Sunday Stretch: Vol. 32
Start off your week with a grounded take on Bible, prayer, the world, and your life ...
I began reading and meditating and praying on these texts, occasionally pausing to google and/or look something up - as I do each week - but this week I had an experience that has been common in these recent weeks of the Easter season in the church, making up the time in between Easter Sunday and Pentecost.
In these weeks, we begin in the frenetic, exciting, and dangerous Book of Acts - in the exponential growth of the Early Church as the movement of Jesus moves from Jerusalem to what it today Turkey, Greece, and even Italy - as well as to parts of North and Eastern Africa and deeper into Asia, India, and China.
In Acts, the Gospel is on the move: it’s loose and free as the Holy Spirit of the embodied Jesus Christ. And still, like Jesus, the Gospel is an underdog: it’s constantly under threat by worldly and religious powers. This means those who bear the Gospel in these early days faced very real persecution and threat of death, which did not spare even Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
This week’s Acts text tells the poignant and powerful story of Stephen’s martyrdom. He is stoned to death in the very same city where Jesus was just crucified, where not long ago Jesus had lamented:
Matt. 23:37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Indeed, the religious council in Jerusalem leads the charge in stoning Stephen to death, after he has just preached a rich and powerful sermon spanning the history of God’s people from Abraham to Jesus.
While churches today still bear the name of Saint Stephen, compared to the apostles Peter and Paul, Stephen becomes sort of a footnote of history. We don’t get to read his writings in the Bible; instead we only have this short, incredible story of his witness and his death. His final words were words of forgiveness for those who had killed him, an unimaginable witness to grace, mercy, and God’s ultimate and powerful and resurrecting love.
But unlike Jesus and Lazarus, Stephen’s resurrection does not happen immediately. He has the same promised final resurrection that we do, and an eternity in paradise with Jesus. But Stephen’s final biblical appearance is of his death. We are left with the sorrow and grief that comes with death.
Thank God for the Gospel of John 14. As I read these words of Jesus, I’m reminded that part of the function of the Gospel is not only to call us to repentance, but also to bring comfort to any who are broken-hearted, hurting, suffering, and in need of love and care. This is the very Scripture passage that I read at almost every funeral/memorial service where I preside, and I’ve also read it at the bedsides of sick and dying loved ones. Every single time that I re-read that first verse, I take an audible deep breath.
Do not let your hearts be troubled.
May you receive the blessing of this comfort today as well.
Let’s get to the texts.
Acts 7:55 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.
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