Stephen: The Will to Forgive
Updated: May 20, 2020
Sermon #184 St. James the Less #91 5/10/20
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 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. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 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.
Two Stories-The Crowd & Stephen
I want to wish all our mother’s out there a happy Mother’s Day. I hope you’re able to enjoy today. And whether your mom is here, or she is now gone to be with the Lord, it’s just a good day to give thanks for their love in our life.
Today we are continuing our series on the Acts of the Apostles. Last week we saw how, at the very end of Peter’s first sermon, the Church gained three thousand new members and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers.
Today we read the last section of Acts chapter seven, which showed the moments after a deacon named Stephen preached a fiery sermon in the presence of the Jewish council, explaining to them why Jesus was indeed Israel’s Messiah. Their response is unfortunate, to say the least…I mean who wants to talk about murder on Mother’s Day?
But our passage is really about two stories. The first is the story of the crowd and the other is the story of Stephen.
This crowd, that included some of the most senior religious leaders in Jerusalem, were overcome by their anger at Stephen’s words. He told them that he saw a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. For them, just saying that is blasphemy and it deserved a severe punishment.
Their first instinct at hearing Stephen talk about Jesus was to cover their ears. They didn’t want to hear from him anymore. They were overcome by their anger and hatred and were led by their blind passion to mob rule.
There was no fair trial. No jury or judge to be seen. Instead, they dragged Stephen outside the gate of the Holy City (ironically to keep one of the laws that forbid a murder to be committed inside Jerusalem, only for them to then break one of the Ten Commandments).
There is the story of the crowd, filled with their hatred…and then there is the story of Stephen that is happening in the midst of this chaos. Note how our passage begins with the all-important phrase in the Book of Acts, “Filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Like we said last week, the Book of Acts is really about the acts of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, and we see that on full display here.
While the crowd was covering their ears, Stephen was open and receiving the life-giving Spirit of God. While the crowd was throwing stones at him out of their anger, Stephen looked at them with mercy and said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
How can he do that? How can he not be fighting back, or crying out for someone to stop this obvious injustice? He doesn’t even say to the crowd, “You’ll get yours someday.” No, in this horrendous moment, minutes before he dies, Stephen cares more about forgiveness than retribution.
Acts 7 has two stories: the story of the crowd and the story of Stephen.
I’ve been thinking about these two very different themes in our passage all week, and my mind kept returning to apartheid in South Africa. Many of you know that after apartheid ended, the newly formed government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Nelson Mandela appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to be the chair.
This commission heard hundreds of victims’ personal testimonies of kidnapping, torture, and murder, and they also reviewed applications for amnesty from those who committed crimes on both sides of the fighting, white and black.
This was a profound move taken by South Africa. If you wanted to receive amnesty, the deal was that you had to be completely honest. If you committed the crime you had to confess to the whole world and say (normally in graphic detail) what you did.
The people of South Africa deserved the truth.
“Never had any country sought to move forward from despotism to democracy both by exposing the atrocities committed in the past and achieving reconciliation with its former oppressors” (Inside cover of book).
It was unprecedented because its goal was not retribution, like the Nuremberg trials, but to uncover the past with the hope of paving a new way forward.
After finishing the commission’s report, Desmond Tutu wrote the book, No Future Without Forgiveness. In it, he tells some of the horrific stories of torture and murder that happened during the years of apartheid. Many of the murders were cold, calculated, and done out of hate, not for the individual (because they didn’t usually know the person that well), but hate for what that individual represented.
Tutu wrote in his book, “Of course there were those who said they would not forgive. That demonstrated for me the important point that forgiveness could not be taken for granted; it was neither cheap nor easy” (271). He then said, “Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim” (272).
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission showed the entire world how difficult and painful it is to be committed to truth and reconciliation. As the Archbishop said, though something is lost by forgiving, something greater is gained in return.
Forgiveness does not always come naturally to us, sometimes it feels very unnatural. It is a discipline that we can either dedicate ourselves to and cultivate in our life or we don’t.
After thinking about the lessons of South Africa, I now think Stephen must’ve had a lot of opportunities in his life to forgive. All of those small moments of forgiveness cultivated in him the ability to generously forgive in the hard moments.
He knew that forgiveness was not cheap, it was not to be taken for granted, and that’s why he was able to receive the Holy Spirit at the hour of his death and forgive his murderers.
He was not closed off and bitter, but completely open to the transformational power of God.
The angry members of the crowd were witnesses to Stephen’s final act of mercy, and that must have made an impression on them. Whether they ever talked about it out loud or not, their mind likely replayed that image of Stephen forgiving them over and over again.
And I believe that was the case for one young man in particular who watched the whole scene play out. His name was Saul, and he would one day become the Apostle Paul. Saul knew that Stephen had something that he didn’t.
What am I filling myself with?
The question for us today is what are we filling ourselves with? This was the question Fr. Randy asked in our Bible study this week.
Stephen’s life led up to this moment, and he was ready to forgive because he lived a life of forgiveness. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and did what came most natural to him in his darkest hour.
What are we filling ourselves with and how is it shaping us?
I know for me, and maybe for you too, we’ve filled ourselves to the brim with social media, Netflix, and Hulu, and constant news updates. And I know it’s ironic because we are streaming on Facebook.
But I’m becoming more aware of how those things affect me, especially nowadays as comments and posts related to COVID news and politics can make us anxious or angry.
Stephen’s life is a testament to being shaped and filled by the Holy Spirit instead of our own or other people’s emotions.
And so, a simple prayer we can all pray this week is, “Lord, fill me with your Holy Spirit.” Let’s just pray that over and over again this week, especially if we get angry or frustrated. Just pause for a moment throughout your day and say, “Lord, fill me with your Holy Spirit.” Who knows what will happen, but I’ve got a feeling it’ll be amazing.