Luke 23:33-34a, 46
Acts 6:1—7:2a, 44-60
Today we continue with the narrative lectionary which moves into a study of the book of Acts, which is a book we usually do not spend a great deal of time on. There are really important lessons in today’s reading, especially for our country and our culture at this very moment.
At that time, there was a huge debate between Hebrew disciples and immigrant Greek-speaking disciples. The Hebrew disciples had felt that they were the true disciples. They were the ones who grew up in or near Jerusalem, they understood the laws, the practices, the rituals. There was no room for these Greek-speaking immigrants into Jerusalem. The Greek speaking followers recognized that their authority was not being honored, they were not being respected, they were not being treated as full human beings, let alone full members of the church of Jesus. Their widows weren’t being cared for. So they ordained another group of Greeks whose primary job was to care for the poor, etc., allowing the original disciples to focus on speaking and leadership, etc. The resolution was finally reached to this conflict when seven of the Greek, immigrant leaders were chosen to be ordained into the diaconate. As part of the diaconate, then, they would primary do the caring for the poor. It was a resolution. Or rather, people THOUGHT that a resolution had been reached. After all, some parity had been officially stated between the two groups.
But then we come to today’s reading. Stephen was one of those immigrant Greek-speaking disciples. And he was not only good at caring for others, but he was wise, a good speaker. He was doing amazing things as a leader of the people. And he was falsely accused by the Hebrew speaking Jews from Jerusalem of betraying and denying Abraham, the laws, and in particular the centrality of the temple. We don’t know why he was accused, but we can guess. We can guess that it was because he was Greek, or because though he joined their ranks, he did not give up who he had been previously. I want you to think about that. He joined them, but he still remained himself, a Greek-speaking immigrant into the faith. And he dared to do what some of the other leaders saw as their job alone.
We see this in the church. White churches yearn for people of color to join them. But they don’t want those who join to join as themselves. They want them to CHANGE in order to join. To speak the “right” language, both literally and metaphorically, to behave in the ways that we have decided are acceptable, are right, are appropriate. We do this with children too. Of course we want more children in the church! But we expect them to behave according to the rules we have set up: no talking in church, dress appropriately, use the language we want you to use, even if you don’t understand it and it has no meaning for you. We do this too. And so we can understand their anger with Stephen. They “welcome” him, but only in so much as they expect him to become like them rather than welcoming him truly as he was: a Greek-speaking immigrant to their community.
Well Stephen isn’t putting up with it. So when he is hauled in front of the authorities, he has the audacity to speak truth. He gives an entire history of the Jewish people, of God’s actions among them (this part is skipped in today’s reading) and then he ends with his own condemnation of the practices of the Hebrew or Aramaic speaking disciples – he says they are not following the laws! And then he accuses them of crucifying Jesus. They accuse him of not following Moses. He accuses them of killing Jesus.
Different sides, each accusing the other of destroying what matters most deeply to each side. Attacking, accusing. In today’s story that ended with Stephen’s death. On January 6, 2021 that ended in five deaths. These accusations, these attacks from both sides: when we cannot hear one another, when we cannot listen to one another, when we cannot tolerate truths that don’t agree with what we want to believe, people die. We know, we understand that there are different versions of the truth. And people feel so strongly over what is “true” that they are willing to kill, to fight with violent measures. That was the case then and it is the case now. Stephen is speaking truth but it is not what they want to believe so they kill him.
(as a side note, in Stephen’s case, his death in many ways also mirrored Jesus’ death: Jesus experience of being accused, killed and then from the cross asking forgiveness for those who were killing him. Stephen did the same.)
