“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”
(Acts 7:59-60 NRS).
(Image courtesy of dailytruthbase.blogspot.com)
Yesterday I preached on the stoning of Stephen. It is a gut wrenching account of the high cost our faithful witness can require. Stephen was just being faithful, like Christians try to be. He was not an Apostle. He was not clergy, but he was open to letting the Holy Spirit use him to testify to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then, as it is even now, there were people who did not want to hear what Stephen had to say. Their decision, when confronted with difference, was to destroy. Scripture recounts how they took him outside of the city and stoned him. And what did Stephen do? He prayed that God not hold this sin against them. He prayed for his enemies, and died. His dying declaration was for their forgiveness. Powerful and profound, Stephen pushes us to consider what we do when confronted with the sin of the crowd, and even the sin of one person who seeks to destroy us whether verbally, socially, or physically. Can we do it?
The world has acceptable responses to attack. Someone is beating you, then you can fight back physically, but you escalate the violence. Someone is breaking into your family home, then you can shoot them, but now you have taken a life. Someone speaks ill of you, and you can ramble off vicious things right back, but you have just further deteriorated any hope of reconciliation. I know that the reality is we can think of many people to whom we would be fine not being reconciled, but God says that the Kingdom is where all people are in right relationship with God and one another. That is what it means when the Bible says justice shall roll down like waters, and righteousness will be like an eternally flowing stream (Amos 5:24). Divine justice and righteousness is the realignment of humankind, so that we are all in right relationship and united in Christ. There is a better and more Godly way of responding to attack, and that is exactly what Stephen did: we pray for them. Because when we pray, we cannot spew verbal evil. When we pray, we are focuses on healing and hope rather than hatred. When we pray we connect to God who sustains and transforms, rather than turns us against one another and escalates violence. Praying for those who hurt us, those in whose sin we struggle, is to break the cycle of human violence and hatred. It is to look towards a future where there is no more hatred, sin, and death, because these old things have passed away, and claim that same future for ourselves and others.
We can do as the world allows, but the world allows sin, even encouraging it in many ways. Christ refused to accept the sinful, evil things of this world. He refused to use his ultimate power to destroy his enemies and save himself. Instead, he prayed for them, asking for their forgiveness. Stephen followed suit, and now it is our turn. We know it can be done. The question is will we do it?
God of grace and goodness,
Help me to do what is righteous,
Not what is simply right in this world.
I want to follow the example of my blessed Lord;
I want to pray for those who hurt me,
Who attack me,
And who seek to destroy me.
I want to respond in the only way that will stand a chance,
Of breaking the downward spiral of hate and sin.
I want to offer forgiveness,
And embrace with love.
I want to use my hands to heal, and not hurt.
Give me strength to do just that.
I entrust myself and every situation into your hands,
Knowing that I can do this with you and through you.
May I be one more voice who refuses to condemn,
And, instead, prays for healing and love.