreme Court and launched into a lecture on the history of the US legal system. It doesn’t seem necessary, and, in fact, it seems cocky. What could Stephen be telling them that they don’t already know?

And then he delivers the words that enrage them: the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands.

This seems like a thing that his accusers could agree with. Indeed, he is quoting Isaiah, a prophet of their faith. Surely, this group of senior religious teachers knew exactly the passage he was referencing.

So why are they outraged?

****

Where did Stephen deliver his words? In the temple. Literally, the Sanhedrin met there to hear cases of blasphemy, the crime he was accused of. So Stephen shows up to the temple, the place the Jews built under Solomon and then rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah, to worship God. And he says to them: This temple is nothing. God is not here. The thing that you built, thinking that it was where God lives—God scoffs at your misunderstanding of the God’s greatness.

To understand why Stephen’s word hurt so much, we must remember that the building of the Temple was central to re-establishing Jewish identity in Jerusalem after the city had been captured by neo-Babylonians generations earlier. The captured Jews were exiled 1600 miles away but were eventually able to return. When they did, they rebuilt the city walls to keep out invaders and rebuilt the temple. And they didn’t let other Yahweh worshippers, like the Samaritans, in.

Their ancestors had taken great risk, leaving cosmopolitan Babylon to return to a land they only knew about from their parents’ and grandparents’ stories. When they arrived, they worked with tools in one hand and swords in the other to be ready to fend off attackers. In an effort to define themselves as a people, they defined themselves against the Samaritans, who were also their ancestors. And part of defining themselves against the Samaritans was their insistence that sacrifices could only be made in the Temple. The Samaritans, in contrast, argued that they could be made other places as well—that God was not, indeed, tied to a specific place. By the time of Jesus, the tension between the two groups was so ingrained Jesus was able to reference it in his Parable of the Good Samaritan, knowing that his audience would know that the Jew and the Samaritan in the story were assumed to be enemies.

Indeed, the Sanhedrin, who met in the Temple, were comprised of three classes of men: priests, Levites, who were members of the tribe that supplied assistants to the priests, and men whose families were considered to have the “purity” of blood necessary to allow their daughters to marry priests. The Temple and the Sanhedrin both represented purity of identity.

So the Temple meant a lot to these Jews. It gave them an identity and a history. It helped defined them as a people against other Yahweh worshippers. And it was an area of their lives where they, as Jews, had control, when so much of the rest of their lives was under the control of Roman occupiers. In another generation, the Temple would be destroyed again, this time by Roman forces who were trying to quell Jewish dissent. So the Jewish leaders themselves likely knew that too much rabble rousing among the Jews would endanger the Temple and Jewish life in Jerusalem more broadly. Stephen wasn’t just hurting their feelings—he was risking their lives.

But he was also quoting their own Scriptures back to them. And, boy, that had to hurt. To have your own words flung back at you. To know, in some way, that they were right. But to know that recognizing that would mean a major—and dangerous—revision. If God wasn’t in the Temple, then the Samaritans wouldn’t be wrong to worship outside of it. If God wasn’t in the Temple, then God must be bigger than the Jews had recognized. If God was bigger than they recognized, then they had to admit that they had wanted a small God for some reason. And that might mean admitting that they were afraid of the demands that a more expansive God might place on them.

But Stephen, despite his boldness and his scolding, also loves the men he presents this to. He sees himself as one of them. After all, he addresses them with affection and a recognition of their common Jewishness: Listen to me, fathers and brothers! He is one of them; he shares their history, as he demonstrates in his retelling of it. Some Biblical scholars argue that Stephen is anti-Jewish, as he is anti-Temple, but he seems to be saying, I am one of you, which is why I am reminding you of what our prophet Isaiah said: you cannot box God in. The one who created the whole world is bigger too big for your Temple and too big for your nationalistic visions.  

That’s terrifying to hear if what you need is a God you can box in so that you can box your enemies out. And it is terrifying if what you need is a God you can control so that your fellow believers don’t agitate the murderous Roman regime too much.

Then Stephen drives the point home: They are uncircumcised in heart and spirit. Ouch. To be the premier Jews, by training and tribe and family lineage, and to be told that you are uncircumcised—the very mark used to distinguish Jewish men from non-Jewish men! As Mennonites, we have no insult that is equal in comparison. Tell me I can’t sign my part in four-part harmony. Tell me my bierocks are soggy or my whoopie pies are flat. Leave me out of the Mennonite game entirely. But you can’t hurt me like that accusation would have hurt Stephen’s listeners. He’s saying, basically, You look the part, but you aren’t the real thing. All those signals you send out to let others know that you’re the pure, authentic, and only be ones loved by God—they’re lies. And it’s not just you—your ancestors, the ones who built this worthless Temple and the ones who rebuilt it—they were the same way. The prophets you lift up now—if you were alive back then, you would have been the ones murdering them. Don’t quote Isaiah at me when you know that you would have been the ones he was yelling at! You have all the advantages of people loved by God, and yet you waste God’s grace every time you get it!

What do they do? They cover their ears and shout over him.

Why? Why do we cover our ears and shout when we are hearing something hard?

Have you ever been in an argument when you’ve done that? Maybe you did it as a child—stuck your fingers in your ears and sang “la la la la” as loudly as you could to drown out the noise of a parent or sibling telling you what to do.

