Reader: “Then the high priest asked Stephen,”
Response: “Are these accusations true?”
Scripture: Acts 7:1-16
Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these accusations true?” This was Stephen’s reply: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. Our glorious God appeared to our ancestor Abraham in Mesopotamia before he settled in Haran. God told him, ‘Leave your native land and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you.’ So Abraham left the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran until his father died. Then God brought him here to the land where you now live. “But God gave him no inheritance here, not even one square foot of land. God did promise, however, that eventually the whole land would belong to Abraham and his descendants—even though he had no children yet. God also told him that his descendants would live in a foreign land, where they would be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. ‘But I will punish the nation that enslaves them,’ God said, ‘and in the end they will come out and worship me here in this place.’
“God also gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision at that time. So when Abraham became the father of Isaac, he circumcised him on the eighth day. And the practice was continued when Isaac became the father of Jacob, and when Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs of the Israelite nation. “These patriarchs were jealous of their brother Joseph, and they sold him to be a slave in Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. And God gave him favor before Pharaoh, king of Egypt. God also gave Joseph unusual wisdom, so that Pharaoh appointed him governor over all of Egypt and put him in charge of the palace. “But a famine came upon Egypt and Canaan. There was great misery, and our ancestors ran out of food. Jacob heard that there was still grain in Egypt, so he sent his sons—our ancestors—to buy some. The second time they went, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, and they were introduced to Pharaoh. Then Joseph sent for his father, Jacob, and all his relatives to come to Egypt, seventy-five persons in all. So Jacob went to Egypt. He died there, as did our ancestors. Their bodies were taken to Shechem and buried in the tomb Abraham had bought for a certain price from Hamor’s sons in Shechem.
Reader: “The word of the Lord.”
Response: “Thanks be to God.”
I’m intrigued with Stephen’s response to the false charges against him, both by what he said and how he said it. He was the master of the situation, the one who was in charge. I’m struck by how similar his demeanor was to that of Jesus in his trial. First of all, Stephen never directly addressed the two charges against him anywhere in his whole defense. He started with a grand story from the Old Testament, one familiar to the religious leaders. Stephen’s quotes are from the Greek Septuagint, the Greek translation of the First Testament. That source would have appealed to the Jewish leaders. His first words are words of common identity and community, “fathers and brothers.” Next, we have “Our glorious God” and “our ancestor Abraham” in which Stephen further pointed to their joint identity in the roots of their faith. He moved through the covenant of circumcision, to the twelve patriarchs of Israel, and then to Joseph in Egypt. But back to the beginning of his defense. In bringing up Abraham, was Stephen getting at the idea that a living faith always has some flexibility and willingness to change, and to move forward at God’s leading? One of the accusations against Stephen had to do with worship at the Temple. Yet Abraham was encountering God in a personal way, though worship at the Temple was still centuries away. Stephen was subtly working with the idea that it is possible to worship God apart from the Temple. He didn’t say it openly, he just moved on. In Jewish tradition it was common to recite God’s deeds of old in inspiring optimism. Each part of Stephen’s unfolding of the story was a link in his chain of logic. Though it was his trial, it was they, the Jewish leaders, who were actually on trial, on trial for their blatant rejection of the Messiah. So Stephen builds his case slowly so as not to lose their interest and guide them to the truth of the Son of God. When we read earlier that Stephen was a man full of wisdom, we see his wisdom fully at work all through his defense strategy. There is much to learn from this first martyr in terms of witness. He started on common ground. He stayed with history. He stayed Holy Spirit calm. He showed continuity in his presentation. He didn’t argue. He spoke the truth. He let the truth convict. Were we so wise!
Music: “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” Moses Hogan Chorale Gorgeous!!!
God be in my head and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes and in my looking;
God be in my mouth and in my speaking;
God be in my heart and in my thinking;
God be at my end and at my departing.
—Sarum Primer Prayer 1514