Change is hard. Embracing that change is even more difficult. When people threaten the status quo, that threatens those in power, it upsets the comfortable, and it derails a predictable path, creating confusion. The flip side is true too: it can also be a signal that the Holy Spirit is moving among us.
So it was for Stephen and our Acts story today. If you know the story, he pays the price for this heralding of change. Stephen finishes his speech and then is stoned. I can’t say I am surprised that the crowd becomes enraged at him. He slings quite a bit of mud. “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.”
This also sets the stage for the ministry of Paul, here named Saul. Saul is part of the stoning.
Stephen becomes the lynchpin. The entire narrative is an exercise in dramatic contrasts. Stephen is contrasted with his attackers: his innocence, their rage. Saul adds to this contrast.
Of course those of us who know the rest of the story (i.e. any Christian who has known who Paul is), we see the theological world of the Jews being transformed through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
What we discover is that nothing – I mean NOTHING – can stop the purposes of God being worked out.
The last few weeks many kids and teachers have gone back to school. As Edmond, Norman, Moore, and Oklahoma City get back in the swing of things, I think back fondly to my time as a full-time educator, and also my days as a student. What a nerve-wracking time of year this can be! The first day was always the worst. New routines. New places. Unfamiliar schedules. Long lines. Traffic. You name it; I hate it.
Perhaps part of my anxiety is that as a young child, I was the runt of the class, and the first day of school always seemed to begin a new chapter in being picked on. I wasn’t picked on to the extend Stephen was – heck, being stoned, wow. But as a child I certainly saw the bad guys winning.
Ultimately Stephen won. Oh they killed him, but his purpose lived on. He got his two cents in, and the transformation began. His death gave rise to newness of life – in this case, Saul.
As you recall the story of Stephen today, I beg you not to look at it simply – and focus on the stoning. But focus on the grand sweep of the story – and God’s purpose working out, despite this horrendous violence. I ask you to look at your life as a transformation and the places that you feel beaten down. How can they be sources of strength and fortitude for you? When can the losing become winning?