****

I want to tell you a different story, about some visitors who were in our town recently. A few weeks ago, members of Westboro Baptist Church came here to picket. They were drawn by our city’s consideration of an ordinance that would protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination. They picketed near city hall. As many of you know, I spent many years studying this group for my graduate work, and that research led to a book about them. So, of course, I wanted to go see them again in person.

We were on the cusp of a stay-at-home order, so the city streets were pretty quiet. Police presence was significant given that there were only a few protestors. A few people yelled at the picketers when they drove by, and, at one point, police intervened when some young men rolled up quickly to the sidewalk, threw open their car door, and jumped out to engage with church members.

I brought my oldest son along with me to observe. For me, it was not a big deal. I’ve been to many, many pickets, almost all of them far more tense than this one. But when we got back to the car, my 15-year-old was shaking a little bit. For him, this was an intense experience. And it was tense for others who walked or drove past, too. For me, it was not a big deal. And that is not merely because of my temperament, which tends to be calm in stressful situations, or because I am an experienced ethnographer of hate. It’s also because I’m not upset if people shout at me that I’m going to hell. I am not upset if people claim that coronavirus is a punishment God. I’m not angered that people believe that loving our queer community members will doom our city.

Why not?

Because I don’t believe those things are true. I’m as upset about someone telling me to go to hell as I am about them telling me to go to Mars. Me going to Mars is more likely, in fact, and I detest flying. Like, how can it hurt my feelings to hear people say things that aren’t true, even if they say them loudly and rudely? When people say things that aren’t true, they only make me think poorly of them; they don’t make me think poorly of myself.

But you know what does hurt? When people say things that are true about me. You can tell me I’m going to hell and since I don’t believe you, it doesn’t hurt. But mention that I’m too often impatient with people, and it stings. Ask me if I’m harboring anger at someone I need to forgive, and I’m likely to be defensive. Suggest that maybe I should call my grandparents more often and I’ll be irked—because you’re right.

Those are the things I want to plug my ears against. I can handle someone screaming “God hates you” in my ear because that’s nonsense. “Rebecca, you need to be gentler with your words”—then I want to cover my ears and say “La la la. I can’t hear you!”

I think that is what Stephen’s fathers and brothers, men he loved and cared about, were doing here. If Stephen was spouting nonsense, they would have let him go. But because he was saying something that stung, they covered their ears, shouted, then clenched their teeth, and picked up their stones.

The consequences for Christian history are large: we have our first martyr and a scene that tells us just how bad Saul is prior to his conversion.

But the Sanhedrin’s perspective is another part of the story. From here, Jewish and Christian history continue to separate. We get Stephen as a figure who is on the cusp of both: a foreign-born, Greek-speaking Jew who knows his Jewish history well. As such, he was a threat to notions of Jewishness that centered identity on Jerusalem, the Hebrew language, and exclusivity. It was just too much for the Sanhedrin to brook.

Rembrandt-Lapidation-Saint-Étienne-MBA-Lyon.jpg
Above, Rembrandt’s The Stoning of St. Stephen. Can you find Rembrandt’s self-portrait?

I’m not throwing stones at the Sanhedrin here. I’m saying that perhaps we can identify.

  • When do we cling to a small vision of God because it suits us?
  • When do we try to make God’s love less radical than it is?
  • When do we try to shrink down God’s hospitality to welcome only those we prefer?
  • When do we choose to preserve the past at the expense of a wider embrace?
  • When do we comfortably quote the words of prophets but then refuse to live as they encouraged us?
  • When do experience the call to authenticity as threatening?
  • How do we scramble to make Jesus’ words mean anything other than what he meant them to mean: to love God and to love our neighbors, which includes our enemies, as ourselves?
  • When do we cover our ears and shout to drown out those two commandments?

As Christians, we often think that the tragedy of this story is Stephen’s death. And of course that is tragic. We have in Stephen one of the few voices of a pre-Pauline faith. All the stuff that Paul gives us, which is most of the rest of the New Testament, Stephen didn’t have. I would really have liked to have heard more from him. He’s the only person outside of Jesus to call Jesus the “Son of Man,” and I wonder what that is about. He has this vision of Jesus at the right hand of God, and I wonder what that is about, too. We know that, later, after his conversion, Paul will go to the Temple and participate in rituals there. Would Stephen have tempered his own views on the Temple in order to accommodate Paul? Would Paul have persuaded him to lighten up—to let the people worship in the Temple if they needed to? Would they have been forever at odds over the issue? We don’t get to know, because he’s killed.

But there is another tragedy here, too, and that is for the Sanhedrin, the judges who become executioners. We know that Saul will have a change of heart, but we don’t know what happened to the rest of them. Did they hear anything through their covered hands? Did anything he said sink into their hearts? Did they remember that he began by calling them fathers and brothers? When they went home that night, did they share what they had done with their family members? Did they wake up worrying about it? Did they ever seek the forgiveness that Stephen offered? Did they ever choose a bigger vision of God, no matter how frightening that was?

We don’t know the answer for them.

But we get to choose the answer for us.

Let this be our benediction today: May we release our small notions of God, which feel safe but never keep us safe. May we be enveloped by mercy, grace, and love wider than we can imagine. May we never be deceived in thinking that we have seen the end of it or even the edge of it. May we live in God’s loving-kindness forever and ever and welcome with open arms everyone who likewise finds comfort there. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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