The reading from the Acts of the Apostles seems to come at us from nowhere: “But filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Stephen blurts out the content of his visionary experience, and right away he’s dragged outside of the city and stoned to death by what amounts to a lynch mob. This brief reading begins so abruptly that most of us probably had no time to really hear what was going on, so let me back us up a little bit.
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In chapter 6 of Acts, we read that the apostles were beginning to feel overwhelmed by what you might think of as the basic human needs of the growing Christian community. We read that “the widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food,” and so the first seven deacons are appointed to attend to these very basic human matters, Stephen among them. As presented in Acts, the apostles’ rationale for this is that, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables,” which to my ears has always sounded more than a bit self-important. We’ll do the significant things, and let the deacons do those mundane works of service. Funny thing, though, that as soon as Stephen is appointed to this work he seems to also assume the mantle of teacher and preacher. He’s so enlivened by the work of proclamation that he begins to become a source of irritation in the synagogue he attends, and it isn’t long before he’s brought before the high priest and Council to account for the things he’s been saying about the risen and ascended Jesus.
The whole of chapter 7 recounts his speech to the council, in which Stephen traces the ways in which he understands God to have been at work in and through Abraham and Moses; a work he believes has now come to its fullness in Jesus. As presented in Acts, Stephen gets pretty ramped up near the end of his speech, calling the council a “stiff-necked people” who had “received the law as ordained by angels, and yet not kept it.” “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” No doubt.
That’s the point where today’s reading begins, with Stephen telling his vision of Jesus at the right hand of God and the assembled crowd exploding into violence. “Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him,” Luke tells us, and being the master story-teller that he is he then trains his camera for just a moment to the side, and has us notice how, “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
This is Saul’s first appearance, and I find it chilling. The mob is doing what mobs do—together commit unspeakable violence, for which no one person is held accountable—yet there stands this young man named Saul, minding the coats and watching Stephen’s murder. The image is one of a man dispassionately complicit, content to stand and watch an act of which he clearly approves. Had we read one verse further, we would have heard that with clarity: “And Saul approved of their killing him.” Had we read on just a few more verses, we would have heard of Saul’s pogrom of “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, [and] committing them to prison.” Saul, you see, was so clear of the rightness of his hold on the truth—the rightness of the tradition in which he had been formed and to which he was scrupulously faithful—that he was quite prepared to defend it at the cost of the very lives of those whom he considered blasphemous.
In time, of course, Saul will get knocked flat on his back by the presence of the risen Christ, and though struck blind on that Damascus road, for the first time in his life he will begin to actually see how things really are. The tight grip he’d kept on his former way of believing will be loosed, and over the years as his spiritual pilgrimage deepens he will find he has to keep loosening that grip. Whatever exclusive claims he has once made for the faith in which he was shaped are trumped, and so in his letter to the Galatians he will write, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3.28)
In answer to Thomas’ question of how in heaven’s name the disciples are to follow Jesus when they don’t even know where he is going—they don’t have the faintest clue as to what Jesus is talking about when he says he’s going to prepare a place for them—Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” adding “No one comes to the Father except through me.” In her comments on this passage, Karoline Lewis suggests that all too often in our hearing, “‘I AM the way, the truth, and the life’ becomes an indication of God’s judgment, exclusion, and absence,” and “‘No one comes to the Father except through me’ … a declaration of prohibition [rather] than a word of promise.” I’m afraid that she is all too right in her observation, and that the churches have sometimes become very Saul-like in their certainly of the exclusivity and correctness of one very particular take on things.
A month or two back, Steve Bell was talking about a song he was taught in his Sunday School, which included the following verses:
One Door and Only One,
And yet its sides are two,
I’m on the inside,
On which side are you?
One Lord and only one,
And yet the ways are two,
I’m on the right way,
On which way are you?
There’s a kind of “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” tone to the song, which is a terrible thing to teach to children, but the theological presumption of suggesting that we can ever take Jesus’ images of the door and “the way” and say definitively that we have exclusive claim on them is dangerous. Think of all of the damage that has been done in the name of exclusive truth claims just within the Christian tradition itself. Think of the historic divisions and persecutions, be they between catholic and protestant, or between the Reformation state churches and the Anabaptists. Think of the ways in which in various church traditions people have been shunned or excommunicated. Think of the dismissive suspicion that has characterized the relationship—or lack of relationship—between congregations in the very same neighborhoods in our own city. Without hesitation, I can say that I believe that Jesus is, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” and that I affirm that he is the way to the Father. Yet with Karoline Lewis, I hear those declarations as promise, not as judgment or prohibition. I hear them as promise, because I believe this is how they were spoken to Thomas and to the others. You want to know the way to the Father? I am the way. Just trust that, Thomas, and keep walking. This is not a club with which to beat people, nor is it a scare threat to get them onto what you presume is the right side of the door; it is instead a way of being in the world now, and a path to life forever.
Back for just a moment to that story from Acts, where we should notice that Stephen’s dying words are words of forgiveness: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Similarly, upon receiving his death sentence at his 1535 trial—a trial that was more kangaroo court than it was a just process—Sir Thomas More spoke the following:
More have I not to say (my Lords) but like as the blessed Apostle St. Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present, and consented to the death of St. Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue their friends for ever, so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your Lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation (William Roper, The Life of St. Thomas More).
Such words—both Stephen’s and Thomas More’s—could only come from people who had set themselves on the path trod by him who called himself “the way, and the truth, and the life,” and who had embraced that path not as a way of exclusion but as one of deepest promise; the deepest reconciliation.