Acts 6 – 8:1a
The story of Stephen comes at a critical point. Despite every effort of the authorities to stamp out Jesus’ followers, using threats, harassment and persecution, “the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” (6: 7) There is something deeply compelling about the life and faith of this fledgling community proclaiming Jesus as God’s chosen one.
How could Jesus, preacher, teacher, healer, yet crucified by the religious and political authorities, be proclaimed and understood as the one blessed and anointed by God? Surely his death meant defeat and discredit.
Stephen’s passionate defense of Jesus turns Israel’s history on its head. He argues that Jesus, unrecognized, unacknowledged and rejected by the religious authorities, is in fact the ultimate exemplar who followed a familiar pattern of unrecognized, unacknowledged and rejected leaders and prophets of God throughout the history of Israel. God is the faithful rescuer and liberator of history, uncontained by human made religious buildings or plans. Jesus is likewise uncontained by human plotting and even death, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (7: 56)
The Spirit of God, who had moved through the history of the world, was moving now, powerfully, through the words and person of Stephen. The Holy Spirit is the convicting and vibrant source of power and authority in this narrative, in sharp contrast with the vindictive and yet ultimately impotent rage of the religious leaders and their institutions.
In the moment of worldly triumph, when Stephen, in the steps of his Master is also rejected and killed, Saul is introduced. Saul, who becomes Paul, through the transforming power of Jesus Christ, and follows the life giving Holy Spirit blowing through Turkey, Syria and into the heart of Rome. The power of God to bring liberation and life is completely uncontained by the plans, claims to ownership, and wisdom of people, despite their impressive titles and influence.
As ever, our role as followers of Jesus is to discern and pursue the movement of his Spirit bringing mercy and freedom, both within ourselves, and within our small corner of the sweep of history. This is our hope, that even amidst sadness, death and destruction, the bigger picture of God bringing forth his purposes, his grace and his love is constantly unfolding. The energy and work of the Spirit of God will never be contained by time, place or human constructs and barriers.