Faith In Real Life Blog: “Love Courageously”
Faith In Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbytrerian Church
March 23, 2023
Acts 6:8–7:2, 51–60.
6:8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
7:1 Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?” 2 And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran,
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But 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!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then 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. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”60 Then 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.
This story is familiar to me, but I have not looked at it in some time. In my youth, it was something of a hero story. This is what it looks like to be a ‘real’ Christian—willing to claim my faith in the face of the most extreme adversity. From that point of view, the focus upon courage is obvious. I will address some aspects of courage later in the blog but first I want to focus upon the when and how of advocacy.
In early Christian history, Christians were often a splinter group within the synagogues. As such, there was an inherent conflict about who was ‘right’ and who could attract and hold new members. In that light Stephen was a threat to the established church. He was a good debater, ‘full of grace and power’ who performed ‘many signs and wonders.’ And when a conflict arose about the fair distribution of food to the Hebrew and Hellenistic widows, Stephen was chosen to lead the first ‘board of deacons’. (As an aside, the disciples did not want to be entangled with this level of pastoral care and said explicitly ““It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” Though it can be argued that this level of care is tending to (not neglecting) the word of God, this division of labor had the unintended consequence of beginning hierarchical roles within the church. (Even now deacons are typically viewed as a step down from the elders.) But in any case, part of Stephen’s job was mediating disputes within the congregation but he also became a lightning rod for the conflict between the established church and the upstart Christian church.
Stephen was accused of undermining the authority of the Jewish authorities. “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” The scripture assures us that Stephen was set up and falsely accused. But now Stephen had to answer the question: “Are these things so?” Most of Stephen’s response is omitted in today’s text (you can read chapter 7 should you choose) but he retells the history of the Jews and places his ministry within that tradition. It is an argument that Jesus frequently used when challenged. So far, Stephen is emphasizing what he stands for but then in vs 51, Stephen begins to denounce his accusers. (“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do….now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”)
As you might imagine, Stephen was not well received. Battle lines had been drawn and, in this case, Stephen’s advocacy for his faith had become an attack. Once that happened, somebody was going to lose. Stephen is stoned. In general, it is not a good idea to provoke armed opposition. Stephen’s trial is written to echo Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Stephen even uses Jesus’ words on the cross— “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” But there is an important difference. When Jesus is asked to defend himself, he does not. He simply says: “You say that I am.” He, of course, is still killed, but Jesus did not attempt to challenge or prove anything. Jesus stood on his ministry in the full knowledge he would be rejected and killed. Stephen’s mode of defense antagonized and provoked.
I need to be careful here because Jesus also confronted and provoked. Running the money changers out of the temple was certainly a calculated move to provoke. Likewise, calling the Pharisees a ‘brood of vipers’ does not lead to reconciliation”. Jesus (and Stephen) stood in a prophetic tradition that spoke truth to power. But in my opinion, it is easy to glamorize such behavior and define courage as the willingness to risk everything to stand up for truth. But unfortunately, real life is full of examples of people who are convinced they are right and spend an enormous amount of time trying to convince others—and failing that, attacking those who disagree. Read the comments section on almost any news story.
It is seductively easy to impose our certainties without humility. In real life if we are insistent upon ‘proving’ our point, we are more likely arguing in service of our own egos rather than respect or regard for the other. I have no idea what was really going on with Stephen. But I do not want to make him the standard. Courage is persistence in the face of risk or danger. It certainly takes courage to speak up in the face of opposition. But it also takes courage to stand down. Choosing which battle we are going to fight takes a lot more discernment than the blanket assertion that we should ‘stand up’ for what we believe. Of course we should, but our methods should never contradict our message. It is hard to reconcile respect, inclusiveness and regard with tactics that belittle and insult.
The criteria I would hold us to is Courageous Loving. It is a much higher standard. If we choose to stand up or choose to speak up, it should be in the service of love—not our need to be ‘right’. Love and coercion cannot exist in the same place. If you are going to speak up, you must be willing to be unheard and possibly outright rejected. That requires regard, even love, for those who oppose you. All of us have had to decide when to confront uncomfortable discussions with another and when to stay silent. It is confusing and uncertain, but the standard should be regard for self and other.
In FIRL we had some wonderful ordinary examples. Lou Reeves told us about a social worker’s note which her mother had read—” Gave the client a piece of my mind. Did nothing for the client but was very good for the social worker.” It takes courage to know when we are on our high horse. Barbara Morris described a situation in which she felt mistreated and disrespected. At the time, she chose not to speak. Instead, she chose to wait and center herself before she addressed the conflict. It takes courage to choose to be proactive rather than reactive. And finally, Linda Huffine told us a story about “Enemy Pie”. A young child felt he had an enemy at school who was bullying him. He didn’t know what to do. His father suggested the boy make a pie. When they finished, the father said the next step the boy would have to do on his own—and it was ok if he didn’t take that next step. He was to take the pie to his enemy, spend the day with him and at the end of the day, they could share the Enemy Pie. It takes courage to return kindness when you are being bullied or accused. Any of these behaviors can backfire. But that is why attempting them is courageous. Once again, Stephen’s example is a direction for life. It is not a standard nor a measure of our faithfulness.
Seek to love courageously. Let it be so.