May 22, 2011 Spirit, Stones, and Stephen Acts 7:54-8:1
As you’ve heard before, one of the jobs I had in my former life was as a janitor at EMU, where Christine and I went to college.
I worked full time in that role for 2 or 3 years, which was long enough to learn that janitors put up with a lot. They deserve nothing but respect from the people they work for.
However, one of the lessons I learned through my time as a Janitor was that janitors often don’t get the respect they deserve.
Rather, they’re looked down on quite often, or at least that’s the impression that’s easy to get.
Whether or not it was an accurate perception, I carried with me the feeling every day while I was there that I should stay out of the way.
It was my job to come to work before anyone else so I could get my work done without being seen. I needed to get in and get the work done before anyone else showed up, so I wouldn’t be in the way as they began the really important work.
I know that’s not really what people think, but from a janitor’s perspective it can start to feel like that after awhile, due to the thankless nature of the job.
EMU employs a lot of people. They pay a lot of money for the skills those people have. So it makes sense that EMU wants the people at the top to be using their time in productive ways, doing the things that are worth a lot to the institution.
So the President gets paid a lot to do work that’s deemed ‘important’.
The faculty and the administrators of EMU get paid to spend their time doing things like recruiting new students, teaching current students, keeping track of what students owe, things like that.
For the most part, the people in those jobs are really good at what they do.
It wouldn’t make sense to pay Loren Swartzendruber, the president of EMU, to do things like take out his trash or clean the bathroom. His time is better spent making phone calls and traveling; charting the course for the institution.
So they hire other people to do the other things that are less important.
They hire support staff, like janitors and groundskeepers.
To put it bluntly, my time was some of the least valuable that EMU paid for (at least, that was the attitude among myself and the other custodial staff I worked with).
We had some fun with it, but looking back I can see it didn’t take long for that mentality to infect my attitude and my performance.
After all, if you don’t value the work you’re doing, then you have no reason to do it well.
So I’ll confess that by the end of my time in that role, I wasn’t doing a very good job.
I found it hard to care about how clean the floors were, or whether the Men’s room had enough paper towels.
This became especially true once I made plans to move on.
When your eyes are set on a different goal, it’s hard to stay the current course.
Well, the more I read about and contemplate the life Stephen lived, the more I become convinced that the vision he sees in verse 56 was just as much a part of his life as it was his death.
“Look!” he says. “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
Upon this confession, the crowds rush him, drag him out of the city and begin to stone him.
It’s a brutal, horrific story that ends with the creation of the first Christian martyr.
And for at least as long as my lifetime, we’ve held Stephen up as a hero of the faith.
His story as recorded here in Acts is one of the first ones we think of when we think of the persecution that the first Christians faced. He stands as a shining example of what it means to die for the cause, to not back down, to defend the faith in the face of adversity.
As a leader of the church, I look to Stephen as my example.
It’s clear when you read the rest of the story that he knew what he was talking about.
He knows the story. He’s firmly rooted in God’s story, from the time of Abraham right up to his current situation. He’s internalized it.
At different points in the story, Luke says how his face was like the face of an angel, or that he was full of the Holy Spirit.
Stephen takes on the whole synagogue in an argument about Jesus. He did great wonders and miraculous signs, and nobody could stand up to the arguments he made, because he was full of wisdom and full of the Holy Spirit.
What better model for us church leaders to look at? I’d love to have just a little bit of Stephen’s stamina, just a fraction of the same kind of power in my ministry that he had in his.
He even dies like Jesus, crying out for forgiveness of his enemies even as the stones were falling upon him, outside of the city, just like Jesus.
Indeed, I think the vision he describes guided just as much of his life as it did his death.
The heavens opened, revealing Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
But you know, I’m not sure why we lift Stephen up like we do.
I’m not sure why I’ve always thought of him as the model Christian leader.
He was a model Christian. Period.
If Stephen was around today, he’d be the janitor, he wouldn’t be the president.
At the beginning of his story, you can read it for yourself. It was never anybody’s intention that Stephen partake in the ministry of the ‘word’, which is the teaching and the preaching that happened in the early church.
He was simply appointed, along with 6 other guys, to basically hand out food.
The apostles were busy doing the ‘important’ work. They were busy preaching and teaching and basically articulating how God’s story had taken a dramatic turn.
They were the ones who were busy doing the “real” work of building the church.
Stephen and the others were more like janitors.
They were the ones who were doing the work that the apostles didn’t have the time to do.
So rather than seeing Stephen as a special guy with extraordinary skills, it might be more realistic to hold him up as simply a model for all of us to follow.
Stephen is chosen not to preach, but to serve!!
In the same way, martyrdom isn’t earned by how you die. It’s bestowed upon you through how you live!!
Stephen lived by caring for the least in the community (both Jew and gentile). He witnessed to God’s love and care for the widow by handing out food so that others could carry out the calling they had received; to preach and teach the gospel.
His simple actions provoke and challenge the powers that be, and he pays the ultimate price for living the life he was given.
So it was that the first Christian martyr came not from those who were preaching and teaching the word of God, but rather from those who were feeding the hungry; the ones who were working behind the scenes.
It’s a sobering reminder that in kingdom living, we’re all implicated. We’re all to be found guilty of sharing Stephen’s vision; the heavens opened before our eyes, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
The challenge is to live with that vision before us, serving the poor, feeding the hungry, preaching and teaching every day with our lives, making known the glory of God and the vision of Christ, standing at His right hand.
I’m not saying those who serve are any better than those who preach. Neither am I saying that those who preach are any better than those called to other service.
Rather, we’re all in this together. We all have a holy calling, something only we can do.
Stephen became a believer because he caught the vision.
You can’t see what you haven’t heard, and you can’t explain what you haven’t experienced.
Stephen didn’t become a martyr because of how he died.
He became a martyr because of how he lived.
God gives each of us a calling.
Like Paul writes to the Romans, we are one body in Christ, members one of another.
We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.
What Stephen did was live the calling; the vocation; that God had given him.
He handed out food to the best of his ability. It wasn’t that special of a thing to do.
What makes Stephen special is that he adopted God’s story as his own…just like all of us are meant to do.
We can hope our story ends differently than his, but I don’t really think we should be looking towards the end! Rather, let’s spend our time living as fully and completely as the Spirit leads, right now, with the time we have!
There’s an interesting twist to Stephen’s story too, that I don’t think gets enough air time.
It has to do with a guy named Saul.
We read that the guys who were stoning Stephen laid their coats at Saul’s feet, and that he oversaw what was happening and approved of their killing him.
After that, he starts persecuting the church for all he’s worth. But later in the story, he converts to Christianity, God changes his name to Paul, and he becomes the most effective missionary and church planter the world has ever seen! He wrote most of the New Testament.
But it all began here with the death of Stephen.
Jesus taught his disciples that a seed must fall to the ground and die in order to produce a harvest.
Through his faithful witness to the glory of God, Stephen became that seed.
Saul goes on from there to become a seed of his own, planting even more as seeds will do.
It’s a cycle of life and death and resurrection that we’re invited into. It’s an invitation to come and die that we might live.
But it’s more than that. It’s an invitation to live in this moment; to fill this moment; the now we inhabit; to take that moment and fill it with meaning whether you’re mopping floors and cleaning toilets or preparing a sermon for Sunday morning.
All work has its place. All life has its place. And death is but one moment in the cycle of resurrection that Christ has opened to us!
Look! Can you see it? Can you hear it?
The heavens are opened! Christ is standing at the right hand of God!