Stephen is credited with being one of the first deacons of the early church. So much so that there is an organization called “Stephen Ministries” that takes as its mission to equip people to “provide one-to-one, Christ-centered care to hurting people.” (from their web site). But, even though Stephen did vital work for the early church living his life as a deacon, it is his death that we know the most about from the book of Acts.
As I read the story of the martyrdom of Stephen, the image that kept coming to me was that of our modern political environment. We had parties with their own “pet agendas” (the “Synagogue of the Freedmen”) We have people lying under oath to get what they want, or to curry favor. But the most telling point, I thought, was the response of the Sanhedrin to Stephen’s vision.
But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. (Acts 7:57 NRSV)
The religious leaders were so unwilling to hear what Stephen had to say, they were raising their own voices, and covering their ears, to block out the sound. Something that seems all to familiar in today’s political “discourse.”
It’s not included in “The Story,” but, just prior to this, Stephen had spent a great deal of time “recapping” the history of the Jewish people (Acts chapter 7) with emphasis on the stubbornness of the Jewish people, and showing how the current generation was following in that less than glorious tradition. So they reacted the way we so often do – the attacked (and killed) the messenger, just so they wouldn’t have to hear the message.
One of the false charges leveled against Stephen was that he would “change the customs Moses handed down to us.” Not the laws of God. The customs of Moses. Those in power were so wedded to their traditions that they would rather kill than change them. They were unable to see that God was doing a completely new thing. I think that their example can stand as an object lesson for us today. Do we get so caught up in the traditions of church that we lose sight of why we are the church?
Now, to be completely fair to the Sanhedrin, it was their job to preserve the purity of the faith, making sure that the people followed God’s will as well as they could. I don’t think they thought of what they were doing as evil, but rather completely justified. It certainly wouldn’t do to just flit after every fad that came along. After all, we learned earlier in the chapter about several failed attempts at change. As Gamaliel said,
But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:34-39 NRSV)
Gamaliel knew that not every new thing that came along was a good thing, but he was open to new possibilities. Not so the Sanhedrin in Stephen’s case. They had their ears (and minds) closed to the possibility of something new. A danger that is just as real today as it was 2000 years ago.