This Sunday there will be two New Testament readings, but one of them will not get very much attention. Because it is such a compelling story, I thought we might reflect on it this week. Acts 6 and 7 tells the story of Stephen, an amazing follower of Jesus who had done amazing things in the early church. He organized assistance for orphans and widows. He did great signs and miracles, but he offended many with his preaching, particularly about Jesus, and especially about the way in which Jesus changes how we understand some things.
He was brought before the High Priest who asked him about these things. Stephen answered the High Priest with a short recounting of God’s covenantal relationship with Abraham and his descendants. He recounted all the times when God had been faithful and had provided prophets to point the way. He also recounted how those prophets had been ignored, defamed, or even killed. He called the entire group “stiff-necked people” who constantly opposed the work of the Holy Spirit. This was not well received.
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. (Acts 7:54-60, NRSV)
The church has celebrated the work of Stephen for two millennia. Whether it was his compassion for those who needed help or his fervor in proclaiming the gospel, Stephen inspires us to look for the Spirit at work, and to sharpen our focus on the risen, reigning Christ. Dr. Amy Oden observed (emphasis added),
“Stephen “gazed to heaven” (v55) and invited others to gaze with him, using the imperative “Look” (v56). This gaze (atenizo) is more than mere physical sight. It implies a deeper perception, an intentional focus of awareness on Jesus... While everyone around him is upset, caught up in the drama, outraged, Stephen maintained a steady focus beyond the fray, beyond the noise, his eyes fixed on Jesus. Stephen gazes, not to some escapist other world, but to the reality of Emmanuel, God-with-us” (Oden).
In Stephen’s final moments he gave us his most important lesson. Stay focused on Jesus. Trust in him. Trust that his way is in the works. If Stephen had looked around and been focused on the ones who were killing him, he might have looked at a man who was there named Saul and cursed him. But what no one knew, not Stephen, not Saul, not the crowd- was that Jesus would personally call Saul into the ministry of the Gospel, renaming him Paul, and he would be more than an angry Pharisee holding the coats of murderers. He, too would be focused on Christ for the rest of his life. God works in mysterious ways. Thanks be to God!
Grace and Peace,
Oden, Amy G. “Commentary on Acts 7:55-60.” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary, Luther Seminary, 7 Apr. 2023, www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter/commentary-on-acts-755-60-6.