Much of this conflict between Stephen and the other Christians centered around the understanding of the temple. It had been a source of conflict for a very long time: where is the correct place to worship? Does it have to be in the temple in Jerusalem? Many Jews at the time believed so. The Samaritans were another group with the same beliefs, the exception being they believed God could be worshiped in other sanctuaries. Jesus’ answer to them all? “You Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. …But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship… in spirit and truth…. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:22-26)
We know that during this Covid time, that debate has come back. Is it necessary to worship God in a building? Or is God really and truly bigger than that and so can be worshiped and loved and served wherever we are? There are all of these rules about being back in a building to worship. But the worship of God happens in spirit and truth. It’s interesting that this argument keeps coming back when the truth was that the early Christian church, for the first few centuries, only met in people’s homes. They did not meet in cathedrals or special synagogue buildings at all until Constantinople. To this day, the Seder, the Passover meal, the meal that we celebrate as the Lord’s Supper was always done in homes, in people’s houses. But we have made it a “special building” thing and in doing so, we’ve lost so much of the original meaning – of connection with family, with intimacy in sharing that sacred meal of remembering.
As always, the good news is that conflict is an opportunity to change. It is a gift if we use it as such. It is an opportunity to be intentional as move forward, to be intentional about how we listen, how we respond when we don’t like or don’t want what we are hearing. All of these arguing people were only willing to look outward, to attack the other, to blame the other. They covered their ears and did not want to hear what they did not want to hear. None of them were willing to look at themselves, to look inward. And none of them were also looking at the resurrection. None of them were using the gift of imagination and vision that God gives to all of us to see where the new life was being born this time.
But again, conflict is an opportunity for change. Do you know why Latin is considered a dead language? It’s not that it’s not used. It is used. We use it in music, we still use it in some religious liturgy. We use it in scientific names. The reason it’s considered dead is NOT that it is no longer used. It’s dead because it isn’t CHANGING. And in that is great wisdom. Conflict is an invitation to imagine differently, to envision differently, to do things differently!
I’ve been reading a number of books recently. One called Women Peacemakers by Barbe Chambliss, a friend of Ruth’s. Another called Jan’s Story, that my father passed on to me. A third called Love is the Way, by Bishop Michael Curry. What is interesting is that in all of them there is at least one section that is talking about hope, and about the possibilities inherent in crisis. They also, though, point out that the realization of those possibilities and that hope: that these are dependent on a choice to step forward into the new life that is being offered. It is a choice. Do we choose to get bogged down by the traumas and crises of our lives? Or do we take the invitations inherent in each scenario, and do we use the gift of imagination that God has given us to us to see the possibilities inherent in the crisis, the trauma. One of the women in the book Ruth lent to me, Connie Ning, gives microcredit, and microloans to women in Vietnam and Guatemala. These loans are allowing women to begin many things: to start their own businesses, to finance their children’s education, to send girls back into their communities with new ideas, new visions, and new strength. Connie Ning’s program is funding all of this. But because it is empowering the girls and women to develop their own programs, it is exponential in its impact on not just individuals but communities as well.
I want to end by sharing with you a story that Lyle, once again passed on to me. Apparently, there was at one point in Russia a professor who spent an hour lecturing his community on how religion was all ridiculous superstition. He was very verbose, very articulate and at the end of his hour, his students were all nodding their heads and even applauded in agreement. At the end of the hour he called up on old Russian Orthodox priest and told him he could give a ten minute rebuttal. The old priest stood up and simply said, “Christos Anesti!” which means Christ has risen. I’m certain you know what came next. We’ll try it here in English. When I say here loudly and with joy, “Christ has risen” what happens here? Well, let’s try it out. “Christ has risen!” yes. He is risen indeed. And even after this hour long lecture, when the priest stood up and said simply, “Christos anesti!” The students all said with resounding shouts of joy, “Alithos anesti!” He is Risen, INDEED. No matter what our minds say, our hearts experience God, and our hearts remember the experience of God. All the arguments, all the conflicts, all the debates, all the differences in the world cannot remove that experience of the risen Christ.
Conflict, crisis, different view points, different visions, different understandings: these are invitations and opportunities to see God anew. But we have a choice. Do we take the launching points of crisis mixed with God’s gift of imagination to look, to see, to learn, to hear, to begin anew? That is the invitation. To see where Christ is risen. To live the new possibilities God is given us.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen, Indeed!