By Michael Smith
Reading from Acts, 7:44-8:1
44 “Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, 46who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling-place for the house of Jacob. 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says,
49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
50Did not my hand make all these things?’
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which 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. 53You are the ones that 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. 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. 1And Saul approved of their killing him.
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.
After being chosen and having hands laid on him by the apostles for ministry as a deacon in the infant church, Stephen is called to testify before the temple officials. Like Jesus, Stephen is unjustly charged with the sin of blasphemy. Like Jesus, Stephen is allowed to make a verbal defense of his actions.
Stephen recounts the history of his people and the workings of God, beginning with Abraham, continuing with the patriarchs, then their ancestors’ slavery in Egypt, liberation by Moses, the Tent of Testimony in the wilderness, and finally Solomon’s temple. So far, so good. But then God moves him to draw an unexpected conclusion, and things take an ugly turn. Stephen goes “from preaching to meddling” by accusing his hearers of being stubborn like their forebears, resisting the Holy Spirit, and betraying and murdering Jesus, the Just One. The crowd is infuriated at his words and carries out a sentence of capital punishment by stoning him to death.
Like Jesus, Stephen asks the Holy One to receive his spirit (Luke 23:46). Like Jesus, Stephen asks the Father to forgive his murderers (Luke 23:34). Perhaps “What would Jesus do?” is not so simplistic after all. It is certainly not easy. But we also see here Stephen’s humble confidence and joy. He sees Jesus. By being “filled with the Holy Spirit,” Stephen is able to follow the Lord, through accusation, trouble, and even death. Do I want God’s Holy Spirit to fill me? It’s a serious question. To become like Jesus is no small matter. But God can do it, if we’re willing.
The Rt. Rev. Michael G. Smith served as Bishop of North Dakota for fifteen years and is Assistant Bishop of Dallas. He is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. He and his wife, the Rev. Lisa White Smith, are the parents of three and grandparents of nine.
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